Trade unionism is at a crossroads – can we go forward or do we reel under the pressures asks John Monks, ETUC General Secretary.

Madame la Présidente, mes camarades, mes amis, c’est avec plaisir que je suis venu a Melbourne aujourd’hui pour addresser votre Congres pour la première fois.

As you can see I am working on my French. My wife, who is Dutch, said after hearing me trying to speak it “I never realised that you had such a strong Lancashire accent”.

I have enrolled on a French course and told the new team at the ETUC that by Christmas we should all be reasonably proficient at both English and French. When I told my wife that, she said ‘which Christmas ?.

Watch this space.

Anyway after 34 years at the TUC I have taken up the job as General Secretary of the ETUC and am relishing both the privilege and the challenge.

In my view, trade unionism is at a crossroads – can we go forward or do we reel under the pressures. And these pressures are not just confined to one country but affect workers in almost every land and continent.

Pressure 1: Can we organise the young in service industries? 46/34/67.

Pressure 2: Mass manufacturing and now call centre work is ebbing away from relatively high cost locations. Manufacturing – at least large scale manufacturing – is one of our two heartlands; the other is public services including transport. But just as the deep mines and the textile mills are small features nowadays of advanced countries so the job losses in large factories continue.

At the same time, migration flows from poor and troubled countries are on a huge scale. And most naturally want to come to the European Union or North America or Australia where although no one in the Third World believes that the streets are paved with gold, they know there is a better life.

The next pressure is that the right wing politics are stronger than at any time since the Second World War. Most of Europe has right wing Governments – Racist parties strong in a number of countries. – BNP Lancashire. We have a President in the White House in whom most European or Australian citizens have little confidence and some of whose closest advisers seem to regard unions as part of the axis of evil.

Tom Delay…

They are out to get us and their weapons of our mass destruction are familiar to you. They include privatisation, de-regulation, de-unionisation and maximising shareholder value.

In their American conservative world, collective bargaining is a threat, unions are an obstacle to be crushed, and public services an area to capture for the profit motive.

In their world, welfare states are expensive handouts to the lazy and undeserving.

In their world, the entrepreneur is king, with huge salaries and pensions. The rest of us count no more than serfs.

But the pressures are not just from the American conservatives or their British and Australian followers.

There are storm clouds in the skies of Europe with huge disputes in Austria, Germany, France, Italy and Belgium as unions seek to protect hard-won gains on pensions, retirement ages and labour standards.

Governments of the left as well as of the right want to boost employment and cut public spending. The slowdown in economic growth and the rising costs of pensions in particular, are themselves creating powerful pressures on the post war settlements and so are posing major challenges for Europe’s unions. Do we fight to the last for the status quo? Or do we show flexibility and negotiate? These are the major questions for unions – and they are not just questions for each country – but for unions everywhere.

In the UK, we don’t always get the point of Europe. We are never sure whether we want to be whole hearted Europeans or maintain an exaggerated sense of our own separateness and uniqueness, and of course our historic links to the Commonwealth and the United States.

Yet the inescapable fact is that our destiny is intertwined with those of our near neighbours just as yours is linked with your neighbours. There will always be close cultural, sporting and lifestyle links between our countries but the euro sceptics cannot escape from the geographical, political and economic realities as they try to take refuge in a nostalgic dream for the pomp and circumstance of the British Empire.

If any one from Britain says we don’t need Europe, ask them why are there well over a million British and Commonwealth graves on the Continent, including many Australians.

The fact is that Britain could never, can never secede from Europe. A major problem in Europe still reverberates around the world. Every country wherever it is has a vested interest in the success of the European Union adventure which at heart is to heal the wounds of the world’s bloodiest continent and turn it into one of its most prosperous and peaceful gardens.

And there is still too many in the British trade union Movement who miss the point. For 40 years, right and left were so busy arguing about Cold War politics and what was happening in Eastern Europe, that they overlooked the post-war success of Western Europe and the honoured place that trade unions have in that success.

  • Where in the world has the best health and public services open to all, not
    just the rich – the EU;
  • where in the world are trade unions the strongest and best regarded –
    the EU;
  • where in the world are high living standards the most evenly spread –
    the EU;
  • where in the world are labour standards the highest – the
  • where in the advanced world has there not been a tough, effective right
    winger in power dedicated to damaging trade unions – the EU apart from the
  • This was true in 1988 before the collapse of communism and the Berlin Wall, and it is true today.

    And the EU has been a great energising force for equality. Look at Italy, Spain, Portugal and spectacularly, Ireland.

    They have exploded economically as they have enthusiastically committed themselves to Europe. Not for then a semi-detached mentality.

    Ireland, despite the showdown now, has higher GDP per head than the UK. That’s shut up the English nightclub comedians with their Irish jokes.

    The fact is that the EU has helped the poor to close the gap with the rich countries of our continent. It’s been a massive engine for equality and solidarity.

    And its now on the verge of another adventure – to embrace the countries of central and eastern Europe as full members of the Union – the ones who had a bad post-war 50 years – and to see if they can accelerate in the Irish way and close the gap on the richer West.

    The Left must not be blind to these achievements. I, of course, recognise that many of the founders of the European Movement were far from being socialists but, inescapably it has been a force for equality, and for a balance between economic and social progress.

    And most relevantly, alone it has the economic weight to stand up to America and set out a different path for the world – a path where welfare states and public services are central to society, where unions are respected social partners, where the aim of shareholders value is balanced by obligations to workers, the environment and communities.

    I would like the UK to embrace that way too. We should not teeter on the edge of every major European development, waiting and seeing, like the shivering child at its first swimming lesson. The more we put in, the more we will get out.

    I happen to believe that the best societies are those which reconcile a lively market economy with a strong sense of public service, which balance entrepreneurship with social partnership systems which do not limit companies’ obligations so that they are only responsible first, second and last to shareholders.

    Those are all characteristics of the European social market system as it was defined by Jacques Delors. These are what mark out European Union systems from the American/British/ Australian ones.

    Yes, they are under threat. But corporate Europe knows that it cannot lick its lips. There’s plenty of support for the European social model. The report of the Convention on the Future of Europe sets out social dialogue as a central constitutional principle of the new, shortly to be enlarged, European Union.

    Information / Consultation:

    Age discrimination:

    There are current exercises in the social dialogue procedures on agency workers and corporate restructuring which will come to fruition in due course. Social Europe has plenty of guts in it.

    From Bob Hawke’s day, I have followed the fortunes of the ACTU and admired many of the people you have produced and the achievements you have accomplished.

    Simon Crean has long been a close friend and I wish him well in his quest to wrestle the Premiership from John Howard.

    Martin Ferguson helped me with a major cultural change in the TUC in 1993 when we shook off our post Thatcher hangover to face the world as it is, and not yearn for a world that was.

    Bill Kelty was not known so well outside Australia but for me he has been as respected a leader as world trade unionism has produced in the past 20 years. Among his many trade union achievements goes much of the credit for helping keeping Labour in power in Australia for so long. Despite our fights and tensions with Labour here and in the UK, they are always a far, far better bet than the Howards, the Thatchers and their like. Funny how we tend to forget that after a Labour Government has been in power for a few years. I can see it now in the UK, where the very real tensions with the Blair Government are in danger of destabilising the chance of establishing a Labour hegemony to rival the Thatcher era.

    Sharan and Greg and the rest of you now shoulder the responsibility – a tough one and we in Europe and the UK wish you well. Your test is the same as we face in Britain – to build trade unionism in private services as our predecessors built it in the mines, the mills and the factories and the public services.

    It is to build a trade unionism which is attractive, bright, committed and dependable. It is to build a political atmosphere which helps working people and their families grow in every way – in confidence, self respect, equality and skills as well as earnings.

    That way, we can do as well as our trade union sisters and brothers in a range of European countries as diverse as Belgium, Finland, Sweden and Ireland.

    That way lies success for the ACTU, the TUC and world trade unionism.

    I pledge the ETUC to help in every way possible and I wish you every success. May Australian trade unionism grow and prosper.

    Speech By John Monks, ETUC General Secretary. Address To The Australian Council Of Trade Unions. Melbourne, 19/08/2003