#ETUC19 Congress - Opening speech by Luca Visentini, ETUC General Secretary

Luca Openin Speech

#ETUC19 Congress - Opening speech by Luca Visentini, ETUC General Secretary


Dear comrades and friends,

Dear delegates and colleagues,

Esteemed authorities,

It’s a great pleasure to welcome all of you to the 14th Congress of the European Trade Union Confederation!

We convene our Congress few days before the European elections and at a very critical moment for Europe and working people – these elections will be a turning point either for more social Europe, or towards the decline of the European Union.

The European Union and our democracy are under-attack.

We see the rise of far-right, nationalist and even neo-fascist parties – and we are very worried by what is happening in Hungary, in Poland, in my own country Italy, in France, in the UK with Brexit, with AFD in Germany, with Vox in Spain, and the list goes on.

We are very worried about the anti-labour and anti-trade unions’ policies implemented by the Austrian government – and this is the reason why we have decided, together with the ÖGB, the Austrian trade union confederation, to hold our Congress in Vienna – to show the solidarity of the entire European movement to our colleagues, to support their struggle against the Austrian far right government.

We are of course very happy to see this government collapsing and that Austria will go soon to elections – but it’s not reassuring that this happens because of corruption.

We perfectly know that many far-right parties are corrupted and very often influenced by countries and forces outside the EU, which want the European project to dissolve.

But at the same time, we would hope that the far-right governments fall down because of their wrong policies and hatred-based rhetoric – that people react in each and every country against fascism and xenophobia, in defence of democracy and social justice.

Where these parties get to power, human and democratic rights are put at risk: the freedom of speech, the freedom of media and press, the rule of law, the right not to be discriminated on the basis of belief, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation.

But also, social rights are threatened, first and foremost the freedom of association, of organising and of collective bargaining – which are also foundations of democracy.

We should not underestimate wide-spread populism, nationalism and xenophobia and the problems that are behind them.

We often see these negative sentiments growing among workers, even among our members – but we would make a huge mistake if we blamed them for this, on the contrary we have a responsibility to understand the causes.

We have to look at the scars left by the crisis – unemployment, inequality, poverty and social exclusion affect people’s trust in the future.

We have to give people their future back – a future for workers of today and their children – a future where everyone can have a decent job, a living wage, access to equal rights and protection, to quality housing, health care and education and training.

This is the European social model, that we have been proud of for decades.

The European democracy is at risk because the EU has lost its social soul – but it’s not enough to talk about democracy and social rights, we must put forward a better and more convincing vision than the extremists.

A vision for a better and prosperous future that benefits all, not the few.

We see some positive developments in recent months, with progressive forces keeping the extreme right out of government through a democratic coalition in Sweden, in Spain, and hopefully in Finland, Denmark, Belgium and Poland.

This is exactly what we want to see in the next European Parliament: a coalition of democratic and pro-European parties coming together for building a fairer Europe – and the conservative parties not getting into an affair of convenience with the far-right.

That’s why we have mobilised working people on the eve of the European elections – and delivered a strong message to all democratic parties.

Our message is that we want them to increase their efforts to build a more democratic, fairer and more socially just Europe – our message is that the European Union will survive only if it will be able to deliver concrete results, which can make a positive difference to people’s lives.

The ETUC have put these values and proposals in our programme for the elections and at the core of our Congress debate.

We call for a fairer Europe for workers – as our Congress’ slogan says – based on democracy & social justice, quality jobs and higher wages, just transitions to a low-carbon and digital economy.

We call for a renewed social contract for Europe.

The social contract that has been broken by the crisis and austerity – by exploiting and playing workers against each other – by giving economic freedoms more importance than social rights: undermining the nature of the European social market economy.

We want to change all this – we want to build up our Social Contract again.

We have achieved some important results for social Europe during the current mandate.

That’s thanks to the push from the trade unions, but we have also to acknowledge the significant change made by the Juncker Commission.

Thank you Jean-Claude, because you have shown that Europe can be a force for social progress – and because you have helped us in rescuing social Europe when it almost died following the crisis, during the wasted years of austerity, and at the hands of the neo-liberal Barroso Commission.

We have obtained more investment for quality job creation and to fight against unemployment.

The Juncker plan was not the extraordinary plan for public and social investment we still demand, but it has been a good beginning to mobilise private finance to support the economy. The next Commission needs to build on this plan to deliver more direct and public investment and the necessary social improvement.

Now we need different economic policies that, instead of austerity and cuts, boost sustainable growth for all citizens, that prioritise social needs and not only corporate demands. 

Thanks to our campaign for a Pay Rise for European workers, we have kickstarted wage increases in Europe, with our affiliates achieving higher minimum wages and negotiations leading to positive agreements.

We need better wages for all, to tackle inequalities and boost sustainable growth – with the EU & MS supporting, not undermining or preventing, collective bargaining between employers & unions.

That’s why, in just one month after Congress in Bucharest, we are launching an initiative for a partnership involving European and national institutions and social partners, to strengthen collective bargaining, boost upward wage convergence in all countries and deliver a living wage for all European workers wherever they live.

During the current term we have relaunched social dialogue, through a joint initiative with the European Commission and Council – but overall thanks to the capacity of social partners to leave aside their conflicts and start meaningful negotiations which led to several common commitments, partnerships, agreements and – last but not least – to the new Work Programme, which will soon make it possible to open a negotiation on digitalisation.

We see three challenges on social dialogue for the future: to make it real in all Member States, especially those that exclude social partners from their decision-making – to convince our employer counterparts to engage with us to make the European economic governance and Semester more social – and to make sure that all social partners’ agreements are transposed into legislation according to the Treaty.

We are calling on the Commission to stop blocking our affiliates’ Social Partner Agreements, particularly the one on Information and Consultation Rights for Workers in Central Government – and we ask your support for our emergency motion later today.

The most important achievement of the last period is for sure the European Pillar of Social Rights – which at the beginning was announced as a mere wishful thinking paper, but that has then been implemented through a number of new important European legislative and non-legislative initiatives – including the revision of the Posting of Workers Directive, the new directives on Work-life Balance and Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions, the establishment of the European Labour Authority, new legislation on Carcinogenic Substances and Whistleblowing.

We are very proud of all this, since it was more than a decade that no new social legislation was delivered at EU level – this is the result of our pressure and negotiations – but we have also to thank President Juncker, Commissioner Thyssen, the European Parliament and its rapporteur Maria João Rodrigues, the governments that have supported it, and first and foremost all of you colleagues – who have mobilised to make such a success possible.

Now that we have the Pillar, we have to keep fighting for its implementation – through social governance and sound legislation at all levels – so to achieve real upward convergence in all countries on social rights, working conditions and social protection – and granting access to it to all workers, including precarious, non-standard and self-employed.

There are other very important things still to be done.

A proactive management of climate action and digitalisation – so that no one is left behind.

An industry policy for Europe, able to protect our economy and jobs from unregulated globalisation and trade wars.

A reform of EU company law, competition law and workers’ participation, which removes obstacles to freedom of association, collective bargaining and democracy at work.

A future of work where all workers, including non-standard and self-employed, can enjoy equal rights, equal remuneration and equal protection.

And last but not least – fair mobility and migration, putting an end to the scandal of closed borders and fences – and implementing a fair and inclusive labour mobility  and migration policy in Europe, based on solidarity and respect of human rights, on integration and full equal treatment for all.

Not in all member states do trade unions and social partners have the capacity to achieve all this.

That’s why we need to establish frameworks and capacity building tools at EU level that, while respecting well-functioning national practices, can help those who are lagging behind.

That’s why we need institutions and employers to understand that without fairness and inclusion, without redistribution and equality – in society and in the labour market – we cannot make growth robust, stable and sustainable.

We want everybody to understand that our social market economy is not based on business and competition only, neither on public budget constraints and cuts – it is first and foremost based on labour, on the value of labour.

These are our vision, strategy and demands for the future – this is what we stand for.

The European trade union movement is strong and vital – and where we have been challenged it was because of the crisis and the austerity policies that have destroyed million jobs, and because of interference by institutions to undermine and dismantle our capacity to organise and to deliver collective bargaining and social dialogue.

Defending trade union rights, building trade union power and organising are therefore top priorities for the ETUC – and in the next four years we will continue implementing the actions we have already launched during the current term.

Many keep repeating trade unions are out of date, old fashion organisations not capable of interpreting the changes in society and in the labour market – in reality, trade unions are a foundation stone of democracy, and we build on this by driving a trade union renewal.

Our battles and campaigns for democracy at work, for organising the new forms of work – the reforms of our internal structures, to make them more effective and representative by including mobile and migrant workers, women and youth, every category of workers and especially those at the margins – this is trade union renewal.

And by the way, this is the first fully gender balanced ETUC congress ever.

At the same time, we need to keep strengthening our negotiating power, our influence on institutional and legislative decision making, our capacity to mobilise on the street and organise in the workplace.

The trade union movement is very diverse – different models and practices exist between North and South, East and West.

But we are not paralysed by our differences, as happens too often in the European Council with heads of state and government – our pluralism is our richness, our added value, that allows us to join forces and to exchange practices, to become stronger in solidarity and action.

Our Congress is the final moment of months of analysis and discussion – and I’m very proud that we have been able to come to joint and common strategies and priorities for the future.

I’m sure that out of three and a half days of debate, thanks to your contribution, delegates and affiliates, and to the input from our guests – we will build a strong and united ETUC, able to address the huge challenges of the future of working people across Europe.

We have four years of hard work behind us – and four crucial and exciting years ahead of us.

Together, we will win our battle – together we will deliver:

A Fairer Europe for Workers!

Thank you very much and have a great congress!


We have four years of hard work behind us – and four crucial and exciting years ahead of us.
Together, we will win our battle – together we will deliver: A Fairer Europe for Workers!