German public service workers are striking in large numbers in response to the refusal of municipal and government employers to table a realistic pay offer. The trade union ver.di is organising rolling regional and targeted sectoral strikes in support of its main demand for a 10,5% increase underpinned by a minimum increase of €500 a month. Tens of thousands are participating in the actions, recognising that together workers have a strong voice and power.
Workers in organisations run by the churches, often in health and care, are also joining the strikes. This is despite the claim by church employers that there is no right to strike for their employees. However, the churches understand that they would lose any legal action pursued in the European Court on Human Rights and would trigger a huge public outcry if they tried to act against the strikers. Speaking at ver.di’s health, social services and education conference, I expressed our solidarity with the union and the strikers.
Employer body attacks workers’ support for Fridays for Future strikes
Ver.di also supported a demonstration of the Fridays for Future campaign – the youth networks that argue for quicker and more resolute action to address climate change. A key campaign demand is for increased investment in electrified public transport. Our European sister federation and other trade unions agree that public transport is the solution for many challenges including traffic congestion and pollution. It is also a backbone of liveable cities, connecting people in an affordable way. The young campaigners understand that an expanded public transport system has to be based on decent pay and conditions for workers. The reaction from employers is predictable. Steffen Kampeter of the BDA private employers’ organisation claims that ver.di is pushing the limits between strikes over pay and conditions and strikes for political reasons. The unions reject this claim as absurd. It is clear that employers fear nothing so much as social movements coming together for radical change, arguing for solutions in the common interest not solutions that suit corporate priorities.
Strikes in France and the political strike in Belgium of 1893
Strikes and demonstrations continue in France against plans to increase the pension age and other reforms and EPSU has expressed its solidarity on several occasions in this long-running dispute. The government has used special powers to push through the reforms without a vote in Parliament causing a huge outcry and leading to a no-confidence vote that only fell short by 10 votes. Despite the huge turn-out in demonstrations, the government remains deaf to the protests which are set to continue with a national day of action on 23 March. Some unions, including our colleagues in the CGT-FNME energy federation, are organising strikes or blockading refineries, with petrol shortages already having an impact. The union also plans to cut electricity for targeted government operations and maybe for those corporations that support the pension reforms. The government, meanwhile, is already requisitioning staff to show up for work, in violation of the right to strike. Further conflict is likely if the government sends in the police to suppress strikes and remove the blockades .
Police action against striking workers can be traced back many years. Indeed, at least as far back as 1893 during what is regarded as the first political strike in Europe. The strike was part of the campaign by trade unions and the workers’ party to get the right to vote extended to everyone. In one incident, in my hometown of Antwerp, several striking workers were shot dead. The government subsequently caved in, extending the right to vote to all men – but not to women who had to wait another 55 years! I am convinced that people like Kampeter would not have been on the side of workers and the people, rejecting strike action for political purposes. But workers wanted change and a say in their future and in policies to improve their living and working conditions.
Romanian pension reforms
Trade unions are set for more pensions protests in the coming days – this time in Romania. Here we see clear evidence of the role of the European institutions. The Euractiv news outlet reports that “In an EU executive letter sent last week to the authorities in Bucharest, EU officials made it clear that the draft prepared by the Romanian government does not solve systemic problems and does not meet the requirements of the European Union. The European Commission demands real and radical changes, arguing that the reform is not based on the principle of fairness and does not bring substantial savings to the state budget.” This is the language of austerity back in full force. The European Commission should know better following the damage done to the European project by its austerity policies. EPSU will work with Romanian unions on the reform and with the ETUC to oppose new austerity.
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