Trade Unions Can Defeat Europe’s Far Right - Exclusive

Trade Unions Can Defeat Europe’s Far Right

In early June, European citizens will elect a new European Parliament. Polls predict that pro-European Union centrists will still prevail, albeit with a slim majority. Most worryingly, far-right parties are projected to make significant gains in many European countries, including Germany, France, and Italy.

Political leaders from across the spectrum recognize the danger and are lining up to renounce any coalition with these parties. Nicolas Schmit, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats’ Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate for president of the European Commission), promised “no cooperation with the far right.” The European Commission’s current president, Ursula von der Leyen, the candidate of the center-right European People’s Party, made a similar pledge. She vowed to work only with “clear supporters of our democratic values,” though she is ambiguous about cooperating with the far-right European Conservatives and Reformists Group, which includes Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s party. The European Left’s Spitzenkandidat, Walter Baier, said that “fighting the far right is a moral and a cultural obligation,” while the European Greens’ lead candidates, Terry Reintke and Bas Eickhout, also pledged to “fight the fascists.”

It is not particularly surprising that EU leaders agree on the far right’s threat to democracy, the rule of law, and the European social model. One need only look at Finland, where a coalition government featuring the populist Finns Party has launched an assault on workers’ rights and the welfare state, to see the damage it can cause.

Trade unions hold the key to preventing Europe’s extremists from gaining a greater foothold. Research has shown a solid correlation between right-wing extremist attitudes and feelings of powerlessness in the workplace. The inverse is also true: people who feel more empowered at work are less likely to agree with far-right arguments. Fighting the far right thus calls for empowering workers and strengthening the trade unions that represent them.

Across Europe, from Ireland to Germany, trade unions act as a bulwark of democracy. They counter misinformation through digital-skills trainings, provide educational materials about the anti-social voting record of far-right parties, mobilize their members to vote, and organize demonstrations to rally the general public.

The 2023 elections in Spain are a case in point. When Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called early elections after his Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party suffered heavy losses in local polls, the right-wing nationalist Vox party was polling at 15-16% – high enough to form a majority with the conservative Partido Popular.

But Vox received only 12.4% of the vote, and Sánchez stayed in power, partly owing to a nationwide campaign launched by the major Spanish trade union federations Unión General de Trabajadores and Comisiones Obreras. They organized workplace assemblies and powerful digital campaigns to inform their members about Vox’s anti-worker policies and highlight the progressive government’s achievements: a significant increase in the minimum wage, a new labor code, and better protections for gig workers.

If European leaders want to beat the far right, they need to abandon the failed neoliberal consensus that has disempowered workers. Over the past two years, many companies earned enormous profits that have driven inflation and squeezed workers’ real wages. At the same time, the EU is set to introduce new fiscal rules that could precipitate a return to austerity; the expected cuts to jobs, income, and public services would further erode economic security for workers. With 73% of EU citizens saying they believe that their standard of living will decline this year, such measures are bound to fuel discontent.

Fortunately, politicians have a wider range of policy options. Perhaps most promisingly, the EU set an 80% target for collective-bargaining coverage by adopting the Directive on Adequate Minimum Wages during the outgoing European Parliament’s term. This could reverse the downward trend in coverage across the bloc and lead to more stable and equitable societies.

Next year, member states that have not met that target are obliged to present an action plan to boost collective bargaining. To that end, these countries’ leaders should ensure a legislative and regulatory framework that gives people a real say at their workplace by increasing collective-bargaining coverage and promoting multi-employer bargaining.

European policymakers could help achieve this goal with a carrot-and-stick approach. The carrot is public money. Every year, public authorities in the EU spend 14% of GDP – around €2 trillion ($2.2 trillion) – on purchases of goods and services. But flawed public-procurement rules across the bloc result in too many public contracts going to companies that violate labor rights, undercut competitors, and deliver low-quality services.

Instead, the EU and its member states should use their spending power to support workers by rewarding companies that respect labor rights and advance social goals. As a first step, the European Commission should revise the Public Procurement Directive, a long-overdue change that has the backing of a multiparty alliance in the European Parliament and could lift living standards.

The law is the stick. Too often, unscrupulous employers illegally prevent workers from organizing, or disregard the collective agreements workers won through their organizing efforts. These union-busting tactics – and related misconduct such as wage theft – are serious offenses, not petty crimes, with dire consequences for workers, and public authorities should treat them as such. The threat of longer and harsher prison sentences for union busting would discourage this criminal behavior and, in turn, help counter the appeal of the far right.

As set out in Article 1 of the Treaty on European Union, the EU has a duty to deliver “improved living and working conditions.” The bloc’s leaders must follow through on this commitment, not merely recognizing the danger posed by far-right parties but also taking tangible steps to reduce their influence. The next European Commission and Parliament should therefore focus on empowering workers, expanding their rights, and strengthening the trade unions that fight for their interests.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

Oliver Roethig

Regional Secretary of UNI Europa

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