Trade unions and right-wing extremism in Europe

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The effects of globalisation today can be compared to those of 19th century industrialisation, causing socio-economic and political upheaval across Europe, while profoundly affecting the work environment.

The 20th “century of social democracy” is being replaced by neoliberal policy, the intensification of social inequality, the dismantling of social standards, increased precarious employment and high (youth) unemployment, which ultimately lead to old-age poverty.

Consequently, insecurity, discontent and fear are on the increase, in the working world in particular. The desire for protection from both imagined and real threats, such as a dependency on the global market, domineering European bureaucracies, crime and terrorism is drastically increasing.

It is a fertile breeding ground for nationalistic and racist sentiment. Trade unions have a key role to play in addressing concerns that far-right populists pander to. This is the subject of a new report by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, which tackles the root causes of ring-wing extremism while offering potential solutions for unions to address this issue.

The politics of fear

The fear of downward social mobility has long spilled over from the lower classes to the lower middle classes and is further intensified by immigration. People with a lower level of education and low incomes in particular are fearful of losing out to immigrants for jobs, accommodation and education.

The criticism according to which the political establishment shows little consideration for the worries and plight of “the little people” and that the state doesn’t effectively protect its citizens against the risks of globalisation, is made particularly frequently in this social segment.

Right-wing extremists and conservative nationalist forces across Europe are exploiting this criticism to present a seemingly plausible answer to the perceived threats from this societal upheaval: a return to a sovereign, authoritarian, ethnically homogenous nation state.

The platforms and populist propaganda of these far-right parties are extremely adept at mirroring people’s worries and difficulties. Real or imagined threats are interpreted in a biased manner and then exaggerated to dramatic effect. The call for nationalistic and authoritarian solutions resonates ever louder.

Wage earners in particular are amongst those who view nationalism and ethnocentrism as a means of resolving or mitigating their problems.

And given that the lower and lower middle classes are unionised to an above-average degree, trade union members too are susceptible to ethno-nationalistic slogans.

The role of trade unions

For this amongst other reasons, the trade unions have a particular responsibility to confront the extreme right because these forces also seek to undermine the raison d’être of the unions by weakening their function as a key regulatory force within industrial relations and calling into question their role in representing the interests of employees.

The proponents of this anti-union policy shouldn’t be disregarded or even ignored as outsiders or crackpots. They need to be taken seriously as a fundamental threat to humane and democratic societal order and be fought by trade unions in an effective and sustained manner.

On a practical level, trade unions should prioritise two areas of activity: the active commitment to human rights and the fight for social justice and social protection.

Amongst the first urgent recommendations, trade unions should reaffirm that they are first and foremost organisations aiming to protect workers’ interests, and as such, they have to address the economic and social problems brought about by modernisation and globalisation. The critique of capitalism and globalisation must not be ceded to the extreme right.

In this context, it has to be made clear that social justice and social protection aren’t achievable by reactionary and inhumane means such as nationalist isolationism and the racist exclusion of others, but only by policies based on solidarity, openness and in line with human rights. Trade unions should therefore also view themselves as defenders of those democratic values as an alternative to nationalism and racism.

The commitment of trade unions should extend to a broad spectrum of global aims such as the democratisation of state and society, the creation of fair and humane work and living conditions, and specific measures against ethno-nationalism such as:
− Engagement in round tables or broad-based societal alliances against right-wing trends, such as the European Network Against Racism (ENAR);
− Participation in civic activities, for instance against marches by right-wing extremists;
− Public relations measures against ethno-nationalism (posters, flyers, brochures, open letters, info booths, exhibitions) or implementation of corresponding campaigns.

In their active commitment to human rights, the trade unions can make reference to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

Support is also provided by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).
This currently comprises 89 national trade union federations from 39 countries, totalling around 60 million members.

At the level of individual establishments, the following measures against racist discrimination can be pursued, amongst others:
− Establishing joint committees for migration, integration and equality, as well as structures for handling complaints;
− Anonymised application procedures;
− Recognition of foreign qualifications and educational achievements;
− Providing information, advice and support to those affected by discrimination;
− Removing racist graffiti;
− Selection of candidates for elections of worker representatives in accordance with the “zipper principle” (i.e. using quotas and alternation);
− Elimination of discriminatory rules in collective bargaining agreements and company-level agreements;
− Review of job vacancy postings for discriminatory language;
− Preparation of internal equal-opportunities reports;
− Training and seminar programmes as well as special debating skills training for trade union members, especially key influencers.