Timely Opening for ETUC Congress

Brenda O'Brien

When the 12th Congress of the European Trade Union Confederation opened on Monday, 16 May, in Athens, there was a palpable air of gravitas. Despite the sunshine and blue skies outside, the atmosphere in the hall where more than 500 delegates from across Europe gathered was sombre. The extreme situation faced by Greek workers in the crisis was reiterated by Yannis Panagopoulos and Spyros Papaspyros, both Presidents of the two Greek trade union federations. Simulataneous meetings of EU Finance Ministers and the IMF had delegates anxiously tapping their laptops and phones for updates.

Addressing the opening session, the Vice-President of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, said that the role of the social partners and the European social dialogue would be crucial in weathering the storm. The EU could be proud of its achievements in Social Policy. When the US was criticized by the credit ratings agencies, it didn't call into question its own existence nor its dollar, she noted. Therefore, perhaps what the EU needed was to act in a more confident fashion when such attacks arose in Europe.

In his speech, John Monks, General Secretary of the ETUC, said that they had selected Athens as the venue because it was the eye of the storm which threatened Europe and the euro. Greece was the first country to get into trouble but it would not be the last. The ratings agencies circled the country like sharks round a wounded victim, he said, and the EU was uncertain about whether to launch another lifeboat. He continued:

"But some debt restructuring, some easing of the austerity terms, with reciprocal action by Greece is urgently necessary. Austerity is not working. The only way Greeece will meet its obligations is through growth, through the rich and comfortable meeting their obligations to the country especially on tax, and through agreed programmes including with unions about the necessary action to be taken. It's time for Greece to pull together, not fracture - and it's time for the EU to help".

Over the next days a broad spectrum of policies will be debated and voted upon in the ETUC Congress, as well as the election of a new President, General Secretary, two deputy General Secretaries, as well as Confederal Secretaries.

On Wednesday morning, May 18, there will be a specific debate on workplace health and safety.

You can find more information on http://www.etuc.org/

Written by Brenda O'Brien in Athens.