Brussels was faced with another violent protest of anti-vaxxers and others last Sunday 22 January. An estimated 50, 000 people from across Europe came to demand freedom from the kinds of restrictions – like COVID-safe-passes and mandatory vaccinations – that are aimed at stopping the spread of the virus and prevent hospitalisations. As EPSU members know this is needed to prevent our health and care workers and our health and care systems from collapsing. It is also clear that the vaccinations are working as the number of seriously ill people is declining and now mostly limited to non-vaccinated patients.
The organisers of the march (Europeans United) offered a platform to an assorted assembly of speakers with very strange ideas which most would qualify as conspiracy-theorists. The Belgian organiser defended this by arguing that freedom of expression demands that these people should have a platform, that science must be questioned and that the mainstream media ignore their views. This is a complex issue and many people do feel they are not represented. Those facing precarious work, low wages and rising prices see rising wealth for a few that is not shared with the many and these issues are not sufficiently addressed. Meanwhile the extreme-right and these conspiracy-theorists offer simple solutions and claim they represent the many who believe they are ignored. But do unfounded views and refuted theories merit the same airtime as others? There has been exactly the same debate around climate change denial. Should the 3% of scientists who deny climate change be treated on a par with the 97% who don’t? And should flat-earthers be treated the same as astronomers and astronauts whose views are based on scientific proof? Freedom of expression is extremely important for all of us, trade unions included. While there should be few limits to freedom of expression, it does not mean that all should get a public forum and equal time to spout their ideas.
Remembering the Holocaust
It is International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January and we recall that the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz was liberated in 1945, now 77 years ago. It is a day to recall the victims of the Holocaust, and the fascist ideology, pseudo-science and conspiracy-theories that led to these camps. Jewish people, Roma, the disabled, political prisoners and so many more were murdered in these camps. We would not think of giving Holocaust deniers the same space as the victims to air their disproven theories.
These debates are also relevant to how digital services are regulated and the impact of the algorithms of Facebook (now Meta) that stimulate and create spaces that become isolated from other views. The European Parliament has discussed how the Digital Services Act could prevent this and EPSU was part of a coalition that sought more transparency on the use of these algorithms. This can be done by giving people the possibility to choose the algorithms they prefer to seek information and news, rather than being steered and possibly manipulated by the biased systems of big tech. We did get many improvements to the Commission proposal, but parliament lacked a majority to address this. It did, however, approve a stronger link with the human rights framework in its proposals for the Digital Services Act and, on 26 January, in a related development the European Commission presented its principles for a Digital Decade. This includes some good stuff but the key missing element was the need to strengthen public infrastructure to ensure people can exercise their rights.
Public service solutions
French energy workers came out in favour of public energy on Wednesday and on 1 February Greek health workers will be demanding more funding for the public health system. EPSU has sent messages of solidarity. Across Europe unions are demanding that staff shortages in health and care are addressed. We report how critical the situation is and why we need public funding to address this. What happens when services that are meant to guarantee people’s human rights are run by private companies has been exposed in a new book that reveals the behaviour of multinational care companies like ORPEA. You may recall previous stories on this company as it sought to harass trade union representatives in Germany and it is still pursuing court cases against our comrades. Care services are public services and profit-seeking should play no role.