Protesters carry a placard critical of Ryanair

Brussels, March 2019, protests against social dumping at European level - © Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

Two cases – the Right2Water campaign and the protests of Ryanair pilots – show how important transnational alliances are for the affirmation of workers' rights. We talked about it with Imre Szabo, Darragh Golden, and Graham Finlay

07/01/2022 -  Chiara Martini

(This contribution is published in the context of our TraPoCo project, dedicated to the study of transnational social mobilisation in Europe)

Transnational political disputes play a central role in the field of EU labour policies, especially due to the supranational nature of both the relevant legislation and the actors involved.

To better understand the nature and extent of these disputes and the different types of mobilisation that have developed and are developing at the European and transnational level, we interviewed Imre Szabo, Darragh Golden, and Graham Finlay, researchers at University College Dublin, who are studying two cases of transnational political actions concerning labour policies in Europe: the European Citizens' Initiative (ICE) Right2Water and the protest of Ryanair pilots.

Your research stems from the current situation of the European labour market and from the increasingly supranational nature of both the policies and legislation and of the companies that govern certain sectors. What are your studies specifically about? How did they develop?

The main focus of our studies and research is labour policies in the context of European integration, a topic that has been neglected a lot over the years. Our goal is to try to bring attention back to this area, also considering the deriving social implications.

Our analysis is mainly focused on three research areas: social rights, public services, and labour relations. We want to investigate the intertwining and relationships between them in a context of social reproduction of capitalism and with respect to the processes of commodification, de-commodification, and politicisation at the transnational level.

To understand these processes in the European context, we have distinguished two different types of integration: "vertical" integration and "horizontal" integration. When we talk about "vertical" integration we mean a "top-down" mode of intervention by a higher authority through legislation, or through treaties, regulations, and directives.

"Horizontal" integration, on the other hand, concerns the free movement of goods, capital-labour, and services within the European Union, and takes place mainly through market pressures, and competitive dynamics which may affect businesses, but also workers.

As it emerged in our case studies, "vertical" integration – such as that concerning interventions aimed at liberalising and privatising water – is more easily politicised because it identifies a precise, often institutional "goal"; on the other hand, "horizontal" integration – that is, relating to the interventions of multinational companies – presents more difficulties in the mobilisation processes, especially due to the competitiveness often internalised even by the trade unions themselves, which effectively inhibits actions at a transnational level.

In summary, the research concerns the processes of European integration and (de)commodification and transnational mobilisation campaigns in the areas of social rights (EU minimum wages), public services (right to water), and labour relations (Ryanair, transnational strike).

Labour policies are seeing increasingly vertical interventions of European governance; considering this context and this dynamic, how do trade unions and actors dealing with workers' rights respond and act? What are their goals at the local, national, and transnational level?

In the context of European labour policies, with our research and studies we try to demonstrate that "vertical" integration interventions – which we talked about earlier – have an essential role in the processes of mobilisation and politicisation of workers and people.

The "top down" dimension, typical of this type of intervention, is actually easier to politicise, because there is a clear target – which can be an institution, a directive, or a supranational body – against which to mobilise and build coalitions.

To understand and know the contents, and therefore the objectives, of the trade union actions and struggles on all levels, we must look at the content of the integration processes, at what is actually happening through integration at the European level. In fact, a process of commodification is underway through which people, as well as workers or users of public services, are pushed to function as commodities in a market logic and to develop consumerist, competitive relationships and individualistic work relationships.

This is what trade unions and workers' rights activists are trying to fight against: commodification, in favour of a de-commodification of services, labour relations, and workers themselves.

An example of how these actions are implemented is the European Citizens' Initiative (ICE) – Right2Water, one of our objects of study. In this experience we have seen how it is possible to mobilise against the commodification of a public good on a transnational level.

In order to build a successful transnational mobilisation, the European Union Federation of Public Service Workers (EPSU), which coordinated the campaign, had to rely on the support of trade unions and social movements at local and national level, otherwise it would not have had enough resources and the message would not have spread so broadly. This has shown how crucial the creation of links between the transnational, national, and local levels is.

Speaking of trade unions in a European and transnational framework, what can you tell me about the Italian situation? And, since part of your studies also focus on your context, namely the Irish one, what is the relationship between the two situations, also considering the fact that both Italy and Ireland were among the countries most afflicted by the economic crisis and by austerity policies?

Historically, the Italian trade union movement has always been characterised by a strong internationalism, rooted in a broader class vision which goes beyond national borders. Ireland, on the other hand, for historical and geographical reasons, has never seen such a strong supranational push. The basic idea was founded on anti-imperialism – which is in fact a sub-component of internationalism – but the trade union movement itself has always been very fragmented and weak.

Even at the level of vision and trust in Europe, the Italian and Irish experiences differ: the Italian trade union organisations have always been very active at the European level, while in Ireland the supranational dimension has never been present in the debate and the attention has always remained at the national level, on social partnership agreements and on local collective bargaining. However, these dynamics, in the Irish context, have changed in recent years, with the enlargement of the EU and the consequent greater mobility of the workforce.

However, the interaction between the different levels – the local, the national, and the transnational – remains extremely important. If we look again at the European Citizens' Initiative – Right2Water, it was a transnational campaign, built on the success of national initiatives, such as the Italian referendum against water privatisation. The Irish experience in this regard was particular and significant, because initially the Irish trade unions and civil society did not participate in the campaign and the collection of signatures; only later, following the troika's requests to introduce water pricing, did Ireland witness one of the largest mobilisations ever, managing to involve a wide range of actors, from local community groups to trade unions to political parties. Also in this case, it was very interesting to see the various levels (local, national, transnational) interact and dialogue with each other.

I would like to focus more on the two case studies that you followed and which you have also already mentioned, the European citizens' initiative "Right2Water" and the protests of Ryanair pilots: what are the characteristics of the two experiences? In these two paradigmatic situations, the targets of the disputes are on two different levels, on the one hand the European institutions and on the other the corporate and multinational world: what are the similarities and differences between the two experiences?

The Right2Water campaign was the first successful European Citizens' Initiative (ECI): for the first time this instrument of direct democracy, introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon, was used at the European level, with the core objective of the de-commodification of a public good, declaring at the transnational level that issues related to public services and goods – such as the right to water – are in fact issues related to human rights.

The key to the success of this initiative lies in two elements: on the one hand, the campaign was able to count on a very broad coalition of trade unions and social movements, even very different and politically distant, which ensured that the initiative was able to involve many people. On the other hand, water as a commodifiable good had been targeted by so-called "vertical" interventions, or through a directive aimed at liberalising and privatising a public good. This allowed the mobilisation to identify a clear and precise objective, both at the political level (the European Commission and EU legislation) and at the corporate level (the major players in the water market, multinationals).

Regarding the protests of Ryanair pilots, the issue and the objectives were very different. The target was in fact a multinational company, which with its 79 bases in Europe represented (and still represents) a perfect model of horizontal integration. Ryanair's efforts to block any attempt at collective bargaining for three decades had also placed other airlines under pressure and competition, inhibiting any form of transnational action in the sector. But in December 2017 a group of union-linked pilots, the European Employee Representation Committee (EERC), managed to successfully coordinate strikes across Europe, forcing Ryanair to finally recognise trade union organisations. As shown by our research, however, this would not have been possible without the mobilisation which took place in Denmark, where in 2014 the unions had sought a dialogue with the airline to discuss collective agreements. This experience shows how the contexts of “horizontal” integration are very difficult to politicise, but can also motivate and lead to the construction of transnational solidarity.

Your research also focuses on human rights and their role in this type of collective action. What are the relationships between human rights and workers' rights movements? How and when are human rights invoked and claimed?

The field of study of human rights in relation to actions for workers' rights is very interesting, because in the context of trade unions and collective bargaining there is a now dominant and sometimes problematic vision of human rights. Too often human rights are in fact seen as a kind of individual good (or rather commodity) that a person has or should have. The Right2Water initiative provides a very clear example of how mobilisation can lead to a more collective vision and a broader understanding of a right. As we read in much international human rights literature, it is essential to focus not only on the importance of obtaining a certain right, but also on the process by which the right is obtained. A process that should be characterised by transparency, responsibility, and participation, concepts that are not always easy to find in the standard understanding of human rights.

Another point of analysis concerns the ways in which human rights are called into question. If we take the question of the minimum wage, for example, we see how the right to an adequate standard of living, contained in the Social Charter, was initially invoked, without taking into account rights contained in the Charter of Fundamental Rights, such as the right to freedom of association or the right to collective bargaining. The Charter of Fundamental Rights has a completely different legal status within the European Union compared to the Social Charter and this has led to tensions, especially from a jurisprudential point of view.

Hence, our research aims to investigate and find out where and how human rights are invoked and what kind of struggles, disputes, and discussions arise around them.

In an increasingly globalised world of work and also in the light of pandemic and post-pandemic developments, what are the prospects for labour policies and trade union actions and initiatives, both locally and transnationally?

Much of the dynamics inherent in the pandemic crisis (as well as other crises, such as the economic one, which we cannot see separate) have concerned and concern the pressure placed and imposed on workers and employers, in a process of redefining what is considered an essential worker. The hope is that this has given and gives people greater bargaining power and that it will lead to a general rethinking of the way work is organised, both by society and by workers.

The pandemic and the restrictions have also highlighted the transnational quality of the supply chain of goods and workforce, across the external borders of the EU, but also within it. What we hope – but it is a very optimistic view – is that this will lead to a structural rethinking of issues such as immigration and migration policies, but also at the level of collective awareness. The European and transnational level can be a place of dispute that can really affect our lives: the resources are there, the awareness is there, the crisis is there. And people's real experiences – the negative ones, related to being exposed to Covid-19, having had to work in unsafe conditions, being paid with exploitative wages – are acting as a motivating factor.

So there are also the reasons, the reasons to change, to rethink the system and the modalities of action in this world; there is in fact a space, at a European level, for collective actions and transnational disputes.


The European Commission's support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein. The project's page Trapoco

I commenti, nel limite del possibile, vengono vagliati dal nostro staff prima di essere resi pubblici. Il tempo necessario per questa operazione può essere variabile. Vai alla nostra policy

blog comments powered by