Continental shift: Europe’s unions and students unite

A report published less than two weeks ago by the prominent international free-market body the OECD argued strongly for wide-scale government investment in young people. The news should have hit the headlines. But the publication, Off to a good start? Jobs for Youth has been almost completely ignored by the mainstream press. The organisation which usually campaigns against any increase in government spending is now backing a massive programme of investment across Europe and other developed nations.

Youth unemployment across Europe has doubled in the past few years – from 20% to 40% in Spain, 10% to 30% in Ireland, and double the national figure for unemployment in the UK, at 19%. These are difficult times to be young. And in Cornwall, where unemployment is admittedly fairly low, opportunities outside of further and higher education still remain limited. Moreover, with some of the lowest wages in England it is hard to keep above the poverty line even if one does find a job. This is on top of the problems of accommodation and travel, particularly bad in the county. With housing benefit being cut, it is going to be even harder for young people to find a place to live.

But with the OECD’s apparent temporary break-off from free-market dogma, the EU has stuck to its worn-out deficit-hawk rhetoric. Youth training schemes work incredibly well in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, and it is time for other European nations to follow suit. The EU summit last week was dominated by the right-wing, a vociferous bunch in terms of economic policy who have backed the EU’s ‘Stability and Growth Pact’, which puts sanctions on countries not slashing public spending at a ‘fast enough rate’. The sanctions are then increased if the initial demands are ignored. This false reasoning adds debt to countries already deeply in debt for the sake of fiscal conservative ideology.

Are we to see a shift towards a more Keynesian approach in the coming years? Investment, along with general taxation, is going to be the most effective way of restoring economic stability in Europe. The programmes of austerity already being implemented in Greece and Ireland are causing untold levels of unrest, unemployment and instability. Unions all over the continent need to become much more active in the fight against austerity, and what we’ve been seeing in France is a welcome start. If France, with such a small percentage of workers unionised, can get 3.5m out into the streets to tackle the government’s proposals, then Britain certainly can. Public sector unionisation is at 60% in the UK – more than enough to shock the government to its core. Len McCluskey’s call for a general strike in the Guardian a few days ago should not be disregarded. Unison and GMB need to follow suit and speak out against the cuts with a radical voice. For too long unions have been frightened of challenging the government. Coordinated action, supported by local and national anti-cuts campaigns and the growing student movement, has the power to overturn the disastrous and malicious fiscal policies of the coalition. Remember: Heath was ousted in 1974 largely because of unions. With much lower union membership now, it’s going to be harder: but this time, workers have the students on their side.

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Read Counterfire’s excellent summary of the past month in student action here.

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