Europe is slowly recovering from the financial crisis of 2008. Fighting this crisis has imbued huge costs on the European citizenry. In order to save financial institutions and even complete national economies, governments increased budgetary deficits, thus enlarging public debt, and took the path of austerity. Unemployment went up, in some countries to extreme levels. The crisis exacerbates the already existing trend where more wealth is accumulated by a smaller top section of (global) society and disposable income decreases for the lower and middle classes. Further on, the necessary care for an aging population puts strains on public finances, whereas high youth unemployment hinders seriously the development of a new generation that can contribute to the society of tomorrow.
Our times resemble those at the end of the 19th century when in 1891 the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum was published. Catholic and Protestant leaders addressed the structural problems of capitalism and broadened the basis for a labour movement. Their answer then was the dialogue, and not the fight, between labour and capital. Thus the idea of social dialogue was introduced and it became the main characteristic of the European interpretation of capitalism: the Rhineland model or the social market economy.
Now, 125 years later, the question is again on the top of the agenda: are there structural flaws in our economic and social order? Growth is recovering, but who is going to benefit? While astonishing amounts have been spent to drip feed a staggering financial system, little seems to be left at present for fighting unemployment, nor for guaranteeing decent care for everyone. Most pervasive, economic growth before 2008 was partly bought by debts and financial constructions – it was growth that does not originate in productive labour.
This is our paramount reality at the moment, but it is not the exclusive reality. Just like 125 years ago labour unions were formed, housing societies, organisations for care and social services, to address the needs of the workers, nowadays there are also people who participate in workers’ organisations and work towards a different society of solidarity and dialogue. Essential for these initiatives is that the bonds of solidarity and dialogue are often of a global nature.
There are two major challenges for the social dialogue: unemployment and especially the high youth unemployment, and the future of the welfare state. This is about participation and solidarity, and avoiding exclusion and apathy.
Governments guarantee a minimally decent life with the provisions of the welfare state, protecting the person against the mishaps of life. The overall aim is that everyone can participate in the society. Work and a salary are improving the self-esteem of the worker and are encouraging his participation as member of society. In times of austerity, it has become clear that the welfare state has grown into a system that often incapacitates individual and private initiatives under one sided government rules. A new social dialogue is necessary where society and government work together to reinstate arrangements by and for citizens that offer protection, embody solidarity, and engage people.
A company is a community in which labour and capital work together – that insight was central to the part of the labour movement that finds its origin in 1891. It is still valid today. It is vital that employees are treated as creative and responsible persons who are stimulated and supported to further develop their talents, their creative, social and moral capacities.
Workers are to be treated as moral persons, work is to contribute to their development as human beings; they are not disposable assets in a race for more profitability for the sake of profitability. At company level, social dialogue should bring together employers’ and employees’ representatives and strengthen the principle of mutual respect.
Generally, the social dialogue has to take control over the markets and financial institutions so that they are realigned towards serving the common good.
The social dialogue has no borders. Failing societies elsewhere put pressure on European societies: pollution, degradation of the environment, climate change, labour conditions elsewhere are all influencing the labour and living conditions of the European workers. A global social dialogue is necessary. Our European lifestyle should not be continued at the expense of people’s health and living environment elsewhere; workers elsewhere are to enjoy the same humanizing labour conditions as are to be provided for European workers.