European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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29 January 2019

“Back to the future”: Trade unions need a positive new narrative to win back workers’ votes

The rise of right-wing populist ideas and parties almost everywhere in Europe is a burning problem for the trade union movement, as a portion of its members have been seduced by the populist discourse and often simplistic promises propagated by these parties. Moreover, with European elections less than four months away, there is a risk of nationalistic and ethnocentric political ideas being transferred to the European level. In order to understand the phenomenon of increasing support for the far right across Europe, and assess trade union strategies for fighting those trends, the ETUI organized a thematic day to explore the issue, comprising an internal trade union discussion on the topic and a well-attended public conference. Both events took place on 23 January in the International Trade Union House in Brussels.

During the morning workshop, representatives of about 20 trade unions members of the ETUC presented and discussed trade union practices to counter the far right at the national level, as well as some national trade union strategies for the European elections. A useful tool to expose as false the social concerns of the ethnocentric populist is to track their voting behavior in the European parliament and reveal their failure to vote in favor of measures that would benefit working people. Another important element connected to that is promoting more transparency of decision making in the European Council which will make it difficult for national political leaders to routinely blame “Brussels” for unpopular decisions.  

In the afternoon, professor Manuala Caiani from Scuola Normale in Florence set the broader picture of how far-right groups use the internet to construct their identity, organise themselves and mobilise support for their cause. Via the network research she presented it was found that, while far right political parties are less international due to their nationalistic discourses, “cyber communities are transcending national boundaries”. In Europe the focus of hate discourse is mainly directed towards political enemies such as trade unions, while in the US it is more about race issues. Another important conclusion was that, the more these groups find cultural acceptance and fewer legal and policy restraints, the more they mobilise on the web.

According to Frédéric Sève, National Secretary of the CFDT, in order to be more resilient “we need to make a link between our demands and our values”. The CFDT is having an internal ‘containment’ policy: members who vote for the extreme right are forbidden from promoting this cause inside the union.  As trade unions, it is important to educate the world of work in general and to develop regional capacities, as the situation in France differs from one region to the other.

Steve Turner, General Council member of the TUC, shared his deep concern about the upsurge in racism and hate crime in the UK since the Brexit referendum, as well as physical attacks on unionists on picket lines. The far-right claims to champion working class interests but “we are the only ones standing for the dignity of workers”. He insisted that trade unions need to do more activism that is grounded in the working lives of ordinary people and give them hope and opportunity.

Professor Ruth Wodak, Emeritus Professor from the University of Lancaster and Vienna talked about what she called the “shameless normalization” of the far right in society. People no longer discuss socioeconomic issues but focus on powerful, symbolic images like the headscarf: “we ‘culturalise’ problems instead of going to their socioeconomic roots”, she argued.  Facts are being reduced to opinions. In her view, populist parties create a sense of threat and crisis and then offer hope. They target scapegoats who are very vulnerable, such as asylum seekers, creating a division into ‘we’ and ‘the others’, and offering to fight “the good fight” against the enemies (elites, refugees, the work-shy etc). In order to counter this destructive dynamic, trade unions need to try to change the frame using bullet points and slogans, rather than complex arguments. What is needed is a new narrative oriented towards accepting the present but with an inclusive vision of the future. In order to achieve this, the trade union movement should address new electorates, e.g. the precariat and other novel professions because “the pictures of steel factories won’t work anymore”.

Tim Dixon from the organization “More in Common” presented the results of recent research aiming at understanding the psychological drivers of the rise of extreme right in Europe. According to him, the experience of shame and disrespect, which are particularly powerful now, lead to resentment, a sense of insecurity and disconnect. “We have lost our revolutionary impulse of being outsiders, at a time when many of our traditional supporters are feeling like outsiders”, he said. “We need to speak to the issue of belonging and identity, but through the frame of a bigger ‘us’”.

The last panel was dedicated to representatives of political groups in the European parliament who were invited to explain how they see the threat from the far right and what are they doing about it. Tanja Fajon, MEP and chair of the S&D Working Group on Extremism said that, although it is too simplistic to say that the traditional parties have failed, maybe we have reached a standard and now we are confronted with new challenges such as a globalized world and a different working class. It is no longer clear whom are we addressing. According to her, social democracy has to reinvent itself, as “we have had grand coalitions and we paid a high price for that”. Now, the socialist parties need to shift to the left again. Governments have failed on immigration and populism was mobilised around this issue. The rhetoric has changed to the right. “For us, security is not building fences and closing borders, it is social security and jobs” she said. “There is a lot of inequality and we need social justice. We need a new coalition to achieve this.”

Philippe Lamberts, the co-chair of the Group of the Greens in the European Parliament said that people were beginning to realise that climate change is threatening humanity. “We need a socially just transition that is deeply democratic”, he said, adding that we do not need an enlightened leader but rather participative democracy and more European integration. If we want to tackle the challenges, it will be either together or not at all. And this is exactly the opposite of what the nationalistic right wants. Against neoliberalism’s glorification of the self, we need to bring an inclusive ‘we’ to the table, so that the exclusive ‘we’ of the far right doesn’t dominate.

In conclusion, Peter Scherrer, the ETUC Deputy General Secretary said that in its Resolution to save democracy the ETUC underlines that we need allies to safeguard freedom and voters’ rights but, unlike political parties, trade unions “need to concentrate on the shop level and fight for our values”. In the view of Thiébaut Weber, ETUC Confederal secretary, the trade unions started out as a local, flexible groups but achieved many of their objectives and thus became institutions, which is why they are now seen as being part of the establishment. “We are not necessarily guilty for this, but we will be guilty if we don’t structurally adapt”.

Find here the presentations from the conference and more information about the event

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