By Niels C Sorrells -
LOOK across Europe on any given day and you’re likely to come across a labour protest at planned government spending cuts. The scope of strikes these days gives even old hands pause. Greek state workers seem to be off the job more often than on, as they protest against ever harsher budget cuts. Britain recently saw its first nationwide work stoppages in years and Belgium essentially shut down in January when EU leaders met there to discuss further budget controls. But look a little deeper and you’ll find a labour movement that isn’t entirely sure how to react to a world where everyone knows budgets have to be slashed, but no one really knows how to do so without crushing economies and future productivity.
The banners and slogans at protests make clear that participants want massive change. “Capitalism in crisis,” is a common one, as is “We are the 99 per cent,” the rallying cry of the Occupy movement.
Other protesters sport placards arguing “Fight All Cuts” or “Down With the Dictatorship.” To truly understand labour’s quandary, say Fabian Zuleeg, chief economist at the European Policy Centre, one has to look past the headline-grabbing protests that shut down national capitals for a day or so at a time.
“So far, trade unions and the opposition are not in ‘unrest’ mode,” notes Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, senior policy fellow and head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“They demonstrate strategically to demonstrate power and to test if they have the resolve and capacity.” That’s because unions are under pressure themselves. Groups like the Occupy movement and Spain’s Indignados have brought attention to the fact that — labour problems aside — the system protects people with jobs while giving the poor and young almost no chance of getting their foot in the door.
Thus, if labour lashes out at the establishment for planned job cuts, they risk being painted as hypocrites by those who can’t even get a job in the first place.
“It is not one worker against another,” says Torreblanca. “It is a father who sees his son having completely different working conditions. It could become a generational conflict if people begin to see that.
“That is why labour unions are aware that they cannot push it too hard without making gestures to issues like unemployment. People would turn against them and see them as a privileged group that is only standing for their own benefits.” It means that, while the protests are loud, the demands are muted.
“The trade unions have said they are willing to sit down and talk through labour reform. The secretary-general has said their priority number one is those who are unemployed,” said Torreblanca.
“In fact, there has been some criticism of the unions being too mild on the government from their own quarters. ... If anything, they’re being accused of being too realistic.” Indeed, the demands coming out of European labour movements are not that different from some being made by the governments themselves. In Spain, labour organisations are calling for lower interest rates, eurobonds and ways to fight tax evasion and fraud.
Others call for more efforts to draw in foreign investment.
“At the moment, there is no new investment in the country and that is the government’s fault,” said Ilias Iliopoulous, general secretary of the Greek public section union ADEDY during protests in December.
Analysts say it is only natural some of the concerns will coincide.
“There will be an overlap as protesters are also concerned with the macroeconomic performance of their country,” notes Zuleeg. But he adds that the arguments do not always match perfectly, noting that protesters also have a strong focus on fairness, with calls for a crackdown on tax evasion and controls on bankers’ bonuses.
“If we are seeing austerity for the sake of austerity, then going down this path will be increasingly challenged,” he said. “We tend not to focus enough on the impacts these reforms are having on people on the ground.” He said he sees signs that some governments are starting to recognise that argument, and seeking to show that, despite the cuts, funding will remain for necessities like healthcare and education.
“From a European perspective, the most important thing we have to do to help the countries which are going through a very difficult political and social process is to provide them with long-term prospects.
“If you’re looking forward to 10 years of pain, it’s very difficult not to protest. If I was Greek and only saw further austerity on the horizon, I would then protest or emigrate, and I think that’s what’s happening in a lot of countries.”