HomeNewsInterview with Esther Lynch, ETUC Confederal Secretary: It is only together we can win a better deal for all!

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Interview with Esther Lynch, ETUC Confederal Secretary: It is only together we can win a better deal for all!

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the World Day of Decent Work, the UATUC together with NHS organized a discussion entitled “Strong trade union movement for decent work: How to win a pay rise and quality jobs for all workers?” on 11 October 2017 in Zagreb. Esther Lynch, ETUC Confederal Secretary took part, and discussed the reasons why the ETUC had launched the pay rise campaign and how it was run, and why we needed a trade union unity at all levels. Dijana Šobota, UATUC International Secretary, talked with Esther about these issues for the UATUC “Sindikalna akcija” magazine.

The ETUC, together with its affiliates, has launched a Pay Rise campaign. What are the key demands of the campaign and why? What are the reactions, and effects of the campaign so far?

I was convinced that we needed this campaign by a chance conversation I had back with a group of workers back in 2015. I was discussing the priorities for the ETUC for the coming period and I mentioned the possibility for a pay rise campaign. They asked if that was wise shouldn’t we instead be campaigning for jobs first. This conversation really worried me, it seemed that the idea that workers could either have jobs or fair pay was taking hold. Everywhere I went in Europe similar ideas popped up, that looking for a pay rise would threaten jobs. Counteracting this idea, showing – with real facts not fake news - how pay increases are good for the worker, their family and for the company and local economies is one of the main aims of the campaign.  
We also wanted to put our message of the need for wage increases onto the agenda of EU and national policy makers and everywhere we go, the G7, meeting with EU heads of State, the European Parliament and EU commissioners whatever the topic! we work our demand for a pay rise for all of Europe into the conversation. At national level our affiliates are doing the same.  Whatever the occupation, or sector private and public trade unions are bringing the message loud and clear workers need a pay rise.

Workers in the Eastern EU countries earn around 40 percent less than their Western European colleagues, while Croatia has seen the most dramatic fall. How do you explain this increasing East – West pay gap? Why do we need a strong social dialogue and strong unions?

The main difference between east and west is how pay is decided. In the West the pay of workers is determined through collective bargaining. Employers sit down with the trade unions and a fairer distribution of the profits that the workers help to create is decided upon. They also benefit from a system of collective bargaining that takes place at sectoral level. This means that all the workers in the sector, for example all the construction workers or all the truck drivers or all the teachers or all the nurses benefit from the same agreement that is concluded by trade unions and employers for the whole sector.   In the East all too often employers refuse to sit down with the workers’ trade union. It is particularly disgraceful when companies recognise the unions in the head office in the West but in the East they refuse to let the trade union inside the door of the company.
What really disappoints me is that the governments in the East are letting workers down by not properly supporting them when they want to unionise and by refusing to have sectoral bargaining systems in place.

What, and how, needs to be done at the European and national level to ensure a pay rise in general and stop the trend of eastern European wages lagging behind? How can we do it together?

Three words, Organise, Organise, Organise. Organise at the level of the workplace – we need more workers joining and being active in their trade union. Employers won’t give us pay rises, there is too much short-sighted greed around for that.  Workers need to stick together and fight for the fair share of the profits they create. By the way the fair share of profits that used to get was a lot more than workers get now. Organise at sectoral level – if workers only organise at the level of the company it creates conditions for workers to be put in competition with each other driving a race to the bottom on pay and conditions. Instead what is needed is sectoral bargaining to set thresholds of decency below which companies cannot compete with each other.  Organise at EU level. There should be no doubt - all of the gains for working people in Europe have been won by organised labour.  By working together, we can make the EU more relevant to the needs of working people. By working at EU level, we can ensure that every worker benefits from EU wide employment rights. One of the EU rights called for the pay rise campaign is for minimum wages to be at no less than 60% of median wages and for targets to be set to move towards a living wage. This would mean an increase of almost 30 percent in Croatia. But also we know that the number of hours of work that an employee gets is also important so we are calling for a ban on zero hour work and a right to full time work. The European Pillar of Social Rights currently being discussed by the various EU institutions and this will include a legislative initiative to combat excessive precariousness at work BUT be in no doubt employers are organising together to water down the proposals.  That is why being organised in a union is so important.  You hear a lot about lobbyists but it is only when you see how many there are working at EU level that you realise how stacked the deck is.  The only way we will be able to counteract this is by workers organising and being active in their trade unions at company, sectoral, national, EU and international level.  Trade unionism is not about national boundaries it’s about sticking together, that way we get a better deal for all of us. Working together we can make sure that the EU works for working people.

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? How can we relaunch and strengthen our capacity to negotiate? How does the Pay Rise campaign contribute to achieving that goal?

It is interesting that you ask this because the next phase of the campaign is going to focus on developing actions to promote collective bargaining. 

What is clear is that the number of workers in the EU covered by a collective agreement has fallen during the past 35 years, the measures adopted in the recent crisis have accelerated the drop.  The fall in coverage is matched with a fall in the wage proportion of GDP. And to make this worse there has been an increase in productivity. This means that workers are creating a bigger pie but getting an even smaller piece than they got from the previous pie!
To counteract this we need to increase collective bargaining coverage, this means a trade union strategy  to increase in union density – put simply organising more workers into unions and combining this with demands for legal and other mechanisms for extending collective agreements. This is how wages are determined in countries like Sweden and other best performing economies, over 80% of the workforce are unionized and the agreements are concluded at sector and cross sector level.

I agree with your analysis that the increasing insecurity of employment relationships is a factor in workers decision to join a union. This is not an accident. I often describe job insecurity including bogus self-employment as management by fear. It means that employer control the workforce by threats that if the worker stands u for themselves or their work mates they will quickly find their shifts cut down to zero.
We are doing our best to address this in the legislative initiatives under the European Pillar of Social Rights but in the long run I always think that the law is a poor alternative to a trade union.

Recently, some important shifts in the European institutions’ public discourse about wages could be observed. Against this backdrop, the explicit commitment in the European Pillar of Social Rights to “fair wages” that ensure a decent living standard and to “adequate minimum wages” that satisfy the needs of workers and their families can be seen as another example of a more comprehensive view of the role of wages. Despite the opportunities offered by the EPSR in terms of reversing the dominant approach to wages and collective bargaining, do you agree that in practice we are still a long way off from realizing this objective?

In a nut shell: yes, I agree we have a long way to go - but I feel the ground shifting – more and more political representatives are getting the message that there is a lot that is going wrong in our workplaces. Too many workers are being denied their rights and when the worker goes to claim their right they face such an uphill battle of loopholes that the system is beginning to fall into disrepute. This is not the time to take a step back or give up on the EU, rather it’s the time to build alliances with political parties that support trade unions values and demands. To work together and push the EU to make good on the EU Treaty promise that the EU would be one of ‘continuous improvement of living and working conditions’ and that the Rights in the European Pillar of Social Rights are backed up with laws and financial investment so that they can be enjoyed by all workers in all workplaces in Europe.

What can the trade unions and other progressive forces in society do to keep up the pressure on the European institutions and national governments to ensure that the promising words in the EPSR are followed up by concrete action? Is a European minimum wage policy, which promotes the idea that all minimum wages should be set at a living wage level, realistic?

In my working life I’ve seen massive changes brought about by working people. For example as a young woman in the 1980s I fought for part time workers to be allowed to join the union, then I fought for part time workers to get the same pay in the company, then I joined the fight at national level for part time workers to get the same national social security, then I joined the fight at EU level for an EU Directive to giving equal pay and conditions for part-time workers throughout the EU, then I took cases to fight to enforce the rights of part-time  workers… the word that is consistent is fight. We never get given anything, to win we have to join at company, national and EU level. 


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