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EU: European Trade Unions Hold Congress In Prague

European trade unionists are meeting in Prague to discuss new pressures on working conditions caused by the eastwards enlargement of the European Union, and by factors like the aging of working populations. As RFE/RL reports, the meeting comes amid a wave of strikes across the continent.

Prague, 27 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The problems facing trade unions and organized labor in Central and Eastern Europe are among the themes under discussion at the European Trade Union Confederation's (ETUC) congress now taking place in Prague.

The congress in the Czech capital brings together hundreds of unionists from both Eastern and Western Europe. Outgoing ETUC chairman Emilio Gabaglio opened the 10th congress with a warning that relatively high levels of social protection currently enjoyed by European workers should not be taken for granted. Gabaglio said that an increasing number of employers were under the influence of neo-conservative theories, and considered the European social model "obsolete."

As Pierre Mascomer, a spokesman for the EURESA group of union-linked mutual insurance companies puts it, the social model is under pressure from a wide range of forces.

Mascomer said this is especially true in certain countries, "because the forces of the market or ultra-liberal ideas have much more strength than before, and the social security system which is in place is dwindling fairly quickly."

Their comments come amid an unusually large wave of industrial action in a number of continental countries. Hundreds of thousands of workers have been staging demonstrations and strikes in France and Austria to protest pension reforms which will raise the retirement age and in some cases reduce benefits. Governments say the reforms are necessary because of aging populations, which means fewer active workers will have to support more retirees.

In eastern Germany, steel workers have voted for a strike to press demands for a reduction in their working hours. In Slovakia, teachers are set to demonstrate tomorrow while in Sweden the main local government is considering a strike over pay demands.

In most established EU member states, the trade union movement remains strong. For instance, in Austria the government is facing the possibility that it may fall over the pensions issue. The French government is also aware that the message from the streets cannot be ignored.

But in Eastern Europe, the union movement is not so strong. The reason for this lies in such factors as the discrediting of unions in the Marxist era, when they were used as a front by the communist parties. In addition, since the fall of communism, a spirit of individuality and individual effort has been the ruling mood.

A study by the Dublin-based European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions shows that whereas 43 percent of the labor force in EU states is unionized, only 34 percent are on average in the 10 EU candidate states.

The Prague congress is in part an attempt to rally the Eastern workers. As Albert Riedinger, a spokesman for the group known as the Interregional Trade Union Councils, puts it, "Unions from the new [candidate] EU members are already here [at the congress]. Even if some have only observer status, they are linked to the ETUC and will benefit from the experience and cooperation at this congress in order to improve the working and pay conditions of their members in the new member states."

Another official from the same organization, Katrin Distler, says employers are using the lower pay and conditions prevailing in the eastern candidates to put pressure on unionists seeking more pay in the West.

"We are experiencing it everywhere in Europe: that discussions are taking place at which unions are put under pressure to accept a leveling of pay rates downwards. But we are not prepared to accept that," Distler says.

Distler throws doubt on the usual scenario that the future earning power of highly paid workers in Western Europe is threatened by a prospective flood of cheap labor from the Eastern candidate countries.

"We heard yesterday at the congress for instance, that more Germans work in the Czech Republic now than the reverse. That means, it's not clear whether this danger to pay and social conditions really exists," Distler says.

Attending the Prague congress is the head of the Convention on the Future of Europe, Valery Giscard D'Estaing.

D'Estaing, a former French president, noted in a speech the challenge posed to the unions by the eastwards enlargement, but also the triumph of the occasion.

"So for the first time in our long history, Europe will be united, and united by peaceful means. But the size of this enlargement, or what I call the 'number effect' -- meaning the growth in a few short years from six [original EU members] to certainly 25 and probably 27 members, imposes a profound review of the mechanisms of the EU institutions," Giscard D'Estaing said.

He added that his convention is working to produce a constitution for the EU which will make it more transparent and democratic. He also said the EU and the trade-union movement share many core values regarding social justice. The draft constitution will be officially presented to EU leaders next month.