On 1 July health workers in Portugal took strike action demanding pay increases and safe staffing levels. Six days later health workers in German university clinics also took action, with a key demand for a collective agreement that ensures more staff to reduce the burden on workers and reduce high levels of stress and exhaustion. Strikes in health and care have also been taking place in Ireland and the UK where research by nursing union RCN and others has exposed the increasing numbers of workers leave these sectors. This is a crisis at European level, as EPSU revealed in October last year and confirmed more recently by a briefing for the World Health Organisation’s Europe region which reports: “low numbers of health workers; lower staff productivity due to exhaustion and burnout.”
With the Czech Republic taking over the presidency of the EU, we raised these issues with the Czech deputy health minister, underlining that we expect more from the EU. It was also a key topic in the meeting with Nicolas Schmit, the European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, where we set out what we expect to be covered in the European Care Strategy. Meanwhile, the European Parliament’s recent report on the European Care Strategy stresses that the way forward is to improve working conditions, collective bargaining and health and safety. The care strategy, set to be published on 7 September, should include recommendations on long-term care and on early childhood education and care. If it fails to address these burning issues, then it won’t be worth the paper it’s written on.
Strikes have been taking place in other sectors, including in energy in France, with Europe’s workers calling for their purchasing power to be protected. Negotiations are stalled in many countries like Slovenia where the government promised pay increases for public service workers and a week later went back on its promise. Or in Slovakia where the government will give a one-time payment of 500 EUR to public sector workers, which does not compare with the 10% structural wage increase the unions are seeking. We expect many unions to have actions after the summer and autumn. One of the Belgian confederations has already announced a general strike for 7 November if the government does not agree to its pay demands and other confederations might join. At European level, trade union leaders met in Paris on 30 June for the ETUC summer school and discussed possible coordinated action.
Tectonic shifts … ?
The nationalisation of the French energy company EDF and possible similar developments in Germany where energy company UNIPER is facing bankruptcy and the ver.di trade union has asked for partial nationalisation are possibly signs of recognition that liberalised markets and private enterprise do not bring the benefits that are claimed especially not for public services.
… with art showing the way?
The current art exhibition, Dokumenta 15, in the German town of Kassel shows how many artist collectives are cooperating to bring about change. One of those, Project Art Works, focuses on care, placing the individual, workers and other care-givers at the centre. It is collaborating with the Copenhagen based group Trampoline House to explore the Danish asylum system and how it cares for refugees. Or rather how it fails to… Often artists are heralding change and the many groups working together in Kassel might be such a signal as well? Something new and positive as opposed to the Amazons, Orpeas and Ubers of this world. The Uber files revealed how the company lobbies governments, the European Commission and many others to secure regulatory change to its advantage, forcing taxi-drivers into cut-throat competition, and depriving municipalities and public authorities of tax income.
… but with dark clouds and attacks on unionists?
I am optimistic that such shifts do take place but this may be hard to see in the light of the recent arrest of Belarusian trade unionists from the independent health union Panacea, part of the SPB federation that joined EPSU and PSI in July. The Belarus regime is intent on destroying independent unions but we will stand with them. The fantastic solidarity of unions in the EPSU family was underlined by the EPSU delegation that attended the hearing in the trial of our comrade Gönül Erden of the SES health union in Turkey. The General Secretaries of UK union Unison (Christine McAnea) and of French union CGT-Santé (Mireille Stivala) and EPSU Vice-President Françoise Geng joined the unions from SES’s confederation, KESK. Shortly afterward, the SES organised massive protests over the violent death of a medical doctor and workers across Turkey went out on strike and joined protests on 7 and 8 July. EPSU sent a solidarity message. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine continues but so does action to defend trade union rights. We have called on the EU to intervene to stop changes to labour legislation. A group of MPs has been abusing the emergency situation to seek changes to labour law which had previously been stopped following trade union protests and European solidarity action. With many trade unionists on the front and active in other ways, protests are now much more difficult.
EPSU news summer break
EPSU staff and the newsletter will be taking a summer to resting and re-charge for what will be a busy autumn. Many of you are on leave or about to go and we wish you safe and restful days. We look forward to being back in touch again in August, as combative as ever.