European unions and social justice groups gather to plan alternative to austerity

While voters in Greece and France were punishing leaders for imposing austerity measures, three of Europe’s largest public sector unions were meeting in London to plan a continent-wide movement that can build the political muscle needed to implement an alternative to the austerity measures that have driven unemployment in the Euro zone to an all-time high. A few days later, representatives from the continent’s social justice organizations and unions met in Brussels with a similar purpose.

“The austerity movement has failed,” said David Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, the UK’s largest public sector union. “The time is right for an alternative that will not only work, but will be fairer. Our powerful alliance of unions is ready to take on the challenge.”

UNISON was joined by Ver.di of Germany and CGIL of Italy at the London conference. The three unions represent more than 5 million public sector workers.

A statement issued by the three unions summed up the cause of the current crisis in Europe:

We live a bizarre triumph of failed policies – the deregulation of financial and labor markets has led to increased inequalities and the near collapse of the financial system, and still many governments and not least those of Germany, Italy and UK as well as the European Commission are continuing to push for them.

Austerity policies implemented by governments throughout Europe have reduced government spending for services that benefit the working class, laid off thousands of public sector workers, de-regulated some of the labor market, and encouraged privatization of public resources.

As a result of these policies, the Euro zone unemployment rate rose to 10.9 percent in March, the highest it has been since countries started using the Euro as their currency. The March unemployment rate was made public on May 3 by Eurostat, which collects and publishes economic data for countries in the Euro zone.

March was the 11th straight month that the Euro zone unemployment rate has increased over the previous month. The unemployment rate in Spain is 25 percent and in Greece, it’s nearly 22 percent. Rising unemployment has increased poverty and misery in Europe.

The (Euro zone) is being turned into a purely economic union, where social concerns are sidelined,” said Frank Bsirske, Ver.di, general secretary. “It is being turned into a union of austerity. Not only will this be damaging for Europe’s people, it will not be viable from an economic point of view. A starting point for challenging this damaging narrative is a public debate about how we create a tangible alternative.”

The unions said an alternative to current austerity policies should consist of increased government investments in human capital and new technologies that will improve the environment. According to the union’s statement, “A job or training guarantee for young people and a green new deal are central to the plans for jobs, growth, and fairness.”

The money spent on these investments would be offset by a tax on financial transactions and a crackdown on wealthy individuals and companies that evade taxes.

The unions said that a coalition of unions, social justice organizations, and individuals would be needed to win a new social contract for the people. They pointed to a successful alliance between public sector workers and the public that stopped the privatization of local water utilities in Italy as a model that could be expanded to implement an alternative to austerity.

In Brussels, 300 people came together to discuss the causes of the financial crisis that led to the austerity measures and discuss alternatives to austerity. People attending including those from all over Europe who have opposing their governments’ austerity measures and unions.

The conference was organized by Corporate Europe Observatory and the Transnational Institute. The participants agreed to participate in Europe-wide demonstrations against austerity including a May 12 day of action called Real Democracy Now Global Spring and a demonstration later this month against the austerity policies of the European Central Bank.

“This crisis could represent an opportunity for Europe to build fairer, greener, more democratic societies,” said Kenneth Haar, of the Corporate Europe Observatory. “This is the message that came from our conference, that we hear from the grassroots – and that Europe’s politicians must listen to.”

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