4th EMCEF (European Mine, Chemical and Energy Workers' Federation) Congress

Prague, 11/06/2008

To be checked against delivery

Hubertus, friends and colleagues.

It is always a pleasure to come to the Congress of EMCEF and to this historic city of Prague. Prague is commemorating the 40th anniversary of the famous Prague Spring of 1968, when the flames of freedom and liberty swept through the city and the country, only to be cruelly extinguished shortly afterwards by the forces of repression.

By holding your congress here at this time in the new, democratic Europe, you honour the memory of the martyrs of the Prague Spring and today, we salute their memory.

It is also good to see EMCEF again. In most countries, the chemical industries are the most heavily unionised sector in the private sector, and chemicals is a sector which generally has high quality collective agreements and a long tradition of social partnership.

There are historical reasons for this – some due to sophisticated union approaches to complex and dangerous technologies; others due to a recognition by leading employers in the industry of the importance of partnership working and decent conditions of pay and employment.

It’s not all happy families of course. I grew up under the shadow of a giant dye works in north Manchester. In those far-off days, knowledge of good environmental standards and occupational health was sketchy. The river was the colour of whichever dye was being made that day. I and the other local children used to think that all rivers ran in technicolour.

And we realised too that while wages were good, there was a high incidence of bad health among the workers and in the local community. Even today, life expectancy rates in the area round the works are below the national or European average.

And that brings me to my first theme today – the environment. The chemical industries, like other heavy industries, face huge challenges. Last time I was with you, we were debating the REACH regulations which remain a difficult question for the industry.

But before that issue has been tackled completely and successfully, the debate has moved on to carbon emissions and the new tough EU standards and targets. I don’t want to get technical but I challenge anyone who believes that the targets are unnecessary. They are, I believe, essential, not some sort of option that we can have the luxury of rejecting. The world is warming up with potentially disastrous consequences for all of us, especially the young and future generations.

The Al Gore film – An Inconvenient Truth – tells the story powerfully and well.

Some in the heavy carbon emission sectors choose to ignore the facts and indeed to rubbish the science. They are at best deluded and, at worst, cynical and dishonest. The science is inconvenient but it is true.

So now the challenge to us is to face the truth and to act together. But while the USA and others ignore the inconvenient truth, how do we do this without putting European industry at a competitive disadvantage?

Meeting the carbon emissions targets will be difficult and expensive. The temptation therefore must be for companies to put their new investments outside the EU in lower standard countries, a step which harms Europe while doing nothing for environmental improvement.

So how do we handle that? From the ETUC, we are arguing for a carbon levy on products imported into the EU from countries which do not meet EU standards. We are being accused of being protectionist – and to that charge I plead guilty. We are protectionist of the environment. The world does not gain if production shifts to low standard countries. And the EU which is still one third of the world’s economy can enforce good standards not just within the EU but across the world.

And we are being protectionist too of EU jobs. If we allow heavy industries and many others to emigrate to low standard countries, we lose jobs and competitiveness. A carbon levy can help protect us from that threat and press the USA, among others, which is 27 % of the world economy by the way, less than us, to follow our high standards.

We have not won this argument yet. The European Commission have said that a carbon levy is under review and is a possibility but not necessary yet. Many companies in the EU don’t like it because it will impede their freedom to locate when they like. On this issue, the interests of the companies do not coincide with ours.

So there is much work to be done and I look forward to working with EMCEF on these questions.

Hubertus, I want to touch briefly on two other subjects. The first is European Works Councils. I have just come from a ETUC conference on EWCs in Brussels where 300 trade unionists have been debating how to strengthen the workers’ voice in large multinational and the trade union role in them. The chemical industry is an important centre of many EWCs and we need EMCEF’s strong support for our campaign.

When the Commission published its proposals, the employers offered to negotiate but that was a step too little and too late. They had refused to negotiate on the original Directive and then opposed any revision of the relevant directive for many years. Only when the Commission acted, belatedly, did the employers offer to negotiate. By then, there was little time available for intensive talks before this Commission’s mandate ran out. And there was no sign that they would make extensive changes in the limited time available.

So we said to them and to the Commission – you must legislate as you did originally and strengthen the worker’s voice. Normally, I prefer negotiation to legislation but, on this case, this would have been a mistake.

But now we need pressure on the European and national authorities to help us on our claims. So come on EMCEF, do all you can to help this ETUC campaign.

My final theme concerns three adverse legal judgments in the European Court of Justice – the Viking, Laval and Rüffert cases. These judgments appear to rank free movement above the fundamental right to strike with the consequence that employers are using the right to establish services whenever they like as a licence to establish them on any terms provided the very minimum conditions are observed.

As Swedish and Danish colleagues know, this is a threat to the Nordic system of collective bargaining. And as German colleagues are learning, it is a threat to agreements at the regional and länder levels.

These cases, taken together, are already having an adverse effect on union power. They have already turned some trade unionists against the new Lisbon Treaty, including, crucially in Ireland where there is a referendum on the Treaty tomorrow. And they are leading many to question whether there really is a social Europe if the free market can ride roughshod over collective agreements.

We are now seeking what we term a social progress protocol to be attached to the treaties of the EU making clear that fundamental rights are just that – fundamental, primary rights, not secondary to the single market. This will be a big fight, a tough campaign. But it is one we must win.

Hubertus, these are the questions at the top of my desk in the ETUC at the moment. They are relevant to every worker in Europe and of course to EMCEF. I look forward to continuing to work with you all in the spirit of that Prague Spring of 1968 in winning the future for free and influential trade unionism, representing powerfully the interests of all the workers of Europe.

Thank you.