May 1st

More people take to the streets on the 1st of May in Germany. The costs-of-living crisis with high inflation has increased the claims for pay rises for workers and adjusted wages for employees. We all have observed “greedflation”, i.e. excessive company profits in several sectors. Additionally, “shrinkflation” has affected consumers in their daily shopping experience. Political efforts to curb inflation have taken a long time to come about and most initiatives have ended already (Energy sector). This spurred a new drive for trade unions to come out in huge numbers to protest and claim adequate wage increases to cover the increased costs of living. In Germany the DGB informed on the annual 1st of May demonstrations across the country about a strong new entry movement of members of 400.000 persons. It is higher than the loss of members of the large baby boomer cohorts who retire.
Through a broad and engaged membership the pressure on higher wage settlements will persist. Companies have used the crises to generate extra profits. It is only fair that those employees who largely contribute to the success of a company will claim their share as well.
For society as a whole it is important to consider that the discrepancy between managerial pay and shop floor wages do not increase further. The social fabric of societies is in danger if perceived injustices grow. More radical forces can all to easily exploit this causing a severe danger for democracies. Meeting people on the 1st of May and joining forces across sectors and trades ensures that a society continues to build and rely on solidarity. High inflation times are a great reminder of the economic basics of societies in history as well as today.

Wage indexation

Currently inflation increases rapidly in many countries. Yes, Argentine. The Euro-zone and EEA have mastered the peak of inflation due to shifting away from Russian dependency and cheap prices for energy and dealt with carry-on effects related to high energy inputs. The annual rate of inflation calculated for January 2024 has returned in the Euro-area to 2.8 % close to the European Central Bank target of 2% (compare figure below).  Inflation puts wages under pressure, because household with little savings have a very hard time to cope with sudden price increases. For society as a whole, inflation raises many questions of differential impact of inflation on different parts of society. Savings become devalued, but debt might become easier to be repaid in so-called real terms.
Wage earners suffer in terms of lower purchasing power unless in subsequent wage negotiations pay rises can be achieved. This then depends of negotiation power of groups or sectors of the economy. Trade unions have to enter into tough negotiations and conflicts to even regain the same status quo previously achieved in wage negotiations. A series of conflicts and economic readjustments by more or less powerful sectors or representation comes into play.
All this is happening in a year of a series of national and regional elections as well as the European Parliament election in June. Political turbulance and the rise of extremists might be a result of a lack of taking into account the needs of lower wage groups who are likely to feel the full blast of the high inflation previously still today. Wage indexation as in Belgium, which fixes wages to the rise in inflation previously takes out most of the explosive power of a sudden rise in inflation at the risk of an upward wage-price spiral. The recent inflation figures for Belgium, however, show that this is not the case. An overshooting has been followed by an undershooting of the Euro-zone inflation. The political disturbance and risk of redistribution to more powerful groups in society can be limited through general wage indexation or indexation of for example just minimum wages.
The Russian caused spike in inflation has been successfully mastered in the EU. The political economy of redistribution through inflation will remain an important element unless wage indexation is used in more countries to escape populists’ and extremists’ voices. (Image Eurostat data and ESTATEC app)

Digital organising

Since the digital innovations continue to broaden our scope of how to organise, we have to make conscious choices which way to choose. The traditional form of sending out newsletters and waiting for responses is still a feature that is prevalent across Europe. Most organisations have shifted to digital plus physical versions by now, just like newspapers. Young organisations by founding year have started or shifted to digital only for speed of delivery, CO2 and cost saving mainly. We may derive a first dimension of organising between the digital and physical.
A second dimension consists in the central versus decentral forms of organising. Similar to the franchise principle of organising companies, organisations have a choice to keep a central structure with varying degrees of freedom at the regional, sectoral or local level. Organisation theory is helpful in this respect. Various hybrid forms are equally possible. Centralised in financial aspects, but scope for local decisions on content.
Bohn et al. (2023) define digital organising as “collective purposeful alignment and distributed action fostered through digital technologies”. Centralisation and/or Decentralization become a matter of conscious choice. The processes of datafication and connectification, whereby every bit of information becomes a data point and any electronically enabled device can be connected with each other. Organisations now have a choice of how to organize including digital organising. The opportunities are within the space opened up by the 2 dimensions (figure below). A specific subject matter may require more physical presence and maybe centralised structure, but digital only forms with highly decentralised forms are powerful tools in the 21st century. New as well as established social movements may well take advantage of these digital technologies as well. (Image: Digital Organising 2024 Protest Berlin).

Forced Labor 2024

Thanks to the ILO we have recent data on forced labor across the globe. At the time when the EU struggles to tighten the rules on decent supply chains, it is important to draw attention to the already reversed trend that worldwide forced labor is on the rise again. According to latest report by the ILO 27.6 million women, men and children were in forced labor at any day of the year 2021. This is even about 10% more than 5 years before in 2016. The fact sheet from ILO highlights the region that are practicing it the most but mentions at the same time that no region in the world has completely wiped out this criminal activity. Despite the SDGs containing a goal to eradicate forced labor by 2025 for children there is little hope that this will be reached. Controlling supply chains of the rich countries could be an important factor in identifying the states or companies which built their production model on forced labor. The fight against this practice is an enduring challenge. We cannot allow to shun away from the thorny issue. The price for labor is only one argument in the reasons for the persistence of forced labor, migration is also a force at work. This asks for specific solutions to country-specific or sector-specific problems. It is a global responsibility but needs partnerships across continents to reach better outcomes in the interests of humanity. Some countries like Germany have a historical debt to invest more than others.

ILO recommendations 2024-1


Some American presidents become famous due to specific economic policies they managed to formulate, get approved and implemented them. Reaganomics, of previous U.S. president Ronald Reagan, was coined in connection with an open market doctrine, favouring monetary policy instead of fiscal stimuli. Bidenomics, of incumbent president Joe Biden, is characterised by his “produce in America”, Inflation Reduction Act, and fiscal stimulus provided for green and social investments.
Whereas Reagon sat more with bankers and central bankers, Biden is keen to stand with unionised workers even on the picket line. Investments that favour good jobs, jobs that apply pay scales agreed upon through collective bargaining are part of the Bidenomics that seems to work to raise the wages of the middle-class people. In the medium-term there might even be effects to lift the lower wages in other sectors of the economy as well. However, this is the tricky part of the equation to support the middle-classes and somehow the median voter.
American elections are won in so-called swing states that have voted democrats or republicans by narrow margins. Many of these states are in the “Rust-belt” states that have or had a strong manufacturing base. Bidenomics works hard to make the economy work for those people in these states, who have felt threatened by declassification, job loss and undercutting of wages due to migration. Substantial wage gains from $32/h to $40/h over 4 years is a landmark achievement in the U.S (see New York Times below). Non-unionised firms like Tesla, Hyundai or BMW and Mercedes in the U.S. will be isolated if they do not follow General Motors, Ford and Stellantis in the coming months or years.
It is not just about cars and trucks and wages, but about the chances of Biden and the Democrats to stem the renewed populist tide in the U.S. German car makers appear to be in the camp with the Tesla X-Man avoiding to negotiate with trade unions in the U.S. If Biden stays on as president after the next election, Bidenomics will gain further support and production of batteries and cars will be favoured locally with good paying, unionised jobs. Despite the high interest rates currently it is astonishing to many economist that the U.S. has not fallen into recession like for example Germany in at least 2 quarters of 2023. (Image: extract of Ney York Times 2023-11-2)

Work Subordination

One of the defining principles besides the job description, working time, working place, remuneration of a work contract is the subordination to a superior. The employment contract entails some more or less strictly executed form of direction, but a right of direction nevertheless. This element of subordination has become a major issue in the definition of whether you are effectively an employee or a self-employed person. The digital revolution had enlarged the kinds of subordination. Platforms and algorithms, that distribute work among several employees (but named platform workers) disguised the subordination to a superior level of management to the platform and its seemingly anonymous algorithm. Many young riders were saying, I don’t like bosses, but I am willing to accept a “technical” platform that distributes work tasks only seemingly in a non-discriminatory way. Due to a failure of labour legislation to regulate early enough a thriving model of fake self-employment developed throughout Europe and beyond. Labour Courts have contributed a lot to correct the disguised subordination. Even Uber is advertising that they only operate as a broker of tasks, but have no subordinated employees. The related issue of subordination remains largely the same. Subordination to an algorithm of the distribution of tasks is the end result.
Many start-up enterprises use Kanban boards to facilitate project and team management. Shifting tasks between employees, introducing new tasks and self-selection of tasks are potentially subordination-free allocation of tasks (example software). Flat hierarchies seem more manageable through the use of such tools. The number of tools that integrate other office functions is impressive. When testing such tools, that become more popular also in the distribution of household tasks, beware of the data-hungry nature of such tools. For example, warns correctly in the small print that for its full functionality it would need to have permission to use “your” camera, microphone, contacts, photo library, calendar etc.
This demonstrates that subordination, nowadays, is complemented by the algorithmic use of a lot of privacy, we would never have agreed to a boss in person should even ask for. The new and old subordinators have powerful tools at hand, the subordinated will have to get their act together and limit the amount of subordination they are willing to accept.
Again, this is a generational topic. The low threshold to accept technical subordination in younger generations, your autonomous level-5 car is breaking earlier than you even perceive a risk, is confronted with the higher threshold to accept personal subordination for youth. Interestingly, for older generations the obverse is true. All in all, we have ample reason to rethink and re-define also in legal terms the manifold, disguised and new forms of subordination related to work.

Work Remote

Since the COVID-19 crisis we witness a steep increase in the interest to working from home or from remote places. Originally during the pandemic spread of the virus, remote work was the only way to stay in contact with employers and fellow employees for all those not considered as essential workers. Many employees and employers, for the first, experienced that working remotely can have multiple positive effects. First of all, saving time and stress as well as CO2 reduction due to less commuting is beneficial not only for individual employees, but also for society at large. These benefits are substantial.
In my opinion the most substantial consequence is the rethinking of several fundamentals related to work that have gone unquestioned for decades or even centuries, which is: Work happened predominantly at the work place. Digitalisation had changed this partially already, but the willingness to implement far reaching reforms related to work for millions of employees remained rather limited before the Covid-19 pandemic. Nobody had to go on strike to force employers to accept remote work. Suddenly employers, in some instances, were begging employees to please do your work from home or anywhere else. Now we are in the historically rather unique situation that both employers as well as employees try to reap the benefits of the unexpected revolution of remote work potentials including new digital tools to organise remote work (example “scoopforwork”). Employers found out they can do with much less office space than they previously thought they would need to accommodate all employees. Employees found out that saving on commuting time saves energy and frees time resources for other, potentially more healthy ways of life. A new balance of work and private life could be arranged at home. So much for the theoretical expectations.
In practice many women realised that they suddenly found themselves thrown back into working at home and in the home all the time again, with men still less willing to share household work equally. Unsuitable work spaces at home, arranged rather ad hoc, became a health and safety issue usually considered to be part of the employers’ responsibilities.
The results of the real-life experiment of forced remote work are still under scrutiny. To turn them into beneficial arrangements of voluntary remote work which is empowering, emancipating, increasing degrees of freedom for employees would be a huge step ahead. The full spectrum of negotiations is involved. Legislation, collective agreements and 1-on-1 solutions are needed to reap the benefits on all levels. Comparable to the industrial revolution during the 19th century, drawing millions of workers into factories and coal mines, we are at the beginning of a new era of digital and remote work that governs solar and wind farms for energy provision as well as 3D printing of industrial components.
It seems that we shift from the blue collar to the white collar to the no collar world of work. Working remotely in my t-shirt under the cherry tree is not the worst of a revolution (guard against cherry picking by employers and new layers of inequality). It might take a generation or two to accomplish this. With threatening, pervasive climate change we probably have to make it happen sooner rather than later.

Frau, Leben, Freiheit

Seit der brutalen Tötung einer Frau im Iran gehen viele Iranerinnen und Iraner auf die Straße. Als Zeichen ihres Protests rufen sie: Frau, Leben, Freiheit! Das ist und bleibt eine kurze Zusammenfassung für die Forderungen der Frauen, die trotz massiver Unterdrückung unablässig demonstrieren. Viele Hinrichtungen und Misshandlungen von Frauen werden wir weiter anprangern und fordern den internationalen Druck auf das Regime im Iran zu erhöhen. Wir dürfen nicht wegschauen, sondern werden weiterhin die Öffentlichkeit wachhalten. Diese aktiv für Menschenrechte eintretende Stellungnahme wurde von Yasmin Fahimi (DGB-Vorsitzende) eindrücklich auf dem EGB-Kongress vorgetragen. Mit überwältigender Mehrheit wurde diese Resolution vom Kongress befürwortet. Die italienischen Gewerkschaften stimmten gleich ein in den Ruf: Donna, Vita, Liberta!
Bravi! So rufen viele sonst eher in den Opernsälen. Hier passt es zu der Stimmung auf dem EGB-Kongress. Mit großer Einigkeit und ausgeprägter Solidarität wurde eindrücklich Stärke bewiesen, die auch über Europa hinweg Strahlkraft besitzt. Bravi! Kurzvideo EGB-Iran-Resolution Yasmin Fahimi  und italienischer Support. EGB-Iran-Akklamation-IT.

Democracy is key

The ETUC congress in Berlin 2023 prepares the working agenda for the next 4 years. A lot of support across political parties is voiced in favour of the important role the ETUC plays in coordinating the European Trade Union Movement. The democratic forum of all delegates works before and during the congress on a comprehensive list of essentials for the movement. It is much more than about wages, as most people might believe. Of course, minimum wages and fair wages are always high on the agenda. The strength of the 2023 Berlin congress for me consists in the widespread and loud call to intensify democratic structures and broaden participation of workers at all levels. The power of the unions to fight for democracy is dearly needed in all European nations with the threat from far-right populist movements. Strengthening workers is the best way to foster democracy. Throughout the congress several support facilities have been mentioned like the SURE instrument as a step into a European labour market policy.
Public services have also enjoyed more popular support, since essential services were the jobs that kept our countries running during the COVID crisis.
A just transition to a green economy in a democratic spirit means taking everybody with us on this journey. Fighting poverty, inequality is still high on the agenda and most people are convinced that democratic societies are highly sensitive to injustices caused by education systems, remuneration systems, retirement systems and tax systems. Even industrial policy, to guarantee our independence and values, is also linked to essential workers cooperation.
Weak social policies erode the trust in our societies to handle crises. The engagement of trade unions is felt far beyond Europe. Gilbert F Houngbo (ILO), hopes that due diligence is rapidly implemented in Europe, because it will benefit workers well beyond Europe across the world.
Union leaders were arrested in Belarus and in many other countries where they stand for democratic values. Trade Unionist from Europe have shown their own commitment to fight for democracy and mobilize to convince more people and youth to join the movement. “Donner l’envie de s’engager …” (LeMonde 26-5-2023 p.28) “Raise the urge to get involved” – that is the democratic challenge.