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Exclusive interview with Luca Visentini: A different, more just and social Europe is possible

Zagreb, 10 February 2016 - The latest issue of the UATUC magazine Sindikalna akcija brings an exclusive interview with Luca Visentini, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC)

Luca Visentini, a new General Secretary of the ETUC, speaks about the challenges before the European trade union movement today, alternatives that the ETUC proposes in relation to austerity measures, building a Europe that will promote social dialogue and the future of the trade union movement and social dialogue.

Interview by Dijana Šobota and Darko Šeperić, Executive Secretaries of the UATUC.

 

What motivated you to run for the ETUC General Secretary?

The awareness that Europe is at a crossroads and that we need a stronger European trade union movement to face this challenge. I have worked in the European context for almost 20 years, and I think I have acquired some experience and ability to make a positive contribution to the relaunch and renewal of the ETUC.

During the last four years I spent in Brussels as Confederal Secretary, I felt that ETUC affiliates needed and were ready for a more united and effective ETUC. And this positive mood was clearly evident at Congress. We have a strong and capable new team in place now and we will do our best to achieve these goals together.

 

What are the main challenges today before the European trade union movement, and what are the priorities of the new leadership of the ETUC in the attempt to respond to those challenges?

The ETUC faces external challenges in three areas. First of all, European economic governance must be redirected to create growth and full employment, with an end to counter-productive austerity policies. Secondly, we need to strengthen social dialogue and collective bargaining across Europe. And thirdly, we call on the EU to introduce social and labour rights to reverse the increase in poverty and inequality that is disfiguring European society, and to generate social progress.

At the same time we have to re-examine our own role in the trade unions, and that is why we are taking steps to build a stronger confederation, truly representative of the interests of all working people and their families. Increasing union membership and boosting our influence on EU policy-making will be a priority in the next two years.

 

Which alternatives does the ETUC propose to austerity measures and as a solution to exit the crisis?

We have to tackle the problem from two angles.  First of all, the EU needs more public investment – in job creation, sustainable energy systems, research and infrastructure, high-quality education and training, healthcare, social services and a new industrial strategy. The ETUC launched a campaign for an additional of 2% of GDP per annum to be invested in the EU economy long before the Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker put forward his own investment plan. While welcoming the Commission’s initiative, the ETUC believes it is inadequate.

Secondly, to restore growth, Europe needs higher internal demand, because 60-70% of EU exports stay within the EU. That means increasing wages and purchasing power, which can best be done through collective bargaining by strong trade unions. The Commission should take action to rebuild and support social dialogue and bargaining structures throughout the EU.

At the recent Paris Congress, the ETUC adopted programme guidelines for strengthening the role of the ETUC, which among others speak about the ETUC of the future and demand the so-called progressive compromises among affiliates. What are the priority issues the ETUC needs to change in its work to “renew and strengthen the role of the ETUC”?

At Congress we agreed that trade union unity is fundamental, and should be grounded in greater cooperation and solidarity. Unions face different challenges in different EU countries, but we don’t want to base our activities on the lowest common denominator.  We need to find flexible strategies that benefit workers everywhere while adapting to diverse needs and traditions.  At the same time, trade unions in countries that share common problems can strengthen cooperation across borders. This is particularly relevant within the euro zone, where the single currency has a direct impact on wage developments and social protection, and closer coordination is important.
We also need to look for innovative trade union stategies to enable the ETUC to tackle the most significant changes taking place in the labour market, such as precarious and atypical jobs, greening the economy, digitalisation, mobility and migration. The ETUC has to be able to defend workers who are at the sharp end of new working practices and therefore most in need of protection, but are often less likely to to be in touch with trade unions.
To do that, the ETUC has to be less bureaucratic and more inclusive, closer to workers' needs, and able to deliver concrete results in their interests.

 

What are the possibilities for the ETUC to improve and strengthen the cooperation with progressive political actors at the European level and thus tries to change the direction of the European policies to start taking more account of social issues and consequences?

Strong alliances are essential to achieve our objectives and transform our proposals into reality. It is vital for the ETUC to work with progressive forces in the EU institutions, especially the European Parliament, and overall with each and every political force and stakeholder with whom we share common strategies. We do this through regular meetings with MEPs and participation in the trade union intergroup. Our Deputy General Secretary Veronica Nilsson is directly responsible for strengthening relations with the European Parliament, European Commission and Council.

We are eager to reinforce cooperation with the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), and particularly the Workers’ Group.  We are optimistic on this score since the President of the EESC is now a former member of our Executive Committee, the experienced Greek trade unionist Georges Dassis.

But we need to find ways of changing EU decision-making, particularly in the field of economic governance. Up to now, social partner involvement in the European Semester and the Europe 2020 Strategy has been quite inadequate. We are calling for greater participation and democratic control. And in this sense our internal coordination with national and sectoral affiliates is crucial, if we also want to influence national government decisions.

Having in mind the existing dissatisfaction with the results of the European social dialogue in the area of macroeconomic politics and economic governance, is ETUC considering some alternative methods of advocacy and fighting for workers’ interests at the European level?

We will keep up the pressure for a greater input in economic governance at both EU and national level, through meaningful social partner involvement in country reports and recommendations and National Reform Programmes.

At EU level, we are calling for more influence on top-level decision-making, by feeding the conclusions of the regular Tripartite Social Summits into Council meetings, and inviting social partners to address EU leaders directly.

In 2015, the European Commission announced its plan to relaunch social dialogue in the EU. We welcomed that initiative, and we are taking part in negotiations in the hope of concrete results.

Besides dialogue and negotiation, digital and social media enable us to campaign effectively in new ways. But more traditional means of campaigning such as demonstrations also play an important role in building a European trade union identity, and pressing concrete demands. At the same time the ETUC plans to step up its cooperation with national affiliates and backing for national actions, so as to build mutual support and solidarity, as well as organising coordinated campaigns in different Member States in pursuit of our shared objectives.

 

In which way can trade unions, i.e. workers, contribute to the substantial reform of the European Union, i.e. to building Europe which will promote social development, and for whose functioning and future common people will be sincerely interested?

The ETUC has long demanded a legally binding Social Progress Protocol to the Treaties. In June 2015, in its Five Presidents’ report, the EU proposed a 'triple-A' status applying as much to social issues as to financial and economic governance. The report spoke of “upward convergence”, but we have yet to see how that is going to be achieved. In 2016 the ETUC will join affiliates in an alliance to push forward the campaign for the Social Progress Protocol, fully exploiting ongoing developments in the EU and EMU political and legal framework, which could lead to Treaty changes.

The Commission's 2016 Work Programme also refers to a ‘social pillar’ setting out minimum social rights and standards, and the College of Commissioners has just launched a very ambitious list of topics for discussion. We are now waiting to start negotiations on concrete proposals.

We already know they should include capacity building for social dialogue and industrial relations, equal treatment, fighting precariousness, establishing common standards for minimum income schemes and unemployment benefits, and strengthening education and training.

 

Apart from economic and social crisis, how can trade unions respond to their own problem of representativeness and power?

Trade union recruitment is a priority. A powerful and representative trade union movement needs a strong membership base. At the same time we need to increase our bargaining power and make our demands carry more weight, in order to show workers that trade union membership can benefit them directly. The union movement has to become more attractive for all workers, including young, female, precarious, atypical, undeclared and migrant workers, as well as new professions and highly skilled staff.

IMF studies have confirmed that declining rates of trade union membership are linked to growing inequality, whereas countries with well-functioning industrial relations systems are more productive and competitive. And yet trade union rights are under unprecedented attack in a growing number of Member States. Spain, Belgium, Italy, UK, Greece and Finland have all seen moves to restrict or undermine bargaining structures, collective action, and even the right to strike. The ETUC has pledged solidarity with members and launched specific actions to defend the rights enshrined in international law.

To many trade union members ETUC seems as yet another “Brussels institution” and they do not see clearly how the ETUC work contributes to their living and working conditions. What can and should the ETUC, but also its affiliates at the national level, do to bring the European trade union movement closer to workers and to build the feeling of identity and pride for belonging, that trade unions often have at the national level?

The ETUC’s identity lies in internal solidarity, cooperation, and the ability to adopt a common but flexible approach.

At present, workers are increasingly likely to regard the EU and its institutions as the enemy. The crisis has damaged not only Europe’s social model but also its democratic legitimacy. But it is the misguided policies that have been adopted – not the EU itself – that are to blame. We are convinced that a different, fairer and more social Europe is possible, but we need to convince trade unionists across Europe that it is worth fighting for.

To do that, we must first of all show them that the ETUC is a real trade union, able to set an effective and independent trade union agenda and to achieve it through going ‘on the offensive’. This means not only protesting and demonstrating, but also – in line with the concluding slogan at our Paris Congress – ‘negotiation, negotiation, negotiation’. Negotiation with institutions at all levels to change EU policies; negotiation with employers to improve working conditions and wages; negotiation to strengthen and relaunch the European social model.

To be perceived as a real trade union organisation, we need to achieve concrete results. But it is also important to make our messages sharper and more understandable. Grassroots trade union members should be better informed about the ETUC and its actions.

 

President of the Commission Juncker, at the ETUC Congress spoke about the importance of open-ended employment contracts, importance of collective bargaining at the national level, equal pay for equal work… however the Commission itself acts contrary. The world of work is becoming increasingly precarious. Can the trade unions reverse that trend and how?

We welcomed President Juncker’s declaration that permanent job contracts should be the norm in Europe. But the fact is that precarious working including zero-hours contracts, social dumping and in-work poverty have grown since the crisis. According to Eurostat, almost 10 million part-time workers in the EU (two-thirds of them women) were underemployed in 2014.

The EU needs a comprehensive strategy for sustainable growth and high-quality jobs, including a ‘just transition’ for workers in industries affected by the move towards a green economy. The ETUC has pledged to coordinate the trade union fight for quality jobs and against precarious work, pressing for secure employment contracts, fair wages, training and lifelong learning and equal treatment for all workers, including women, young and older people and migrants.

We need to challenge the new Commission to transform its statements into concrete initiatives. Negotiations on the social pillar offer the best opportunity to do this. Together with our enhanced participation in the Semester, this will contribute to building a better Europe for workers.

 

ETUC has for years worked on strengthening the coordination of collective bargaining at the European level. However the trends are such that collective bargaining per se becomes increasingly difficult challenge also at the national level. Having in mind the policies implemented within the European semester, and the precarization of employment relations, what are the chances, if any, of the trade unions to preserve collective bargaining in the long run as a key instrument for regulation of wages in European economies?

The ETUC plans to launch a comprehensive set of actions for strengthening coordination of collective bargaining and wage strategies, as well as for boosting trade union participation in economic governance, when wage setting systems and collective bargaining are involved. We will defend autonomous collective bargaining, as the main tool to increase wages and fight social dumping.

We strongly oppose the Commission's recent proposal for Competitiveness Boards to be set up in all Member States. We believe they would undermine the social partners autonomy in wage bargaining. Furthermore, the definition of competitiveness should go far beyond labour costs. The IMF research confirmed that factors such as innovation, research, quality of goods and services, and education and training have a much greater impact on productivity.

We need to change the current narrative claiming that wages and collective bargaining are obstacles to competitiveness. Evidence shows that the contrary is true. We need to convince the Commission that only strong industrial relations at national level and higher wages can boost economic growth. President Juncker's declarations prove that we are gaining ground, and we have to continue the fight.

 

In your programme and new vision of the ETUC, you advocated for fairer geographical balance within the ETUC and emphasized the need to devote more attention to the Balkans. What place and role do you see for the UATUC in that?

Many of the newer EU Member States lacked structures for autonomous social dialogue, so the ETUC is committed to assisting affiliates in Central and Eastern European countries to strengthen their trade union organisation. This is particularly relevant in the Western Balkans, where trade unions are still strong, although very often under attack by governments. We appreciate efforts in your region, and notably in Croatia, to restore good social dialogue and industrial relations.

We value the work the UATUC is doing: for example, in its project to strengthen Croatia’s tripartite social dialogue, in cooperation with Norwegian trade unions. Increasing minimum wages can make your country a benchmark for the rest of the area. We are also pushing the European Commission to support the development of a solid social dialogue through funding and capacity building.

The ETUC supports the EU membership aspirations of Balkan neighbours and is gradually integrating the region’s trade union organisations into its own structure. The 2015-2019 Action Programme pledges to assist unions in candidate countries with integration initiatives.  Social partner agreements should play an important part in preparing Croatia’s neighbours for EU accession. Regional cooperation is vital, and in this context, the UATUC’s knowledge and experience can help to build strong trade union organisations throughout the Balkans.

Finally, through an internal constitutional review, and the relaunch of the Pan-European Regional Council (PERC), we aim to give trade unions in central and Eastern Europe, and particularly in the Western Balkans, more weight and better representation within the ETUC.

 

On 18 December 2015 the ETUC organised a public event in Zagreb on migrants and refugee crisis. How should EU respond to the current situation, and how big of a challenge for the future of EU itself is the lack of adequate response?

The refugee crisis is one of the greatest challenges facing us all. Europe is a rich continent and it can afford to offer protection to desperate people fleeing war and suffering. After months of prevarication, and a lack of solidarity and responsibility among Member States, the resettlement plan must be implemented urgently.

The Dublin Regulation on asylum is not working and needs urgent reform. The current lack of coordination between Member States means that countries on the 'Balkan route' are bearing much of the burden of transiting asylum-seekers.

In the future these refugees will be an asset to Europe’s economy and society. We must send a clear message that labour mobility threatens no-one, so long as all workers have the right to equal treatment and social protection, and are protected from exploitation. Europe needs refugees and migrants to meet the challenge of an ageing population. Contrary to xenophobic propaganda, migrants contribute more to our social systems than they take out.

The ETUC is already active in helping refugees and migrants to integrate through our UnionMigrantNet network, comprising almost 100 contact points managed by trade unions. Action for integration by unions and other social partners is the best way to reinforce our role in the labour market and demonstrate that the refugee emergency can be resolved, if Europe and the European trade union movement stay united.