Union responses

MAP. PEASANT ACTION MOVEMENT

a.

The question is what is growing or shrinking.

Infinite growth is, of course, a view of the mind; humor dislodges the practical contradiction.

When a tree stops growing, it dies, but any animal or agricultural organism stops growing when it has reached its balance, its optimum.

The decrease in the number of farms is very worrying for us because it reflects the loss of our Food Sovereignty; modern man knows less and less the farmer who knows how to ally himself with the forces of nature, where and how what feeds him is elaborated. This umbilical cord that connects us to the source of all life is broken and the carbon civilization is coming to an end…

The growth of agro-ecology represents for us the solution. The holistic study of agroecosystems is becoming an interdisciplinary practice capable of transforming food systems. It is a powerful tool and a real social movement in some countries, which puts the farmer at the center of the process to grow Food Sovereignty.

In our opinion, this third revolution will no longer be industrial, it will be truly ecological.

b.

Most of the production in our industrialized countries is effectively non-wonderful and will have to adapt to a regime in the context of a post-oil economy. This is a physical, ecological and ethical necessity, since it is the countries that pollute the least that feel the effects of climate change first.

This implies, at the technical level, reducing and reorienting production in the very short term towards small-scale, diversified, relocalized autonomous systems based on ecological knowledge and know-how, which can take over when the system breaks down.

This also implies an economic transformation (cultural since wealth is distributed through ideological channels) that puts nature and thus the human being back at the center, in which real needs become a priority.

The coexistence of the two socio-economic models is problematic in agriculture because agribusiness investments are destroying the peasantry everywhere and relocation is the order of the day.

Without the political will to move away from free trade and to protect this new economy, things seem to be moving only very slowly or informally.

Protecting both sustainable peasant agriculture and consumers means for us to update a citizen regulatory body capable of internalizing costs while offering the possibility of choice.

Indeed, experience shows us that products from agro-ecological systems are all the more competitive if we take into account the true price of fossil energies and pollution, which could be soon.

But for this possibility of choice to exist tomorrow, we need to save today what can be saved from small farms and encourage the emergence of alternatives, official or not, to widen the fields of food, energy and technological autonomy… a utopia to embody today so that it can be a solution tomorrow.

c.

We are called to build new models of society… The role of the unions (and of associations in general) is to lead the struggles engaged in the field in order to make the legal-political apparatus recognize the relevance of alternative models, to change the rules of the game of cooperation and conflict. In our social democratic system, it is the action of the union that has negotiated the recognition of workers’ rights. We will remain for a long time in a dynamic of class struggle. And in our globalized economy, the strength of capitalism is matched by the weakness of trade unionism. In the European Union, for example, the practices of company relocation, social deregulation in the name of worker mobility, the maintenance of a large number of unemployed, the attacks on wages and social protection, do not find European trade union solidarity: the strongest nation states and national organizations (Germany, Spain, etc.) are in charge. This means that trade unionism must change fundamentally, adopting the idea of ecologically sustainable development and sharing the interests of all workers, including those of peasants. In this emancipatory movement, agro-ecological training is an essential task of the union, for the installation of young people in viable conditions, and for the liquidation of unemployment, with the participatory help of civil society.

For MAP, Thomas Lauwers
———-

GEA. UNITED FEDERATION OF BREEDERS’ AND FARMERS’ GROUPS

a.

If growth is based on the exploitation of natural resources (water, soil, fossil fuels, …) limited in quantity and on the natural absorption capacity of the environment (pollution), it is impossible that this growth is infinite. On the other hand, the exploitation in the respect of the renewal of the natural cycle of the resources allows a sustainable growth. It could then lead to a « climax » (a situation of equilibrium) where everyone could find what they need without consuming more than they need. The problem is the desire to accumulate, which exists in our consumerist societies that manufacture fake needs.

In agriculture, we can regenerate systems that return to equilibrium in 20 to 30 years, thanks to approaches such as agro-ecology or permaculture. Today, the growth in terms of agricultural production is based on a productivist model that weighs as much on the farmers as on the land: synthetic fertilizers and phytopharmaceutical products whose production consumes a lot of hydrocarbons, excessive mechanization of work, intensive irrigation, etc.

Those who do not perceive the stakes (and who can therefore be seen as « crazy » according to the address proposed in the question asked) cannot logically see that growth can only be cyclical.

We perceive the desire for infinite growth as irresponsible and unfair to the various actors in society, as destructive. In the agricultural sector, this logic of growth leads to an enlargement of farm structures, eliminating small farms and family structures. Then, structures that have become too large can break up into smaller entities, but then pass into the hands of multinationals. This logic is the same in the distribution sector, where we are now seeing a proliferation of « local » brands owned by large groups.

b.

It is essential to adapt production to demand and to the real needs of people. Today we live in a completely liberalized world where everything must be available to everyone at any time. This is unrealistic.

For agriculture, we consider that we must first respect the cycle of the seasons (accept that strawberry plants do not bear fruit in December…), not force nature. From this point of view, the profession of farmer and agronomist must be re-learned or reoriented after two generations of industrial unlearning.

There is not too little food, there is an incredible waste (about a third from the field to the plate on average), it is therefore necessary to put the supply in adequacy with the demand in terms of quantity, but also spatially: it is necessary to rebalance the distribution of the production, to stop the intensification in certain very productive zones and to prevent the desertification of the less competitive zones as organized by the system based on the import-export to the only profit of the balance of payments of the States and the agro-industry.

There will be no social bloodbath if human values are put back at the center of society instead of economic and profit values. That said, we can consider that the « bloodbath » has already taken place in agriculture since 80% of farms have disappeared in Europe in 50 years since the beginning of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In the Walloon Region, only 5% of farmers are under 35 years old and in Belgium, only 16% of farmers over 65 years old declare that they have a buyer. So there is a serious prospect of hyper-concentration of farms in Belgium, which is very worrying.

We must put the principle of food sovereignty at the center of the debate to give people the right and the means to access land and quality food. We need to encourage getting back to the land by evaluating whether it is better to « turn a crank or push a button all day » than to work the land! In the context of the current employment crisis, conversion to agriculture could be a real boon.

In conclusion, better sharing the fruits of production is not enough, because in addition to adapting production to needs (especially to limit waste), we must also take into account the limitation of resources for the sustainability of our society.

c.

Note that if this compromise does not survive, another model of compromise will replace it, with winners and losers…

The situation for farmers is a bit specific since they are self-employed. But there is also a relationship of domination in this sector between the work provided by the farmers and their dependence on the banks and agribusiness. In many cases, farmers become mere service providers to agribusiness (as in contract farming or integrated livestock production) and are bound by bank loans that are disproportionate to the labor force available on the farm. When the market does not provide a reasonable price to the farmer (to the point of not covering production costs!), these loans can quickly become unpayable.

Capital must be put at the service of workers, not the other way around!

The role of unions is undoubtedly to reduce inequalities by taking into account that not everyone is looking for the same thing in life, not everyone has the same needs.

Our mission is above all to defend the « weak links » of society, and to bring real support to the profession while making it aware that another agricultural model is possible. Another production system can be set up: a more autonomous system, less dependent on agro-industry and distribution, producing smaller quantities but of high quality (high added value products). We aim to regain equality according to the demand and needs of society, starting with ensuring basic needs such as food.

Sofia Baltazar and Valérie Op de beeck, for Fugéa
———-

FWA. WALLOON FEDERATION OF AGRICULTURE

a.

The Walloon Federation of Agriculture has never taken a position on the issue of growth in general.

On the other hand, as far as the agricultural sector is concerned, the question that arises is more related to the deregulated economic model in which we evolve, rather than to a question of growth in the strict sense. The FWA regrets that this economic model, which is imposed on us by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), itself subject to the WTO (World Trade Organization), pushes farmers to expand in order to keep their farms profitable.

Indeed, the progressive disappearance of market management tools subjects farmers to very strong fluctuations in the prices of agricultural raw materials. As a result, the farmer has no choice but to expand his farm to break even. Of course, diversification remains another possibility, but processing and marketing one’s products implies new investments and requires an increased workforce. Moreover, most of our citizens shop in supermarkets, and direct selling is a type of marketing that concerns only a small number of consumers.

It is therefore important to establish an economic model for agriculture that gives more weight to the producers of raw materials, both here in Europe and in other parts of the world.

b.

Agriculture produces foodstuffs that we cannot do without: access to food is one of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our sector is faced with many challenges: we have to feed an ever-growing population while responding to climate challenges. In this context, it seems difficult to envisage the future of our sector as potentially shrinking. On the other hand, it seems obvious to us that the future of agriculture at the global level will require the redevelopment of food-producing agriculture in certain regions of the world. This is particularly crucial in the deregulated economic model described above. Indeed, if the strong fluctuations of agricultural materials have a disastrous effect on the income of producers when prices are falling, the consequences are also dramatic, when prices are rising, for populations that are not self-sufficient in food production. We can thus encounter situations close to famine. This is obviously totally unacceptable.

We must also return to the question of the evolution of the number of farms in our region. In Wallonia, for example, there were nearly 38,000 farms in 1980, compared to only 14,000 today. While there was no social « bloodbath », there was a sharp decline in the number of farms and, consequently, in the number of people employed in the sector.

If we want to limit or even stop this evolution, we must inevitably return to a more regulated model, without which it will be difficult to make farms profitable enough to maintain agricultural employment in our regions.

c.

First of all, our organization is representative of self-employed workers, which makes the work context and issues very different from what they are for a labor and/or employee union.

Moreover, the situation of the agricultural sector is particular. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is indeed one of the only policies determined at the European level. The federal or regional authorities have limited influence on the framework in which we operate, since they have to translate into our Belgian or Walloon legislation guidelines that are already very precise and determined at European level. It is therefore important that our organization occupies its place in COPA, which is the committee that brings together the representative organizations of farmers in all European countries. It is there, as well as with our Belgian MEPs, that we try to influence the framework imposed on agriculture by Europe. The process is obviously complicated by the fact that the 27 member nations of the Union have very different agricultural cultures and sometimes very divergent interests.

It is also very important for our organization to be attentive to the translation of European regulations into our federal and especially regional legislation (agriculture is indeed regionalized).

As a representative organization of self-employed workers, it is obviously not our place to comment on the way in which the balance of power is evolving in the field of union-management-political power relations. Nevertheless, we are convinced that a responsible and serene dialogue is likely to ensure social peace likely to help all economic actors to get through the crisis, while respecting the rights of all parties.

Yvan Hayez, FWA General Secretary

———-

CGSLB. CENTRAL GENERAL OF FREE TRADE UNIONS OF BELGIUM

Some preliminary remarks seem desirable.

As the subject is multifaceted and requires many developments, it seems somewhat illusory to look for simple and short answers to the questions asked.

The themes addressed obviously require attention to social, environmental, economic and ethical aspects, to name but a few of the angles of approach that are essential in such a reflection. A particular difficulty lies in the fact that there can obviously be different assessments depending on the levels considered, the geopolitical contexts and the perspectives in the time scale.

It is not realistic to think that growth can be infinite everywhere, always and in all areas. However, the question is not in these terms. The issues at stake are rather the awareness of certain limits, the necessary changes and the anticipation of modifications. The equitable redistribution of the fruits of growth, the fight for human rights, respect for environmental standards and the International Labour Organization are all essential factors to be taken into account. This can and should lead to changes in consumption and open up new perspectives in research and development as well as in production.

The development of services, particularly in the area of personal assistance, must be a constant concern. Indeed, huge social needs are not currently being met.

Faced with these changes and new challenges, trade unions have an extremely important role to play. The notions of sustainable development and decent work must be fully integrated into their actions and demands. It would be naive to think that changes can always be made without difficulty and that there are absolutely ideal solutions for everything. This is why it is essential to ensure fair transitions. Workers do not have to suffer the consequences of lack of anticipation or industrial creativity. Measures to accompany the changes must be implemented.

It would be irresponsible to gradually give up an industrial capacity in Europe. This should not prejudice development in other parts of the world. Complementarities must be further accentuated while ensuring the improvement of occupancy conditions. The Decent Work Agenda sets out the principles for progress.

The unrestrained pursuit of profit maximization has caused serious social damage, but other causes can also generate specific difficulties. While green jobs certainly represent an important potential for a different and sustainable development, it must be recognized that, for example, the introduction of stricter environmental standards can sometimes also have a negative impact on existing employment. This is likely to lead to forms of job « displacement ». Workers have a right to expect support in these situations, particularly through retraining or new skills acquisition assistance. Letting the environment deteriorate is certainly not an acceptable option.

Some of the above is based on resolutions passed by the Liberal Union at its February 15, 2008 Convention. The following resolution is appropriate to the context evoked by the questions:

The CGSLB is fully aware of the importance of an efficient economy. However, the latter must be a source of well-being for society as a whole, not just for a privileged few. Workers must benefit equitably from the fruits of their labor and from economic growth. Industrial, commercial and service activities, and in general all economic development, must be beneficial and favourable to all. It must not be at the expense of workers and populations, anywhere in our country, in Europe or in the world.

Other resolutions of the congress « Our social liberalism » could certainly also find their place in the reflection. In short, for the Liberal Union, it is a question of controlling growth, but not of denying its importance for development. Since truly credible alternatives are lacking, the focus must be on social and environmental corrections.

The European Trade Union Confederation, of which the CGSLB is a member, has of course dealt with points that are relevant to the issue in question. Examples include some of the considerations related to the « EU 2020 » strategy or the resolution on anticipating change and restructuring, adopted by the ETUC Executive Committee in March 2012. The ETUC’s view on the strategy for new skills and jobs (25 November 2010) can also be found here. The Liberal Union also sees fit to mention the recent opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on « Smart and Inclusive Growth » (19 September 2012).

These various documents emphasize the importance of choices for the future but do not question the search for growth as such.

To conclude, it is clear that the crisis is causing enormous difficulties and generating countless social dramas. This situation makes the challenges even greater. In this context, the role of trade unions is essential. In the immediate future, this includes opposing austerity policies and acting firmly in favor of stimulus measures.

Bernard Noël, national secretary of the CGSLB

———-

FGTB. GENERAL FEDERATION OF LABOUR OF BELGIUM

a.

I don’t know if the person who believes that growth can be infinite in a finite world is a fool or an economist, but I would say that a society based on an infinite growth model is a dangerous paradigm, especially for future generations.

And this is not the FGTB’s social project.

FGTB defends, among other things, but above all, a more egalitarian society. However, we know how much, especially since the 2008 crisis, the capitalist financial model is damaging the social level, the most economically fragile being the first victims. But the consequences are just as disastrous for the environment and for the real economy. We do not want this project for social workers and recipients.

Let’s not forget that they have already paid for a financial crisis for which they were not responsible. They bailed out the banks.

Today, austerity is on their doorstep with its share of wage moderation, questioning of the index (the object of the interprofessional negotiations of the Group of 10) and the linking of social benefits to the cost of living, and budget adjustments.

What workers are asking for is a model of society that creates sustainable, quality jobs so that the basic needs of everyone can be met. It is not a question of those who already have everything they need to consume more and more, but rather to share more of the cake of wealth, which is constantly increasing, along with inequalities.

In this respect, taxation is an essential tool for the redistribution of wealth; it is urgent to correct this and to set up a fairer taxation system where everyone contributes according to their real possibilities.

b.

We will not escape either. On the one hand, we need to better share the fruits of production and, at the same time, prepare ourselves for a transition that will have to be fair and leave no one behind. We are facing a real challenge of Solidarity.

And creativity will be required.

It is today that we must reflect, together, on new balances that can be sustainable, guarantee a real quality of life, support quality jobs, while maintaining our model of social dialogue and strong social security for all.

A first step surely lies in the evolution of current jobs towards more respect for environmental standards as well as the greening of the real economy, which must allow the creation of quality productions (including lesser ones) and the setting in motion of a (non-capitalist) social model that « moralizes » the economy, ousts speculation, places the worker and the social recipient at the center of political and economic interests, while respecting our environment.

c.

What is certain is that a change of course is essential. In what form, with what name? This will depend on the responsibilities and political choices of each person.

The role of the unions is crucial today. They remain, and this is valid for our other Belgian colleagues, federal organizations that keep the general interest as their number one objective. They are also an indispensable indicator of what is happening on the ground, in the companies, which many employers (especially multinationals) and managers are not/no longer aware of.

Trade unions are a major bulwark against the insecurity caused by the defenders of financial capitalism and will continue to play a central role in defending and guaranteeing the values of the future: a sustainable model that brings happiness to all and an end to inequality.

Thus, FGTB has always defended public services tooth and nail, because they are, in essence, a tool for redistributing wealth. Services to people and their expansion certainly represent one of the spearheads of a new model that will have to carry within it a new way of living together, where the link will have a determining place.

Anne Demelenne, General Secretary of the FGTB

———-

CNE. NATIONAL EMPLOYEES’ CENTRAL

a.

The NEC’s positions on growth were taken at the 2010 Congress after lengthy debates with hundreds of activists (the italics are quotes from the decisions of that Congress). They can be summarized as a refusal to consider GDP growth as a desirable objective for our rich countries. Neither the instrument of measurement (GDP), nor the increase of the measured quantity (the addition of market exchanges) seems to us to be able to contribute to solving the essential problems that we face. And, of course, some components of growth have more threats and drawbacks than benefits.

« We challenge the idea that economic growth, understood as growth in gross domestic product, is the main condition for development, at least in the rich countries. Although it has allowed real progress in the past, economic growth is now coming up against ecological and social limits and has not prevented the deterioration of the working and living conditions of a large part of the population.

However, the debate is often degraded by caricatures or polemics. Divorcing from the « religion of growth » has not led the NEC to espouse the objective of degrowth — it is difficult to see how an instrument whose meaning (GDP) is challenged when the religion of growth is criticized can suddenly become a good instrument again if it is to advocate the opposite. The CNE is therefore calling for development policies

-sustainable economy, « growth agnostic » and oriented towards well-being and equality. Neither the growth of GDP, nor its decrease, can constitute in itself sufficient objectives to orient the activity of a society.

« A sustainable economy requires democratic development policies: that control, limit or prohibit certain activities, or practices likely to harm Humanity, that strongly regulate strategic sectors (financial, energy, transport, construction sectors…), that invest massively in other sectors, such as services and care for people, education, culture and public media with a view to forming citizens critical of the society of consumerism, competition and lucre that take into account the objectives of full employment. »

Of course, « well-being » remains an open notion; but the interest and the difficulty of repudiating GDP as the only compass and the only objective reside in the need to make the development of human activities a political issue again. What to produce? In what quantity? Where is it? How do you do it? To all these questions, the current model has only one answer, which does not require any debate: the markets will decide, based on maximizing growth. (Or more precisely, capital accumulation — but I’ll come back to that later). All these questions should be answered by a truly democratic society on the basis of a deliberation on what best contributes to equality and well-being, within given natural limits. (« The economic system is integrated into a social, natural and physical environment. ») However, taking into account these limits (non-renewable natural resources, polluting emissions, etc.), it is necessary to think that in our rich societies we must be prepared to increase well-being and equality in a « stationary » economy.

Finally, these new objectives call for new instruments, i.e. alternative (or complementary) indicators to GDP. It is not enough for such indicators to be defined (they already are!); they must also be used in public policies… and in collective bargaining.

So « infinite growth » is, for the CNE, neither desirable nor possible. However, there are obviously activities, skills and services that could be developed indefinitely — without burdening natural resources or polluting. More science, more culture, more care for children and the elderly, more care for nature, will always be welcome…

We want the effective transition to a sustainable economy. Such an economy must prioritize the growth of well-being for all, the eradication of poverty and the improvement of the environment through the rebalancing of the distribution of the wealth produced in favor of social needs and the collective reduction of working hours.

b.

We doubly refuse to answer the question in this form. First, because there can be no satisfactory answer to a question about « growth » or « production » understood as an indistinct aggregate. If you lump gasoline consumption in traffic jams with basic education (two components of GDP ‑among a thousand others), then don’t ask us to comment on that bag. Therefore, if we talk about « fruits of production », we have to open the bag, and sort out the rotten or toxic fruits, and the ones we want to have again.

The other reason to reject the question in this form is that it seems to indicate that we should choose between « sharing » and « reducing »: yet one of the factors of the frenzy to sell and consume is inequality (see Tim Jackson’s book, or « The spirit level »): a part of consumption is « positional », it serves the « poor » to try to catch up with the (still elusive) standards of « social distinction » — and it serves the companies to sell to people who don’t have the money to buy them things they don’t need…

Therefore, for us, the priority remains the most equal sharing of the goods necessary for the development of all — but it is also clear that natural constraints impose the reduction of certain activities. This position thus differs from the classic « Fordist compromise », which was that unions were content to share in the fruits of growth, whatever those fruits were.

As for the sub-question « how to avoid a social bloodbath » if we reduce (part of) the activity, the answer of the CNE is in 4 letters: RDTT. The collective reduction of working time, without a reduction in wages and with the creation of compensatory jobs, is one of the best achievements of the workers’ movement; it has always been justified by productivity gains (which make it possible to produce as much while working less), and by the double objective of « working all » and « living better ». A third objective makes this RTDT more urgent from now on: the accompaniment of economic policies not boosted by growth and respectful of the limits of nature, which requires that employment be shared.

c.

It is obvious that the increase in the amount of monetary wealth has served as a « lubricant » for the system: as long as the cake grows, compromises are possible, which do not take anything away from anyone. Apparently … For an intrinsic limit of this model lies in the very mechanics of accumulation: while the wealth distributed in the form of wages (in the broadest sense: social protection is obviously also a wage!) is consumed and constantly recycled in exchanges, the part of the wealth that goes to profit accumulates over time, constituting capital that is increasingly an instrument of power.

Note that this reasoning does not apply only to growth in the usual sense of the word: any extension of the perimeter of accumulation produces the same « pacifying » effect: plundering the Third World (and nature), invading the economies of the former Eastern bloc countries, or privatizing public services, allows the quantity of « shareable » wealth to increase — and thus to continue the accumulation of capital at a sustained pace without coming into frontal conflict with the workers.

« Globalization in the service of capital accumulation is not compatible with our fundamental rights.

The CNE reaffirms its conviction that globalization in its current form is incompatible with a sustainable economy, with the defense of public and non-market services, and with the development of social and economic democracy. »

The few decades that this « Fordist compromise » has been in operation have allowed considerable social progress — starting with the generalization of social security and public services — but without decisively reducing the hold of capital. With the crisis of the 1970s, the neo-liberal revolution of 1980 reversed this progress and considerably accelerated the accumulation and concentration of capital.

The growing and now urgent pressure of environmental constraints would require that it is now capital that makes important « compromises », and that the only priority that currently drives society — capital accumulation — gives way to other priorities (see above). It is unlikely, however, that the mere natural goodness, or the mere bad conscience, of the large holders of capital will induce them to give up a significant part of their accumulated power. Another compromise is needed … but who can believe that it will not be achieved through conflict?

1FelipeVan Keirsbilck, General Secretary of the CNE

The CNE is part of the CSC and responds here on behalf of the movement.

  1. Voir « Prospérité sasn conflit?» sur le site d’Econosphères: www.econospheres.be/
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