ETF’s First Ordinary Congress: Zagreb 2001

18 May 2001

The European Transport Workers’ Federation faces up to new challenges in the transport industry

‘How can the ETF defend the interests of its affiliated transport unions at the European level?’ was the central question discussed by more than 450 delegates from 188 affiliated unions at the ETF’s first ordinary Congress in Zagreb from 17-18 May 2001.

The answer to the question was delivered in a four-year political and strategic framework within which the ETF will fight for the protection of workers’ rights in an internationalised Europe.

The resolutions adopted by Congress to constitute the framework set concrete tasks for the Federation and its affiliates dealing with ETF’s primary areas of concern within the transport sector:

  • Privatisation of public services
  • Strengthening solidarity with trade unions from Central and Eastern European countries (CEE)
  • Closer cooperation with trade unions from other industries
  • Solidarity across regions and sectors

The strategies set in the resolutions deal with political issues which go beyond the area of transport. Structural changes in the transport sector will be felt in other industries as well. Basic public services are increasingly provided by private companies, and this affects everybody, not just transport workers. EU enlargement involves dangers and risks for workers – in the CEE countries as well as in the western part of Europe. Solidarity across regions and sectors and mobilization throughout Europe are vital ingredients for success in representing workers’ interests.

Privatisation of public services

Public services are in the public interest; a close connection exists between high quality public services and the quality of life for the population.

Public services mean access to basic rights such as transport, education and energy supply. Although these services have a stabilizing effect on democracy, investments in these services have dropped consistently over the course of the past two decades. The deteriorating condition of the state-owned enterprises is a welcome excuse for opening the market to private suppliers. The opening-up of the public services sector to private suppliers – as has happened already in some EU countries – introduces competition into the sector and means that companies will only provide the service in questions if they can make a profit. Profitability is achieved for example by lowering wages, reducing social benefits and lowering the level of qualification of staff, avoiding less frequented routes and increasing prices. The impact these methods can have on people’s safety and mobility is illustrated dramatically by the transport network in Great Britain after liberalisation . In order to avoid these developments being replicated throughout Europe the ETF will participate in the struggle to secure high quality public services accessible to all to promote sufficient levels of financing for public services.

The sell-off of public services must also be resisted at the European level. The ETF therefore intends to increase its influence on the decisionmaking processes within the European institutions and national governments. To underpin these demands the public must be made aware of the issues and public opinion must be mobilized.

A separate resolution deals with mobilizing the public. In this resolution the ETF announces a series of rallies by workers in the various transport sectors. Apart from the demand for regulation of competition the call for common social standards for workers will form a main focus for this initiative. In addition, public services providers in the EU countries are called upon to cooperate more closely in order to achieve the aim of Europe-wide public services.

The first action in this series of rallies took place on the 21st September 2001 at Liege, Belgium. Public services workers were called upon to demonstrate their opposition to the sell-off of public services (see ETF News item).

Adapting working structures – creating networks

Over the past few years workers in the transport sector have experienced structural changes in their industry. More and more aspects of work which never used to be considered as part of transport are now operated by transport companies. In manufacturing, for example, large parts of the operations which are not directly linked to manufacturing the product but might be regarded as aspects of logistics and organisation are outsourced to transport operators. Collective agreements applying to the workforce of a haulage contractors are different – usually worse – than those for manufacturing workers. There is a high risk of fierce competition arising between workers in the two sectors and the climate between them being affected by the fear of loosing social standards established as a result of long and hard struggles. Another important change is the transformation of postal services which have been turned into another sector of the transport industry where licencing has become irrelevant.

In both cases it is absolutely necessary to create a closer network of cooperation between transport workers’ unions and unions from other sectors. Fostering cross-sector solidarity will assist efforts to reduce destructive rivalries and fear.

Another subject of critical debate at the ETF Congress was the efficiency of the ETF’s structures. Does it make sense to retain the rigid division into sections when some companies are transporting goods by sea as well as by road and air? Even if there was no final answer to this question some points became clear from the debate: the creation of networks across individual sectors and more flexible structures for political action are essential preconditions for the future of trade unionism.

Fighting for social fairness in Europe

The ETF sees itself as a pan-European trade union organisation. Together with its affiliates the ETF will have to face up to the economic and social challenges posed by EU enlargement on the basis of a common trade union policy and pan – European solidarity.
The most serious challenge associated with the enlargement-process is social dumping. With the adoption of the aquis communitaire the candidate countries have created the necessary conditions for pushing through the most liberal versions of the European legislation, and we are already witnessing a deterioration of the situation regarding workers’ rights and protection. For that reason the ETF intends to support the ambitions of its affiliates in the CEE countries to become more involved with the policy making processes and implementation of European transport policy. It also intends to establish, at sectional level, a closer exchange of experiences between transport workers’ unions throughout Europe.

Successful participation in the Social Dialogue along the ten priority Transport Corridors provides another challenge. These Transport Corridors between the EU and CEE countries were defined in 1997 by the 3rd pan-European Transport Conference in Helsinki and they are fundamental for the development of transport infrastructure throughout Europe. Since transport unions are among the key partners of Social Dialogue, the ETF is looking to promote educational activities (such as seminars) to create a wider awareness concerning Corridor policy. A seminar dealing on European Corridor policy took place in Riga from 17 -19 September 2001 (see related links below)

Building solidarity throughout Europe

Responding to the challenges evident in the resolutions the ETF and its affiliates aim to draw up and push through ambitious demands. But these will also be realistic and above all, in this era of internationalism, necessary demands.

Protecting transport workers all over Europe from downward harmonisation of social standards, improving working conditions in CEE countries and retaining public services require a strong union presence. Building solidarity throughout Europe – facing up to political and structural challenges – these are our main tasks identified by Congress and that makes us all the more determined to achieve them!