In response to the financial crisis of 2008, governments across Europe used public money to stabilize the system and bail out banks. Private sector activity and investment fell, and the public sector was often used for unilateral adjustments in view of reducing public debt and deficit level and to respect the strict budgetary constraints set in the Maastricht Treaty. ‘Deficit obsession’ paved the way for the austerity doctrine to spread.
In today’s Europe, differences between the countries persists, e.g. they continue to have different national political, cultural, social and economic development models. If we were to single out one specific common factor for Europe, that would be its social model. The provision of and access to quality public services, social protection and education, allocated on grounds of institutionalised forms of solidarity – geographical, intergenerational and wealth based – is the unique foundation on which Europe is built. Linked thereto is the social market economy as another fundamental principle for Europe, where the market is purposed as a tool to advance social rights for all.
While the scope, chronology and impact of the crisis hugely differed across European countries, common in all countries was the continuous and creeping deterioration of social and labour rights, leading to the rise of populist, nationalist and racist movements and the slackening of solidarity ties that traditionally bonded people in Europe.
In countries that did not comply with the deficit nor the debt limits set in the Maastricht Treaty, and that were under pressure of adjustment programmes imposed unilaterally by governments and by European institutions, internal devaluation on the cost of labour became the substitute for currency devaluation. Austerity-oriented structural reforms increased labour market flexibility, labour laws were deregulated almost everywhere and wage policies undermined by the decentralisation or even the dismantling of bargaining systems. Unsurprisingly, the most severe reaction to the financial crisis and against cuts and austerity measures came exactly from public- sector workers, who were hit the hardest by those effects.
In a recent Briefing “Pay in the Public Services: How Workers Continue to Pay for the Crisis” published at the occasion of the World Public Services’ Day, ETUCE, the European Trade Union Committee for Education, EI’s European Region and the European Public Services Union (EPSU) provided an overview of what happened in several European countries. Many public-sector workers across Europe, including in the education sector, were directly affected by austerity measures. Governments in 19 countries in the European Union imposed pay cuts or pay freezes. At the same time, suspended recruitment and redundancies left many public-sector employees confronted with higher workloads as public services were to be maintained with fewer workers.
With increasingly less public funding available for education, personnel in the sector were hit particularly hard, with numerous cases of salary decreases and freezes, as well as losses of benefits and additional workload. Teachers and education personnel in Europe have yet to see their purchasing power returning to pre-crisis levels. In other words, salaries remain frozen in spite of the modest economic recovery. In addition, the increase in short-term employment contracts in public services has led to higher precariousness, for example in early childhood education and higher education and research.
Social dialogue in nearly all European countries weakened in parallel with increasing denial/obstruction of trade union rights, including limits on the scope of bargaining of education trade unions on rights and working conditions, and professional issues related to education and training reforms. Indeed, across Europe unilateral legislative acts, led to decentralisation or even dismantling of bargaining systems, especially in Southern and Central and Eastern European countries.
Earlier this year, ETUCE joined the European trade union movement’s call for an increase in minimum wages for Europe’s workers. The campaign also argues that the only way to tackle wage and wealth inequalities across Europe is through a full restoration of collective bargaining and social dialogue. The EPSU-ETUCE briefing note, contributing to the ETUC’s pay rise campaign, makes clear that public service workers also need a pay rise and for many this will be only a step towards restoring their pay to what it was 10 years ago.
To achieve this it is clear that trade unions need to overcome the impact salary cuts and freezes have had on unions themselves and their capability in representing collective interests. It is high time that trade unions take the lead in shaping the future of Europe. A Europe built on, democratic principles, solidarity and social cohesion within and across European countries, effective and meaningful social dialogue, mutual respect and responsible active citizenship.
Here in the 60th anniversary year of the Treaty of Rome, it is important to recall that solidarity is the founding principle of European integration and that the trade union movement has a crucial role to play in restoring solidarity - among workers, societies, and across countries - and in confronting and actively resisting attempts to barricade behind national fences.