With deteriorating working conditions across Europe and entire sectors under threat from automation and climate change, trade unions are navigating an uncertain economic and political landscape. We sat down with Luca Visentini, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, to discuss the trade unionism in the 21st century, active industrial strategy, rebuilding workers’ protections, and the unions’ ties to new political forces on the Left and Right.

Green European Journal: The world of work in transition was the subject of this summer’s ETUI trade union conference, looking at both the impact of climate change but also digitalisation. What is the situation in regards to just transition and what form should the required intervention take?

Luca Visentini: We conceive transition in quite a broad perspective. Of course, climate change is a core element, especially, from our point of view, the impact that climate change will have on jobs, the quality of work, workers’ protection, and the future of work. But then there is a broader perspective when it comes to just transition that includes globalisation, digitalisation, automation, and their impact on work. To address these problems properly, we have to distinguish between them because the solutions are not the same. Climate change is a specific problem. The UN conferences that have taken place over the years are the starting point for us as trade unions for building an effective climate change strategy. As trade unions, and as the ETUC in particular, together with the International Trade Union Confederation, we have engaged increasingly in these fora to establish both institutional cooperation and relationships with the different governments involved. We are pressing ministers at this year’s Katowice conference to agree a side declaration that includes the social dimension of just transition to make sure that addressing climate change and greening the economy go together with protecting jobs and creating new jobs to replace those that unavoidably will be destroyed.

But then there is the question of what concrete tools can be put in place to realise just transition. Because it’s not only about reskilling workers. Managing the transition from job to job is important, but so is creating new jobs where jobs are destroyed in high-carbon sectors such as mining or the steel industry. We cannot simply say “Okay, we have to close down these sectors and move the production somewhere else in the world.” That doesn’t fix the problem. We have to completely reshape the model of growth, in a way that provides new quality jobs to the people affected.

The digital economy, automation, and, globalisation create a need for just transition too. Today the quality of work is decreasing even for highly qualified young people. All digitalisation and automation has brought them is cheap and poor-quality jobs. Increasing your skill level does not automatically mean that you will find a job or, if you do, that it will be a decent job with a decent salary and protection. Particularly in the digital sector, but also in some green sectors, newly created jobs are too often based on cheap labour and exploitation.

Does need to create new sectors that provide quality jobs point to industrial strategy, to which European governments and the European Union no longer pay much attention?

Industrial policies, even sectoral policies, have been abandoned. Industrial policy is not just a matter for industry, it is a matter of planning the economy for the future and deciding what kind of sustainable growth we want. This exercise completely disappeared after globalisation and the financialisation of the economy, with disastrous results. In the first phase of globalisation, the idea was to leave market forces to adjust and self-regulate and that it was no longer the task of politics have a vision for the future. Even after the crisis started in 2008, the focus was on public budgets, public debts, and monetary policy. There was nothing in terms of investment, industrial policy, and job creation.

Managing the transition from job to job is important, but so is creating new jobs where jobs are destroyed in high-carbon sectors

So today, is there any prospect of a return to industrial policy at the European level?

Without a different macroeconomic policy and an industry policy for investment, it will be very difficult to set up a proper just transition policy, in the green sector as in other industrial sectors. On this point, we have something in common with some employers’ associations, but of course the focus is different. For employers, it’s mainly about supporting industries, but nevertheless alliances are possible. What is crucial is convincing public institutions to change their approach. National governments should drop this vicious approach of introducing tax or social contribution derogations to attract investment. Industrial policy should invest in innovation and the quality of work to create competitive advantages. But something is moving and even some Eastern European countries are starting to understand that, if they continue like they did in the past, they will simply have brain drain and impoverish their labour markets.

The European Union is trying to set a level playing field in terms of corporate taxation but there is another problem that needs fixing. If we want real industrial policy, we absolutely have to change competition law. European competition law was conceived in the 1960s when we were competing internally, one country against another. It aimed to prevent monopolies or oligopolies from affecting the interests of consumers. Now we are a single economic system, a single market competing outside against the others, and it no longer makes sense to fragment companies and destroy industries simply because of an abstract model of competition.

One of the phrases you hear a lot from the EU is “growth and jobs”, but growth is seen by many in green movements as environmentally destructive. Why don’t we hear more from trade unions about post-growth or breaking the connection between jobs and growth?

I don’t understand what post-growth means, frankly speaking. When the European Union repeats “growth and jobs, growth and jobs”, our response is to ask what kind of growth and what kinds of jobs. We want some objectives related to growth and jobs. The objectives are, on the one side, sustainable and inclusive growth, and, on the other side, quality jobs. Not any kind of growth is acceptable. If we have growth that destroys the climate and the environment or if we have a growth model that destroys the quality of jobs or social protection systems, this is not the world we want. Nor do we want fake job creation that simply distributes the same amount of work among more people, while jeopardising rights and protections.

The future of work debate sometimes seems almost a like a threat about the intensification and deterioration of work. How do you see work envolving over the next 15 or 20 years in Europe?

I’m not a futurologist. I prefer to describe what is going on right now and possible solutions for the problems we face. The first problem we face is that our economic model concentrates resources in the hands of very few people, while for the others it drives down rights, incomes, and protections. So first of all, we need to generate sustainable growth to make sure that there are more jobs available and that wealth is redistributed. If you don’t have sustainable growth, more jobs, and better redistribution mechanisms, all the discussion about the gig economy or about insiders and outsiders is a misleading trap for working people. All you will be left with will be stealing deteriorating jobs from each other. This will be the reality and this is exactly what’s happening now.

First, change the macroeconomic model to provide better jobs for everybody and redistribute wages, then we can discuss extending the same rights to everybody. Otherwise we will always get the same story, “If you increase minimum wages, you will destroy jobs. If you want the same social protections as the old workers for the new workers, you will destroy jobs.” Of course, this rhetoric is completely fake, but it is justified by the macroeconomic model in place. So our social and workers’ rights policies need to be part of a demand for a different macroeconomic model.

When the European Union repeats “growth and jobs, growth and jobs”, our response is to ask what kind of growth and what kinds of jobs.

Having done that, we have to address the real problems and there are three from our point of view. The first one is that we need to make sure that each and every worker in the European Union and the rest of the world – self-employed, freelancer, independent, whatever – has the right to collective bargaining and to join a union. The second one is working conditions. We cannot accept that for a steel worker or for a worker in a shop there are some rules and for a rider in the gig economy there are none. Extending the same kinds of rules to everybody through the law and collective agreements is fundamental. The third challenge is extending social protection and pension coverage to make sure that non-standard workers in new areas of the economy enjoy same benefits and protection as others.

How significant are discussions on the introduction of a recognised worker status at the European level on this point?

This is crucial. The European Commission tried to include this definition of a worker in the Working Conditions Directive, and also in the Social Protection Recommendation. The definition of worker they have used is not perfect because it doesn’t cover all non-standard workers as workers. But it’s a starting point to be improved upon and enlarged. If non-standard workers, including independent workers and freelancers, are defined as workers then automatically, legally speaking, they are entitled to join a union, to collective bargaining, and to social protection.

If they are not defined as workers but as individual entrepreneurs, they are outside social legislation and under the scope of competition law, and then they are fucked. That’s why the definition of worker, or alternatively defining all categories of workers as workers, is fundamental in these directives. The European Parliament is supportive. The European Commission is open to consider some adjustments. But unfortunately the Council of Labour Ministers deleted the definition from these legislative initiatives. But we remain quite confident that this definition will be introduced.

What do you see as the future of trade unions in Europe and how can they build collective action in precarious and gig sectors?

Trade unions are already very active in these sectors. Some unions have created specific branches to represent non-standard and precarious workers. In other countries, these forms of work have been included in traditional union branches. Youth organisations in trade unions are being very active, also through social media and online, to organise these workers. But while there are many new members, there are still some legal obstacles due to the stupid competition law I mentioned before. Removing these obstacles is essential.

The political landscape is changing completely and we need allies at different levels in different positions.

We also have to imagine new forms of collective bargaining. It’s not the same as in big industries or in traditional sectors, workers can be fragmented and very often don’t even know who is the counterpart with which to make a collective agreement. It’s clear that if we don’t address this part of the labour market, which represents more or less one third of workers in many countries, it will be difficult for trade unions to remain representative. At the same time, we cannot forget the other workers, particularly those affected by transition and at risk of losing their job, salary reductions, or deteriorating working conditions. We have to keep both these dimensions together.

How can you balance these two things? Could workers in precarious sectors find demands for services just as relevant as demands for the workplace itself?

Trade unions started adapting to this new scenario some time ago, putting together the traditional forms of mobilisation, such as strikes, collective bargaining, and sectoral or branch-level agreements, with different services to be provided for workers. At the same time, we also need to act in the political arena to shape legislation, the social model, and social protection systems. Collective agreements remain our core business but alone they are not enough. Collective bargaining has to be matched with public policies that improve people’s working conditions. The same goes for economic policies.

This is the reason why only being in touch with our traditional backer parties like the Social Democrats on the Left is not enough. The political landscape is changing completely and we need allies at different levels in different positions. We discuss with all governments, on condition that the government is democratic, and we try to find ways to influence policy whoever the politician we have in front of us is.

There are European elections coming up next year. From a trade union perspective, what do the prospects look like for these elections?

We are a bit worried, as everyone is, because we see the far right coming. We hope they will not gain a majority or a blocking minority that could impede the creation of a democratic and possibly even socially oriented Commission. Our role is to set our social agenda and to make sure that all the forces that run for the European elections take on board some of our demands. In this respect, the Left, the progressives, are on our side of course. For most of our demands, the Green movement is on our side too. We have a little more difficulty with the Liberals, but even with them we have a dialogue. We also have a good dialogue with the Christian Democrats in the European People’s Party, at least with the majority of them.

But during this legislative term of the European Parliament, we have established positive discussions with some of the so-called “populist” forces – and not all of them are the same. Some of them are quite sensitive to social issues: Podemos in Spain, SYRIZA in Greece, and even the Five Star Movement in Italy, with whom we had very good cooperation on the European directives on posted workers and work-life balance. So let’s see. We are preparing our manifesto for the European elections as ETUC and we will start actively campaigning from September to target some parties with some demands for action.

We have to combine our values with pragmatic results.

Social democratic parties do not receive votes or attract members like they used to. You mentioned that the trade unions are building up stronger relationships with parties like the Five Star Movement, which has been quite suspicious of trade unions in the past. Are these new relationships developing nationally as well as on the European level?

When the Five Star Movement got into power in Italy, they understood that they have to talk to us. When I met Luigi Di Maio, the political leader of the Five Star Movement and the Italian minister for economic and labour affairs, the discussion was very concrete. Regardless of any ideological scepticism they may have about trade unions, they are obliged to sit down with us if they want to fix problems. Even without mentioning Five Star or Podemos that are more or less leftish, the same is true for the very far-right populistic governments such as those in Hungary and Poland, because Five Star and Podemos are children when compared to Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczynski.

They may be the real enemies of democracy, but when it comes to social issues, they know perfectly well that they have an interest in being pro-social. Populism is pro-social. You have to demonstrate that you are on the side of the people and so these governments do things that traditional governments could not even imagine. What the Polish government did in terms of decreasing the pension age, increasing the level of pensions, increasing minimum wages by up to 50 per cent, and extending minimum wages to self-employed people is astonishing, frankly speaking. We don’t share anything of their political background, their antidemocratic attitudes, or their stances on human rights. But when it comes to their willingness to discuss with social partners, to re-establish tripartite social dialogue, and to enact social legislation, well we have to take it. While it’s clear we will never compromise with anti-democratic forces, we defend workers in the end and so, when it comes to workers interests, we have to do our job and deliver results. Of course we keep our democratic values, but when we can achieve results for workers, we keep the dialogue open. We have to combine our values with pragmatic results.

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