European Trade Union Confederation - 13th Congress

Speech by ILO Director-General Guy Ryder to ETUC Congress

Statement | Paris, 30 September 2015 | 30 September 2015
President, General Secretary, Delegates and Guests,

Thank you for the chance to address Congress. I bring the greetings of the International Labour Organization and best wishes for your work this week.

Because of our common values and shared history the ILO has a great deal invested in the success of the European project: in a social Europe.

And because of your key role in that project and our tripartite composition we have every interest as well in the success of the European Trade Union Confederation.

Before you today, I am reminded of the previous occasion that I had the privilege of addressing an ETUC Congress. That was in May 2003 in Prague. I was doing a different job then, and looking back, Europe and the world looked and felt very different too:
  • At that time it was the EU of 15 member states.
  • The invasion of Iraq had just been completed – “mission accomplished”, we were told.
  • Lehman Brothers stood all-powerful at the centre of a financial system driving the world on the road to hyper-globalization.
  • The rising Euro was a new and confident part of that system.
  • And impending EU enlargement seemed to signal a definitive end to the political tensions of a Europe long divided.
It was also the Congress when Emilio Gabaglio passed the baton to John Monks.

In retrospect – in many ways it looked a quite good scenario. But already then the ETUC was sounding alarm bells. The emergency Congress statement adopted in Prague called for urgent action to counter the crisis of the European economy. It warned against that crisis becoming a pretext to dismantle the European welfare state. It warned of the dangers of deflation. And it called for lower interest rates, demand-boosting investment and a reorientation of the Stability and Growth Pact to kick-start job creation.

You have to be impressed by the prescience of that resolution. But not even the ETUC could foresee what was to follow.

That military adventure in Iraq would through a long train of tragic events lead to the biggest displacement of people towards Europe since World War II - and in so doing test the principle of free circulation within the EU – as well as the EU’s humanitarian credentials and our reflexes of solidarity;
  • That the financial cataclysm unleashed in 2008 would bring a sovereign debt crisis that would challenge the very edifice of the common currency;
  • That the response to that challenge would usher in a regime of austerity that called into question Europe’s attachment to its own founding values;
  • And that new political forces would be called into being that would raise the prospect of the recomposition and the decomposition of existing nation states and even of withdrawal of some from EU membership.
Are there lessons to be learned from these, largely painful experiences? I think there are – and here are three:

Firstly, Europe is not and cannot be isolated from, or unaffected by developments beyond its frontiers. Not from financial meltdown on the other side of the Atlantic, not from war, repression and deprivation across the Mediterranean. Build all the walls you want, put up the fences, it will not make a difference. In the age of globalization the same applies to economic policy.

This is one reason why I welcome warmly the interest in the documents before Congress to strengthen ETUC relations with the ILO. In fact, on our side, we are already working hard to cooperate in new and I think important ways in Europe, in addition to the long-established activities in countries that we cover from our offices in Budapest and in Moscow.

That has meant much closer relations with the Commission – with the positive engagement of Commissioner Thyssen, and previously Commissioner Andor, and support of President Juncker who I have invited to address our Conference next June.

It has meant new types of ILO activity in Portugal, Spain and Italy, practical assistance in the implementation of youth guarantee schemes for example. It has meant cooperation on how to maximize the employment impact of the Juncker Plan. Above all it has meant finding a place for the ILO in the continuing effort to have Greece return to the path of growth and progress.

And it has also meant that the ILO has had to meet challenges which have come to it from Europe: the convulsions we have experienced at the ILO over the right to strike were generated in Europe along with a fundamental questioning of our standards system that came with it. The ongoing debate over the relationship between fundamental social rights and economic and commercial freedoms, more than any other single factor, will condition the all-important “standards review mechanism” now being launched in the ILO. When I listen here, for example to your colleagues from Finland or from the UK or from Greece explain their latest challenges to workers’ rights and collective bargaining, I know you have a real stake in this, and I venture to say a responsibility too.

In that context, I would like to welcome the messages in the Opening Session yesterday with regard to the renaissance of social dialogue in Europe, which can only be based on a sound commitment to collective bargaining in our countries and in our workplaces.

The second lesson is that whether or not you believe that Europe is in crisis, and whether you think that the crisis is existential or conjunctural, temporary or permanent, political or economic or social, building a better Europe will depend crucially on what you and your political allies do, how clearly your united voice is heard.

Let me hark back to that Congress in Prague one last time. It was there that the call for a united international trade union movement was first made. And that was not an accident. It was because the process that three years later saw the founding of the International Trade Union Confederation was directly inspired by the achievements of the European Trade Union Confederation. The ETUC, the most successful example in history of the practical united trade union internationalism at the heart of the most ambitious project of international cooperation for social justice ever seen.

This is not a historical footnote. It is a reflection of the role that I believe the ETUC must still take up today. In a Europe where leadership is a difficult exercise and a rare commodity. In a Europe where political voices are more clearly heard in the defence of national interests than of European principles. In a Europe where solidarity seems to be going out of fashion and nationalism and exclusion coming in, it seems to me that if the region’s trade unions do not take up the responsibility of safeguarding and progressing the values of our European house, then you cannot be surprised that others do not either.

So allow me to welcome Luca’s proposal for ETUC renewal for a better Europe. He is challenging all the organizations here to make the Confederation everything it can and it must be.

I hope that this Congress will take up his challenge. Take up the responsibilities that others shun. Stay faithful to the principles that others are setting aside. Go forward where others are retreating.

And here is the third lesson. It is that renewal – of the ETUC, or the ILO as well because we are working hard at that – means change. We heard from the three Presidents who opened Congress yesterday a great deal about the forces in action which are transforming the world of work. Digitalization for example, uber-isation. Climate change. And it is not difficult to add to that list. They are forces which are bringing global change at a pace and scale that we have probably never seen before and which we still need to make an extraordinary effort to understand, and to anticipate and to manage.

The question which inevitably arises is whether amidst such transformative change trade unions can afford to stay the same. Whether what worked yesterday will still work tomorrow. Whether the most promising or realistic project for European trade unionism 30 years on is to recapture the apparently more comfortable circumstances of 30 years ago.

It is because this same thought matters and applies as well to the ILO - and because we think that the answer is “no”, we cannot stay the same - that the ILO has launched a global initiative on the future of work in the context of its centenary in 2019.

Through a process that starts now with four centenary conversations: on work and society; on the jobs of the future; on the global reorganization of work and production; and on the future governance of work, followed by a Global Commission on the Future of Work, and possibly an ILO Centenary Declaration by our 2019 Conference, the aim of our Organization could be summarized simply as “Renewing the ILO for a Better World”.

I said when I began this intervention that the ILO and the ETUC have much invested in each other’s success. And I close by this idea that we will succeed, or not, together.

Let me close by thanking Bernadette for many years of friendship and cooperation, and welcoming Luca whom I look forward to working closely with in future. Whatever lies ahead, you can count upon the cooperation of the ILO.

Good luck this week.