Government and business should embrace EU’s pro-worker agenda, conference told

German MEP says failure to improve lives of workers is fuelling far right

Dennis Radtke MEP addressing the conference on the future of collective bargaining at the headquarters of the Communication Workers Union in Dublin

The failure of the European Union, national governments and employers to improve the lot of ordinary workers has helped fuel the rise of the far right across Europe, a trade union conference on the future of collective bargaining in Dublin has been told.

Dennis Radtke, a German Christian Democratic Union MEP, said millions of German workers, particularly in the former east, had backed the right-wing AfD because they believed the political and economic establishment had failed them.

Measures like the EU’s Adequate Minimum Wages Directive, with its provisions for far greater levels of collective bargaining, he said, had been part of a drive to counter this drift, one that should be embraced by both the Government and employers in this country.

Germany was the birthplace of the social market economy, he told senior officials from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) and more than a dozen of its largest affiliates “but what have we done with our heritage? Collective bargaining coverage is down to 50 per cent, and when we look at regions like eastern Germany we are already much below that.

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We see the political outcome and the social crisis, how easy it is to mix it up with the question of migration and so on. This is what is happening in Germany

—  Dennis Radtke

“For the last 30 years everyone has said this (the falling rates of coverage) is none of our business. We have one of the biggest low-income sectors in all of Europe in Germany; 8.5 million people working for €14 an hour or less and 5.5 million working for minimum wage.

“So when I look on the election results, eastern Germany is blue, political blue, it is with the extreme political right AfD which is the number one party in Germany for the workers now.

“We see the political outcome and the social crisis, how easy it is to mix it up with the question of migration and so on. This is what is happening in Germany. This is what is happening in a lot of member states all over all over Europe.”

His comments were echoed by just retired Dutch MEP Agnes Jongerius, a former trade union leader who, like Radtke, has been a champion of the directive which says governments must promote collective bargaining where the number of workers covered by it is below 80 per cent. In Ireland it is currently less than half that.

“If you want working people to support economic co-operation,” she said, “the war in Ukraine and the transition to a more sustainable economy they are entitled to ask ‘what’s in it for me?’. That’s why workers’ right are part of the European agenda at the moment.”

Ictu general secretary Owen Reidy said the introduction of protections for trade union shop stewards in the workplace was one of the measures unions want to see from the Government when the directive is transposed later this year.

He acknowledged that with employers’ groups arguing that no legislative change is required to transpose the provisions the unions’ earlier expectation that the recommendation for a system of “good faith engagement” – contained in a report by the Government-backed Labour Employer Economic Forum – would be adopted seemed less likely to be fulfilled.

“That is something we will have to plot and plan for,” said Mr Reidy, who has said Ictu will consider reporting the Government to Europe, taking legal action and withdrawing from all of the State-backed bodies intended to promote social dialogue if it feels the transposition falls short of what is legally required.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times