Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

European unions of the people

Giulio Marcon and Duccio Zola survey the resistance to privatisation across Europe, highlighting the role of pan-European trade union initiatives and a growing alliance between social movements and the unions

December 1, 2007
9 min read

A million-signature petition for the protection of public services; a campaign for a regulatory framework with unambiguous definitions of the public and general interest; numerous mobilisations in favour of a social Europe based on citizen’s rights, access to services, common goods and the protection of universal welfare. All these initiatives indicate how social and trade union movements have become key to the defence of public services in Europe.

The petition of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the campaign for a regulatory framework launched by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) and the many initiatives of movements across the continent all aim to revive a more interventionist and publicly-oriented politics in the EU after several decades in which various EU pacts and treaties, from the Maastricht growth and stability pact onwards, have steadily eroded the role of the public sector. A distinctive feature of these campaigns is a recognition of the importance of building alliances between trade unions and social movements and local communities.

A good example of this can be seen in Germany, where the service sector union Ver.di is leading a national mobilisation against government cuts in energy subsidies, a preparatory measure for privatisation. Energy provision in Germany depends on 1,400 municipal companies that could not sustain the proposed cuts without resorting to massive job losses.

‘The measure would benefit large private energy multinationals and take away municipal funds that would otherwise go to basic services such as public transport and the care of children and the elderly,’ explains Herman Schmidt of Ver.di. On 7 February, 25,000 people joined a union-led demonstration in Berlin against privatisation.

Next door in France, the Convergence Nationale des Collectifs de Défense et de Développement des Services Publics has emerged. This brings trade unions, consumer groups and political organisations together on a national scale to argue for the defence and democratisation of public services.

New approaches to local democracy and participation are at the heart of what is currently taking place in Spain and Italy (see Matt Little. Red Pepper print issue, March 2007).

In regions such as Tuscany and large cities such as Seville, as well as in many small municipalities, participatory budgets and diverse other democratic tools are becoming increasingly common in efforts to devolve decision-making and control over public services. Such measures help to build support for those services and strengthen resistance to privatisation.

In Italy, water has been at the centre of an increasingly successful struggle against privatisation. The Forum for Public Water, which brings together around 70 campaign groups with trade unions and over 700 municipalities, recently launched a national campaign to halt local water privatisations and bring back to public management the regional and local water services already privatised. At the same time that the World Water Citizens Assembly was meeting in Brussels and declaring water a public property and universal human right, the Italian forum held a huge demonstration in Palermo, where the centre-right regional government was transferring its water management – an especially vital resource in Sicily, a region constantly short of water – to private companies.

‘Oddly enough, privatisation of water is considered modern and innovative,’ comments Marco Bersani, from Attac Italia. ‘But private ownership and management of water is old. It was only at the beginning of the last century, in the face of mass epidemics, that governments realised the need for a public water service, accessible to everybody.’ The forum’s campaign has already collected 100,000 signatures.

The list of initiatives could continue. All kinds of local and national alliances are growing between local groups, spontaneous committees, social movements and trade union organisations.

Pan-European trade union campaigns

At a European level, trade unions are running two main campaigns. These seek, on the one hand, to defend public services and, on the other, to improve their accessibility and quality. The former is represented by the European Public Services Union (EPSU)’s campaign for an EU legal framework on public services, started in May 2006. The latter, promoted by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) since November 2006, consists of a petition for ‘quality public services, accessible to all’.

ETUC’s starting point is the argument that ‘public services are essential for European social, economic and regional cohesion.

Until now, the only alternatives proposed and applied have been privatisations and liberalisations.’ Its petition calls for legislation to guarantee citizens’ rights in relation to key public services.

The EPSU campaign, which is closely related to the ETUC petition, calls for ‘a protected space for public services to be clearly identified’.’We are calling for legal protection that takes public services out of the reach of commercialisation and reaffirms the common principles of public service through the legal principle that general interest takes precedent over the laws of the free market,’ says EPSU communications and campaigns representative Brian Synnott. He stresses the need to guarantee local control over the management of basic services by, among other things, setting up a Public Services Observatory to monitor the impact of liberalisation.

EPSU is effectively pursuing the juridical regulation of public services through a European regulatory framework whose objectives would include equality of access – forbidding any form of discrimination against users; universality – through the provision of services to all citizens; and accessibility – with price and tariff control.

Protection for the citizen-user (including rights to information, confidentiality and compensation) would be added to these core principles, as would a guarantee of respect for workers’ rights, contractual procedures and trade union relations. It is, then, a campaign for democratic control, with new forms of user and worker participation and specific standards for transparency and impartiality. The aim is to ensure a balance between different interest groups and protect the most vulnerable.

The initiative is building up to the presentation of an initial proposal for a European legal framework for public services in June.

The Social Forums

The novelty of the present campaigns is the emergence of a common direction between unions and social movements. The European Social Forum (ESF), from its first 60,000- strong gathering in Florence in November 2002, has represented an extraordinary space in which social movements and trade unions have come together. Among the discussions at the Florence ESF were three days of seminars around the theme of ‘Public Services and Privatisations’.

A similar seminar took place between movements and unions on a European scale at the following ESF in Paris in October 2003. At the third ESF, in London in 2004, the same convergence of trade unions and social movements resisting privatisation continued. This time the debate about the Bolkestein directive on services in the EU internal market took off and the issues of education, health, energy and water were dealt with in more detail. It helped to mobilise action against the directive. In March 2005, 150,000 people rallied to a joint call by the ESF and the ETUC to coincide with a meeting of European social policy ministers and the second anniversary of the start of the Iraq war.

The alliance between social movements and trade unions is built on the common battleground of the links between neoliberalism, war, attacks on public services and the erosion of rights in Europe.The European Stop Bolkestein campaign was very important in bringing people together; in a very short space of time it succeeded in uniting hundreds of organisations, from international trade unions and NGOs to transnational networks, left wing parties and local and national grassroots movements.

Another milestone was the 50,000- strong demonstration of 14 February 2006, called by the ETUC in Strasbourg to mark the European Parliament vote on the Bolkestein directive. That mobilisation achieved changes to the final text of the directive, eliminating those elements posing a particular threat to the protection of European public services and getting issues of labour rights and health excluded.

This partly rewarded the efforts of movements and unions, although they were far from satisfied with the results. Criticisms were centred on the profound ambiguities in the text, which leaves unanswered the question of precisely which services should be protected from the invasion of the profit motive.

The European Network

The qualitative leap in Europe-wide organisation represented by the Stop Bolkestein campaign was consolidated at the fourth ESF in Athens in May 2006. In the Greek capital the first ‘European Network for Public Services’ was launched and 40 trade union organisations and movements subscribed to the ‘Athens Declaration: Another Europe with public services for all’.

Especially notable was the participation of many local government bodies, some of which work through the Convention Européenne des Autorités Locales pour la Promotion des Services Publiques. ‘Through the networks we should reach a genuine rethinking of liberal policies, both in the respective governments and in the European Commission,’ says Rosa Pavanelli, national secretary of Funzione Pubblica of the Italian union federation, CGIL.

The network hopes that by exchanging experiences and information and by action on a continental level it will add to the pressure being applied to state institutions. An important moment in this process will be the first European Forum of Social Movements for European Public Services, planned for 2008.

This article is part of the Eurotopia public services project, a pan-European collaboration between Red Pepper, Il Manifesto, Carta, Politis, Epohi, Avgi, Mo* – and public service trade unions from across Europe.

For more details see www.tni.org/eurotopia. The Eurotopia special on privatisation,resistance and alternatives is available as a 16-page stand alone pamphlet from dan@redpepper.org.uk at £1 per copy or £5 for 10 copies

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero


2