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

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