The speech below by Emil Olsen was delivered at the recent 17th WFTU Congress in Durban. Olsen is a tile setter and bricklayer from Denmark and a recognized leader of young trade unionists in the WFTU.
First of all I’d like to say thanks for this fine and well-managed Congress It is a great honour for me to be here together with comrades from all parts of the world to look back upon the enormous and great work the WFTU has accomplished and the enormous progress that has been made.
We must also look forward, because all over the planet the working class has a lot on its hands – in fact, it has its hands full. From every direction, monopoly capitalism is showering the working class with attacks. From East to West, from South to North, the working class is paying a huge price for monopoly capitalism’s insatiable pursuit of profit.
Even in the so-called affluent countries one reform after another forces through cutbacks and worsened working and living conditions for the working class.
In many countries, politicians hold up the Danish welfare system as an ideal in order to gain votes in parliamentary elections. We hear that tune from politicians in Europe as well as in the USA. It is true that ordinary people in Denmark until now have enjoyed a certain measure of social welfare. This was the result of the struggles of the working class.
But it is equally true that this is now a thing of the past. Through repeated reforms, all of our fought-for social benefits – be it unemployment benefits, sickness benefits (paid sick leave), or social security – have been downgraded to such a degree that people depending on such income can only be described by the German expression, ”arm trotz Arbeit”, literally “poor despite work,” that is, ”working poor”.
Our early retirement system has been abolished, and the retirement age has been raised to 72 years for people of my generation. A large number of part-time jobs have appeared in the retail and cleaning trades and in the public sector – and in industry too, we see a rising number of temporary jobs.
The aim of these policies is to create a supply of labour that exceeds the demand because this will break down the standards of wage and working conditions safegurded until now through our collective agreements. Whatever cutbacks and reductions monopoly capitalism forces upon us, our unions just adapt themselves to the new situation and try to make the best of it – and what they hold on to is far from good enough.
To give you an exmple, our traditional ”tripartite negotiations” have just been concluded. This is a forum where our government, the employers’ association and the Danish trade unions negotiate. They make proposals, and what they can agree upon becomes an agreement.
To the government and the employers, the refugees were the main question. They wanted to let the refugees be absorbed into the labour market at ridiculously low wages. The trade unions were asked to ”shoulder their responsibility” – which they did. An agreement was drawn up according to which the many refugees – who had fled from bombs dropped on them from Danish fighter aircraft – can gain access to the labour market by way of a two-year basic vocational training at wages not even a third of what we normally get in the building trades. We were told that these wages were based on collective agreements, and it was up to us to negotiate for a better deal.
But no-one charged the past and present governments with their NATO-supporting offensive war politics which actually creates refugees. It was universally accepted that Denmark should shoulder its responsibilities by letting the working class pay the price of ”absorbing” a group of people who would become wage dumpers.
What could have been concluded instead was that in Denmark we already have an excellent model for integrating people into the labour market, namely our apprenticeship system. If skilled workers are in short supply why don’t we just train some more apprentices? This road, however, was not taken – even though it was made clear during the negotiations just mentioned that there is an enormous shortage of apprenticeship/training positions. Thousands of young people in our countries are barred from training and education.
An agreement was made with the government and the employers, specifying that 10,000 training positions (apprenticeship positions) be created by 2025. But only last week it became known that as of right now 14,000 young persons are unable to get training positions and because of this cannot complete their education. Experience shows that the trade unions in the Nordic countries will accept whatever frames the bourgoisie sets. They only work within the interests of the ruling system. This is the reason why change is needed in the established trade unions in countries like Denmark, and we have indeed tried various things.
One fact is abundantly clear: from Tokyo to Los Angeles, from Sydney to Copenhagen, only the WFTU has unequivocally taken sides with the working class. But in some places in the world it is nevertheless still hard to implement the WFTU line and its many initiatives in our trade unions.
A practical example could be seen last year when an initiative was proposed to organize an ”Action Day” in the European trade unions on April 4 against privatization and outsourcing. There was agreement on the political agenda and the proposal was taken up in a meeting in Nordic collaboration section of the EPSU, the European Federation of Public Service Unions, which is a part of the ETUC, the European Trade Union Confederation.
But the ETUC rejected the proposal solely on the grounds that the initiative had come from the WFTU unions. This shows us that sooner or later we shall have to draw the obvious conclusion: that today breaking away from the dictatorship of Capital is the only solution for the working class in its struggle for a life where all our basic needs are met, both in the short and in the long run.
Here we are not talking about some pleasant vision for the future. No, this breaking away is urgently needed for humanity already today, for nature already today, and for the coexistence of the two today and in the future!
It is crucial that we within the trade union network find the way to guide the working class to free itself from its fetters. As an old friend of ours once said, we have nothing to lose but our chains, comrades! The WFTU must be strengthened in the whole world, but there is an enormous need for it to be strengthened particularly in Europe and the so-called affluent countries.