So, I had a conversation the other day. A conversation about injustice. And I thought I’d write a little bit about it. And about my latest course.
See, I went and got elected at the union representative at my workplace. And in spite of having a constituent of less than half a dozen workers, being a union representative in Norway is a Big Deal. My previous job was at a multinational corporation down Dublin way, and if nothing else that job taught me how important workers’ rights were. Because, as temps hired on annual contracts from another multinational specializing in human resources… Well, we had fuck all rights as employees. So as a federal employee in Norway I have access to paid sick leave, a state pension, and a 37.5 hour work week. And those are just the three things I can think of. Not privileges. Rights. Still three things better than the Dublin job.
Anyway, as a union rep (the Norwegian word is tillitsmann) I suddenly spend a lot of my free time and occasionally working hours (representatives have right to paid leave for union matters and courses) learning about tariff agreements and whatnot. A couple of weeks ago I had a full working week worth of schooling. Nicknamed Tillitsmannskolen I, or Representative school (part one), we spent a week learning the history of trade unionism in Norway, agreements and negotiation processes, as well as the usual indoctrination. Now the course centre was actually built by the largest labour union in Norway (Landsorganisasjonen, 880 000 members or so), and it showed. Statues of historical unionist and Labour Party politicians (often both), paintings of street protests… It was a little bit like those political academies I always imagined political commissars in the Soviet Union went to. And not in a bad way, necessarily. It told you you had a lot of power and resources on your side. And since union dues come out of your pocket, it’s partially yours as well. Just don’t vandalise it, right?
Anyway later (after the course) I had a talk with a woman and we came onto the subject of poverty. Now I never really managed to see myself as a poor person, but things were tight growing up, it stayed tight as I studied and in my mid thirties it still takes some getting used to having more money coming in than out… (I am SO not complaining. I did live half a year in India and have seen more poverty than I need for two lifetimes. In global terms I am filthy stinking rich) And discussing how I watched with envy all the fancy people going from their expensive cars into nice suburban homes while I was biking home to the ten square feet student flat sharing a bathroom with Mr. Mystery Psycho Neighbour of the Month (I had a lot of shifting neighbours at out hall. We stopped joking about my next door flat being cursed after police dragged out the four Russian smugglers living there), Ahhh, student days. Anyway, the conversation turned to inequalities. They are real, and well visible if you are on the wrong side. And in today’s world, they are growing. But to be honest, although things are wildly unevenly divided, I am angry but not despairing. Because you can’t.
The fight today in Europe (Norway as well) is very simple: Differences in income and living standards are not only increasing, they are becoming institutionalised. In Norway things are not to bad, but growing. In Norway the difference in top salaries is about 17 times the lowest ones, in Germany the difference is 90 times… And it is clear Germany is the poster boy for pay negotiations, not Norway. The big bureaucratic patchwork known as Schengen, EFTA, the European Economic Area or simply the EU (Yes, they are all different beasts, but all connected into one Frankensteinian singularity) have weakened the rights of workers and of critical infrastructure like mail, railroad and healthcare across Europe. And when we see the Conservatives ruling neighbouring Sweden with a two-digit unemployment rate trying to undo what they did earlier, being unable to reverse their course due to EU directives overruling the country’s own laws… Things are dire. Everybody talks about the European Parliament in Brussels. And some will bash the European Commission. But the people making sure there is no retreat without exiting the system completely? The Court of Justice of the European Union. A court of some 87 or so judges (honestly, I tried to fact check this but CURIA doesn’t disclose it’s numbers any more, it seems. My figures are from the nineties.) who decide if a country or regions policies are in line with the treaties of everything from the EEA to EU. So,meet the European version of the Revolutionary Guardians’ Council! Except instead of worshipping a warped version of Islam they worship a warped version of capitalism known as the Four Freedoms. Gordon Gecko among friends.
And the struggle will be harder before it gets easier. If ever. Dumping salaries by hiring people from countries with salaries resembling the Third World and putting them in jobs, squeezing out the people who do bothersome stuff like demanding good wages and start union chapters… Not to mention the privatisation of the previously mentioned public services, consistently meaning all those employment contracts and negotiated pay scales go right out the window and hello underpaid temps! Nice to see you, shame you can only stay a year or so (Relax, we’ll just renew your contract. It’s just to avoid insane extra costs like retirement insurance. It’s not like you’ll ever get old and infirm, right?) And so, the beauty of it is that the Euro interpretation of liberalism means, when these benefits go away they won’t come back. You can’t even rehire people for decent salaries. Because as soon as somebody undercuts that pay? Federal procurer instances are legally bound to accept it. Because to do otherwise than accept the lowest bid would be detrimental to the bidding process. So why not give up?
You can’t because that is the essence of struggle: If you give in, the other guy wins on walkover. You pick your fights, but you can’t avoid them altogether. Or to state it differently: You pick your battles, but you don’t pick your war. Sometimes it is important to stand up for your beliefs. And necessarily not a token parting shot so you can feel good about yourself afterwards. You stand up, and do everything you can. And I am part of a team that is not necessarily a winner in the short term, and we will take a beating or two, probably. But one: I have faith. And two: A friend of mine told me, whether you win or not isn’t always the question. Sometimes you need to take up that fight simply because it is the right thing to do. So we fight on. And after setbacks, odds are we win in the end. If we’re stubborn enough.