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Only a strong ‘Social Pillar’ can win for working people

The ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’ could be another example of spin over substance, or it could be a once in a generation chance for the European Union to turn a corner and prove that its main priority is to promote social progress, decent work and decent lives for all the people of Europe.

On Friday, 17th, November, in Gothenburg, Sweden, EU leaders signed off on the much-debated social pillar. It was the culmination of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s 2014 pledge to create a “Triple A” social Europe.  Back then, addressing MEPs, Juncker admitted the Commission was facing a “last chance” to restore people’s trust in the EU. He is right, but the real test is turning fine words into action.

That is the message the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and SIPTU has been pushing home in the run-up to the Gothenburg summit: time is running out for the EU to deliver for working people.

The European Pillar represents a floor of decency – a base on which to build greater social justice through decent jobs and fair wages, social investment and a reasonable work-life balance, all enabling workers and their families to live in dignity without the constant threat of poverty and hardship.

It must not become a ceiling that entrenches existing neoliberal EU policies. We believe the social pillar has the potential to deliver real benefits, but only if it is implemented as it should be.

That is why trade unions are demanding an Action Plan with a legislative programme to be launched rapidly. It must be backed up by EU-wide monitoring and evaluation to ensure progress towards greater cohesion between the Member States, breaking down the damaging wage gap between eastern and western countries that fuels social dumping.

Since many of the measures have to be applied at national level, there is a real danger that the right-wing governments and coalitions in power in some Member States will fail to implement what has been agreed. It is vital to stop this from happening.

Ten ‘building blocks’ were identified by the ETUC that would ensure the social pillar achieves its objectives, and trade unions across the EU have been campaigning around them in the run-up to the summit.

They focus on fast agreement among national governments on getting started – regardless of potential opposition from employers, an Action Plan and investment to turn principles into practice. To be effective, social pillar measures must be supported by EU funding. We are calling for a rise in social spending, increasing the European Social Fund’s share to 30% of the EU’s cohesion budget. For too long, the ESF has been the poor relation of EU expenditure.

SIPTU Health Division members were in Gothenburg last week to lend our voice to the calls to improve work-life balance and revise the Posting of Workers Directive to combat fraud and exploitation.  At the Social Summit, our members stressed their concerns about the housing crisis, the potential negative impact of Brexit on Ireland and the need to go further to strengthen collective bargaining laws in Ireland as our main priorities.

We also supported the ETUC in calling for additional European legislation to be introduced to enforce social rights, including new directives to protect digital, self-employed and non-standard workers; stronger laws on equal pay and maternity rights; and protection for ‘whistle-blowers’.

The social pillar needs active support from all Member States including the Irish Government, the social partners – trade unions and employers – and all EU bodies, including the European Central Bank and the European Court of Justice. And improvements in economic policy-making should mean the introduction of an economic and social semester with country-specific social policy recommendations and a scoreboard measuring Member States’ progress.

We believe that the Social Progress Protocol must be added to the EU Treaties, to counteract the effect of past ECJ rulings that prioritised economic freedoms above human and social rights. Citizens need to know that the EU exists to promote social justice and wellbeing. We demand more and better social dialogue, rebuilding and reinforcing trade union organisation and collective bargaining arrangements – the best way to guarantee better working conditions and workers’ rights.

The EU should actively promote social dialogue in all Member States and support ‘capacity building’ to enable employers and trade unions to negotiate and implement agreements and consideration should be given to set up a Just Transition Fund to support workers in adapting to green technologies and digitalisation. No-one should be left behind.

Finally, if the EU doesn’t seize this moment to reconnect with the concerns of working people and continues to fail to tackle disillusionment and resentment towards it, the whole European project itself is at risk of disintegrating. It’s time for Europe to wake up and smell the roses.

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