While some feel that processes like the European Social Dialog blur important distinctions between Labour and Capital, some feel that these dialog processes are important. And although there are many critical issues to address, the Social Dialog has led to important achievements, such as the Framework Agreement on Parental Leave.
Nonetheless, the economic integration of Europe and all that this includes has been seen by many as an essentially neo-liberal project, although there have been strong forces trying to preserve the social aspects of Europe. After all, many aspects of European integration have been about liberalizing markets – whether financial, labour or for goods and services. And as I wrote last year, regarding the Proposal for Regulation on the excercise of the right to take collective action within the context of the economic freedoms of the single market – COM(2012) 130:
Regarding the scope of the concept of ‘services’ and the growing use of posted workers in a wide variety of industries, it must be considered a dubious development that there might be soon an at least two-tier labour market (in terms of labour rights): those who are employed directly enjoy the labour laws of the country where they work (on the basis of the free movement of workers) and those that are either self-employed or categorized as posted workers, through outsourcing. The latter enjoy much less legal protection and substantive labour rights than the former.
As far as I know, this proposal has not yet been formally become law, but it is nonetheless mentioned as a legislative initiative for 2012.
But those things aside, now something else is happening, parallel to the EU-level developments which probably have proceeded at their own pace.
As the EU policy elite demands, countries like Spain, Greece and Ireland are implementing austerity policies to become competitive again. Elsewhere in my blog and on the net there are many sources that show these policies are deeply wrong and simply crush the populations in those countries. It is no wonder Spanish, Irish and Latvian migration abroad has increased very much recently. But these demands for austerity also affect labour rights – which emphasises the neo-liberal heritage of the European project: labour unions make labour more expensive, so they must be dealt with. Even though this is obviously not always true, especially taken in consideration labour productivity gains and issues of worker well-being, quality of work etc, still I have now found two clear examples of attempts to somehow remove the power of labour unions to resists policies/actions that affect their members.
The first has been quite widely in the news, and rightly so. As the BBC reports here, the Greek police has broken up a strike of metro workers by force, relying on an ’emergency law’ for ‘peace-time emergencies.’ The metro workers were on strike against a scheme that would reduce their wages by up to 25%.
The second has not been reported on so far in English speaking media (at least aside from the specialized media I link to, I think), but according to this news, there is a new law in Spain which allows companies to reduce the wages of its personnel by 15% to stay competitive. At the Stora Enso paper mill in Barcelona workers went on strike, because they don’t accept these measures.
So there you have it. Two countries, two approaches to ‘enforce competitiveness.’ The Greek case uses police force to break a strike by public sector workers – a group that normally already has been late to achieve the right to strike. The Spanish case is in a way even more drastic, because it gives the employers a nation-wide blessing to cut wages without negotiation. I don’t blame the Spanish unions for being upset about this.
So what will we see next? I am waiting for similar news on Italy or Portugal. Or perhaps the Finnish business establishment will use the crisis to demand constraints to the right to strike in Finland.