Introduction at the Paneuropean Commerce Trade Unions, Conference held at Brussels at 17 & 18 of February

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Dear Colleagues,

On behalf of PAME and its commerce secretariat we welcome our colleagues from Belgium, Bulgaria, the CzechRepublic, Italy, Turkey, Great Britain, Cyprus, Galicia (Spain).

We took this initiative in order to get better acquainted,  to inform each other on recent developments, to exchange views and experience on the organization of our activities, to discuss our common activities, to explore possible joint initiatives we can take.

Capitalist crisis is underway in Greece and in most European countries, but even where there is capitalist growth, it is anemic.  Taking a look at its features is valuable, particularly in regards to our sector.

1) Developments in commerce confirm that the crisis is a capitalist crisis of overaccumulation of capital and commodities like all others that preceded it.

Each individual capitalist produces as much as he can to displace others, to dominate the competition. He reduces the wages of workers (who are also consumers of products) and lays them off. At the one end of society monopolies accumulate wealth and at the opposite end the producers of this wealth, the working class, accumulate poverty. Production is unregulated and cannot be planned because the only criterion is profit, the inability of consumption of those produced cannot be predicted. Products remain unsold. Ratios are overturned, profits drop, production halts, capital is not invested, it stagnates; it is accumulated until opportunities for profitable investment arise. People’s needs are not met, eg in Greece there are 200,000 unsold houses when many risk losing their house because of debts.  Greek capitalists have 600 billion euros in swiss banks. That is, over twice the national debt.

Profits during growth inflate the market. Destruction of productive forces is necessary for the “reboot” of the economy in terms of profitability.

Labour power is the first productive force destroyed. To this end all capitalists in all countries coordinate their efforts. Everywhere smaller companies close, production is concentrated in fewer, larger monopolies.

2) This is what the situation in the commerce sector is and how  the  concentration and centralization of capital goes further.

Concentration in commerce & the role of monopolies

Growth of social wealth in the last period is reflected in the substantial increase of turnover in wholesale and retail commerce in various EU countries

In Germany, the total wholesale turnover  increased from 560 billion in 1999 to 1.13 trillion in 2011.

In France, from 477 billion euro in 1999 to 788 billion in 2011.

In Italy, from 305 billion euros in 1999 to 529 billion in 2011.

In Spain, from 242 billion euros in 1999 to 371 billion in 2011.

 

At the same period the total

turnover in retail commerce increased drastically.

In Germany, from 313 billion euro in 1999 to 503 billion in 2011.

In France, from 278 billion euro in 1999 to 434 billion in 2011.

In Italy, 200 billion euro to 315 billion euro in 2011.

In Spain, from 140 billion euros in 1999 to 217 billion in 2011.

Similar are the sizes for other EU countries.

Evidence suggests that a handful of capitalists hold vast wealth amid crisis  due to the increased exploitation of labour power.

It also turns out that in Greece and throughout Europe, in countries with or without memoranda, capitalists took away rights,  made cuts and completely tore down industrial relations, working hours, and generalised individual employment contracts. 

Removing basic rights won through hard struggles in the past is justified as “a way out of the crisis.”

Based on EUROSTAT’s data and research, the commerce sector in Europe is crowded.

In 2011, employees in commerce were about 27 million (data  for 26 countries)

About 3 million were self-employed and there are 6 million companies (data for  28 countries).

EUROSTAT figures show that between 2000-2011 the number of employees increased by 4,336,830 (+15.9%). At the same time the number of companies increased by 478,637 (+7, 6%). Self-employed in the sector decreased during 2008-2013 by 245,800 (-7.9%).

Turnover in commerce during 2000-2011 increased by 4.2 trillion (39.9%) registering a steady annual increase.

More specifically, although there is no available data for all Europrean countries, we can observe the following  for the year 2011 in particular sub-sectors of commerce:

Retail:  15.1m shop assistants in 3.5 million companies in 26 European countries. Turnover reaches 2.6 trillion in 28 countries in Europe.

Wholesale: 9m.  shop assistants in 1.8 million companies in 26 countries in Europe. Turnover reaches 6.8 trillion in 28 countries in Europe.

Retail Food Commerce: 876509 shop assistants  in 24 countries in Europe, 441,490 companies operate in 27 countries. We may also notice that concentration in this sub-sector is very high, especially in Northern Europe.

3) At the same time a ruthless attack on workers continues. There is an overall decline in the price of labour power in our country, which exceeds 35% for the last three years. 

Overall working conditions in Greece have deteriorated both in stores and in supermarkets, part-time employment has reached 60% -70%, exceeding all expectations.

8hrs jobs converted into 6hrs-4hrs jobs, uninsured and unpaid work predominates the sector, logistics warehouses close one after the other, workers remain unpaid without knowing where and when they will be paid.

Exploitation is increasing either by intensifying  work or by extenting the working hours (10-hour-12-hour work)

Thousands of workers in the sector are uninsured and become hostages of employers. Big bosses use unemployment, they put pressure on workers, they maintain a climate of fear in the workplace and with the threat of layoffs bend  workers’ militancy.

The abolition of the Sunday Holiday in Greece and the rest of Europe will eventually apply to all workers and not just those working in commerce. Capitalists require conditions of continuous work. The opening of shops on Sundays paves the way for a 7-day work week in all sectors and for all workers.

More specifically, it means 7 days a week work for shop assistants for 400 euros a month at best. With the arrangement of working hours in such widely extented shop opening hours, flexible forms of work are generalised .

Shop assistants will join workers in other sectors such as industry, transport, tourism who already work on Sunday. Sooner or later the abolition of the Sunday Holiday will be applied to other sectors as well, first in industries directly related to commerce (eg banks). This will be a total blow for the working class family and social life, particularly for women and young workers who are the majority of workers in commerce.

4) Under these conditions of super profits for capitalists, the labour movement must have a clear view on the causes and nature of the crisis. It’s not just theory. Instead, it is a practical issue of strategic importance. It sorts out enemies from allies; it defines the direction of the struggle, the unity of immediate and strategic objectives. It protects us from illusions and traps we have already paid for. Friends or foes of the system now talk about a prolonged and synchronized crisis of capitalism.

It defines the effectiveness of the labour movement. If it will be able to respond to its historic mission to liberate the working class from exploitation.

Questions need to be answered:

WHY while governments change and try different approaches to counter the crisis, the crisis continues and is steadily repeated?

WHY, while productive forces, technology and human knowledge advance and the people’s work has rapidly grown wealth, life for the majority of people gets worse?

Can another crisis management save capitalism?

Is there  a way for workers to save themselves from capitalist brutality?

Over these issues two lines collide in the labour movement:

The line of reforming and compromising with the system under the flag of competitiveness,  that is the profits of monopolies in each and every country. This line is in agreement with the interests of plutocracy and big business, directly or indirectly backing EU and government policies up so that monopolies do not lose a single penny of their profits.

It is the line that says billions should be given to capitalists in the name of the crisis to avoid layoffs. It agrees with zero wage raises and even cuts.

It is the line that says let us lay off some workers to save others. It is the line that says yes to flexible working relations and the arrangement of working time so that unemployment can be contained. It is a line of defeat for workers.

On the other side it is the line that follows the path of class struggle. It is expressed by PAME in Greece and internationally by WFTU. It is the line of disobedience and counterattack, organising the struggle against anti-labour policies, against the EU.

It is the line that serves the struggle for the emancipation of the working class, which seeks to abolish the exploitation of man by man.

  • It is the line against monopolies and multinationals so that workers, the working classes, will not pay for the crisis.
  • It demands jobs for everyone and the satisfaction of the modern needs of the working class.
  • It says yes to collective agreements with wage increases, it says yes to permanent, stable and full-time work, 8 hours-40 hours-5-days for all workers in commerce with the Sunday Holiday guaranteed by law, it says yes to lowering the retirement age, and free public education and health for all.
  • It says yes to the abolition of part-time jobs,  individual work contracts and all flexible forms of employment and their conversion to 8hrs permanent jobs.
  • Its says no to privatizations, expressing massively and loudly disobedience and insubordination to the choices of the European Union.

5) What do we oppose to this attack by European monopolies and their political personnel, namely the EU, national capitalists and their parties?

In the last years there were struggles in countries with or without memoranda  opposing government policies in Portugal, Greece, Italy and elsewhere. Struggles in the sector also took place in Amazon in Germany, Ikea in Germany and Greece, Praktiker in Greece, Leroy Merlin in Turkey, and in Cyprus, Italy and Greece against the abolition of the Sunday Holiday.

The following conclusions can be drawn from the struggles in our sector:

A)  They were disproportionate to the magnitude of the general and sectoral attack by the forces of capital. They were just individual outbursts.

B) Government-employer trade unionism is responsible for this situation.  Leaders of big trade unions follow a line of submission and seek the subjugation of workers.

C) Lack of coordination of our activities results in not expressing solidarity. For example, when there were struggles in multinational groups, those struggles were not made known across Europe, there was no information exchange letting workers from other sectors express their solidarity.

D) The number of unionized workers is small, especially in young workers and women. The balance of power is not in the favour of class oriented forces. We are absent from large, basic monopoly groups.

E) Despite the coordinated attack on the workers in commerce, the level of participation in trade unions  is generally low and particularly low in some countries. (Data provided)

The number of unionized workers in commerce is below 10%, while the sector employs 15% of the European workforce.

Fragmentation of trade unions.

It is characteristic that in countries such as Italy there are 17 different trade unions representing workers in commerce.

More specifically, the picture in the EU-27 is as follows:

Austria3., Belgium 9., Bulgaria 2., Cyprus 2., Germany 3.,

Denmark5., Estonia 2., Spain 8., Finland 3, France 7.,

Ireland3., Italy 17., Luxembourg 2., Lithuania 3.,

Netherlands3., Poland 2., Portugal 4., Sweden   7.,

Slovenia2., United Kingdom 3.

Except for Greece, Hungary, CzechRepublic, Latvia, Malta, Romania, Slovakia where there is only one second level trade union (federation).

There are organizations that only managers can join such as the Swedish Ladarna and the Italian MANAGERITALIA. 

The Belgian CNE / GNC and LBC / NVK organise only French-speaking and Dutch-speaking workers respectively, ie on the basis of nationality and language.

5) Under the present conditions there needs to be a line of struggle that helps workers join trade unions, realize their class position and not confuse, disorientate and subordinate them.

ETUC does not play such a role because:

It is the long arm of the European Commission in the labour movement, it has supported the anti-labour policies of the EU through social dialogue with EU apparatuses and employers.

The ETUC supported the Treaty of Maastricht (1992) and its subsequent revisions (Amsterdam 1996, Nice 2001), the Lisbon Strategy and its update (Europe 2020). It signed the Bolkestein Directive,  the 65 hours work a week and flexicurity. It supported the European Constitution and intervened to convince the unions in Ireland to vote yes in the referendum on the European Constitution.
While we have a brutal and total attack on working class rights in EU countries, the attitude of the reformist trade unions controlled by social democrats in cooperation with opportunism is revealed more than ever.  
Under the current crisis conditions the outcome of the reactionary capitalist reforms that the bourgeoisie has sought to impose  for decades is decided,  government-employer unionism is an indispensable tool for capitalists.

Class collaboration forces in the ETUC play openly the role of suppressing struggles, while they support plutocracy’s policies  in every country.  

Although there are conditions and tendencies for the development of struggles, the compromised forces in the labour movement do everything in their power to prevent  working class struggles and oppose class orientation.

In March 2012, the ETUC participated in a trilateral meeting with the slaughters of the European workers’ rights,  the EU leadership and European employers, focusing on andvancing the implementation of the anti-labour strategy “Europe 2020”.

That is, how  the logic of class collaboration and “Competitiveness” will be promoted through “social dialogue”.

At the same time, as an antidote to youth unemployment, which has reached explosive levels, it proposes the extension of “Lifelong Learning” so that capitalists can increase their profits.

The ETUC is not anxious about how to organize the struggle of workers against capital, but how workers will support one or the other crisis management to ensure the profits of industrialists and “social cohesion”.

That same logic is followed by the sectoral federation in Greece, O.I.Y.E. (Federation of Private Employees of Greece).

It is controlled by the government-employer unionism and supported by employers. It supports and participates in all decisions of the European trade unions ETUC and UNI Europa Commerce.

It consists of  217 primary trade unions with a membership of 113,000, and about half of them (56,000) vote. Trade union members are employees in commerce, services, cleaning services for private, public spaces and schools, shipping companies, security etc. PAME is the second force in this federation.

The federation’s government and employer unionism identifies with employers, it has signed for the extension of opening hours of shops, wage cuts, flexible work and part-time jobs. They talk about healthy competition and cheer for healthy entrepreneurship, namely the need to save businesses through cuts in wages, individual contracts, and reduced rights.

It is clear that the line followed by the ETUC, UNI EUROPA COMMERCE, and  OIYE is a line safeguarding the profits of large monopolies in commerce, supporting social partnership, attempting to poison the minds of workers that there can be no prospect without reconciliation with employers and submission to the interests of monopolies.

  • We have a duty to fight against this line. The line of class struggle guarantees  the development and coordination of massive struggles throughout Europe. This is the direction we have to organize the struggle for everyday problems, to reaveal their causes.
  • We need awareness of the nature of the crisis, a rise in union membership, a change in the balance of power within the labour movement. There are issues need to be addressed such as the low expectations of workers and the belief that struggles are ineffective. This is what PAME fights for, the reorganisation of the labour movement. One way or another big changes are necessary,  preparation and concentration of forces is required for the decisive battle.
  • The working class is powerful when organized and convinced of the necessity of the struggle against capitalists and their parties.

Colleagues

Workers’ struggle in Greece to defend their vital rights (against layoffs and wage cuts, the closure of bussinesses,  taxes, privatizations, and the cuts in health and education) is becoming more difficult. To achieve its goals it must clash with the core of capitalist policies, it must lead to an overthrow in antimonopoly – anticapitalist direction.

Those struggles make clear what kind of movement is needed,

what alliance and with what perspective, in order to overcome the frustration that comes from the difficulty of the struggle

  • A massive movement with massive trade unions, with workers in large workplaces organised. Trade unions oriented to everyday action so that  the need for unity of the working class in the workplace and in the sector is understood. A movement against the capitalist bosses, the laws, the state.
  • A class oriented movement against the line of monopolies, the EU, and the government-employer trade unionism that neither supports nor participates in social dialogues and the anti-labour decisions of the compromised European unions ETUC, UNI Europa Commerce and the sectoral federation in Greece (OIYE).  A movement struggling for the modern needs of workers.
  • A strong movement against the anti-labour alliance of capitalists awakening the people’s and working class forces, organising the struggle in every workplace and the sector in general, cooordinating at a European level to change the negative balance of power in unions and federations, aiming  to get rid of the supporters of capitalists in the labour movement.
  • An internationalist movement in every country that will express class solidarity to workers’ struggles against capitalist brutality and imperialist wars 
  • A movement supporting and building the Social Alliance of workers with self-employed, small traders, small and medium peasants, students and women, not only for a more effective defense but for a change of class in power.

 

Suggestions for coordinating our activities in the coming period:

  • Firstly, we believe we must strengthen our relationships.
  • Discuss about the results of the conference in our organizations.
  • Organize bilateral meetings of the trade unions that participate. 
  • Create a militant class movement in commerce, have frequent exchange of information about the general developments in our countries and in our sector. How we will face the agressiveness of capitalists, governments, and the EU in every country.

We can formulate a joint struggle declaration for the coordination of common struggles, signed by primary trade unions of Europe.

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