Issue date
15 Sep 2010

Speech to Congress 2010 by John Monks, ETUC General Secretary

Manchester, Wednesday 15 September 2010

President, delegates, fellow guests.

It's been seven years since I moved to the ETUC, and left the TUC in the very capable hands of Brendan. Brendan has done one thing I never managed - bringing Congress back to Manchester, the TUC's - and my - home town. There is of course a rich history of working class struggles round here besides the original TUC - the first factories, the origins of many of today's unions, Friedrich Engels, co-ops, the Pankhursts.

By the way, while you are here, you really must visit the brand new People's History Museum which tells all these stories of the struggles of working people. You will be inspired.

Anyway, seven years back, I moved to the ETUC. On arrival in Brussels, I went to see a high ranking Irish official in the European Commission who said 'why have you bothered to come? Jacques Delors is long gone. The economic liberals are in charge, led by your Labour Government.' He was right.

Straight away, I ran into opposition when I tried to get rid of the Tory opt out on working time. We have still not succeeded. It is a disgrace that in the UK, workers can be pressurised to work more than 48 hours a week, every week. They don't have to do so elsewhere, so why here? Does Britain really need to treat our workers in this second class way? Of course we don't.

Another issue. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights emphasises workers' rights, and, as a result of an ETUC campaign, it became legally binding on member states.

But the UK Government insisted on protecting the UK's restrictive strike laws from being changed by the Charter. We seethed, the CBI cheered.

This negative approach to worker rights has had serious consequences. Legal cases in the European Court of Justice - the Laval and Viking cases are the most serious - have hit us hard. The ECJ determined that when the principles of free movement of labour and services clash with the right to strike, free movement prevails.

There was an opportunity for a Treaty change to right that wrong. It arose after the Irish voted 'no' to the new Lisbon Treaty. The Irish Government, under pressure from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the ETUC, proposed a new social protocol. But it was blocked - again, I have to say, principally by the British Labour Government.

So, frustratingly, that case law remains, and while it does, collective agreements are at risk from employers employing certain migrants on cheap rates.

All of you will know that that is a recipe for racism and nationalism, and for more calls for British jobs for British workers. We reject that call but we insist on equal terms being applied to migrants.

But there is good news as well as bad. We have secured a directive to give equal pay to one group of disadvantaged workers - agency workers. Half of the EU's agency workers are in the UK. That was a hard battle but eventually, after a compromise, the Labour Government supported the directive. That was very welcome.

We have also secured a toughening of the role of European Works Councils. There are 900 of these and some 20,000 worker union representatives. Now they will have the right to be consulted in advance, in advance of major management decisions - a very important step. The European Parliament was a great ally here.

One next great challenge - can we move forward on changing how companies are run; can we move them away from concentrating on short-term shareholder value? Can we have a more long-term, socially responsible system, with companies responsible to all their stakeholders - workers, the community, the environment - as well as to shareholders or other owners?

In the UK, we have much to learn from some other EU countries on worker involvement in company decision making. We have to burst into the boardroom to make sure that managers concentrate on growing the business, not growing the share price and their own bonuses.

That's what the bankers did, with disastrous consequences for us all; and its workers and their families who are picking up the enormous bills.

After a decent Keynesian start, EU governments panicked when they saw Greece floundering on the economic rocks. They felt they could be the next in trouble on the world's bond markets. Even the strongest like Germany and the Netherlands started austerity programmes. And, as you all know, the UK Coalition Government panicked and followed the stampeding herd.

We cannot accept this approach. Cutting in a recession is crazy and we must fight it. There is an ETUC Day of Action against austerity, and for jobs and growth, on September 29. There will be 100,000 people on the streets of Brussels, a general strike in Spain, and other demonstrations elsewhere. I hope that you will all find ways to participate, and I welcome the later campaign that is being launched by the TUC against the fetish for austerity.

We still wait for more positive steps from the EU on the crisis. There is no agreement yet on Eurobonds to fund weaker countries; or on a Financial Transaction Tax to help meet the costs, not just of the crisis; but of climate change and of third world development too. Despite the opposition of the City, we need that Robin Hood Tax, so the speculators cannot escape paying a fair share of the debts they have dumped on the rest of us. I congratulate the TUC and its allies on the brilliant campaigning work for that tax.

We need too special action to help the young, many of whom today can get neither jobs nor education in the crisis.

Yet, despite setbacks and inadequacies, always remember that the European Union has great potential for good. Almost unique in the world, the drive for economic growth and profit is tempered by strong welfare states, public services and influential trade unions.

The European model is vastly superior for the workers of the world to the Americanised, neo-liberal model which has been so dominant in the past 30 years; and it is also superior to our British model. It is more equal and we must promote it here and throughout the world.

That's why the UK trade unions must never turn their back on Europe. If Europe succeeds, we must be part of it. And if it fails, we are affected, like it or not.

If you doubt that, go to the many moving British and Commonwealth cemeteries on the Somme, in Normandy and elsewhere, and tell the rows of headstones that Britain has no place in Europe.

This is my last gig at this Congress. I have treasured the relationship for more than 40 years and at the risk of sounding as soppy as a Mills and Boon novel - or parts of the Tony Blair biography - it has been, for me, a lifelong love affair.

People come and go. But, happily, the TUC goes on and on.

On to face the many challenges raised at this Congress.

On to fighting for workers, to combating the racists, to grappling intelligently with the Coalition Government's austerity for the many and riches for the few.

Keep up the fight. Never give in.

Good luck to the TUC; good luck to you all.