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The future of work in Europe

Every moment of transition presents its own complexities: for our class this means that further divisions are sown within it. Such is the present moment — one when different dynamics stack up and intertwine.

Past, present and future

On the one hand, there is the troubled exit from the pandemic crisis, still under the threat posed by the emergence of new Covid-19 variants. The pause on redundancies has come to an end in Italy. This, albeit partially, would have spared about 520,000 jobs in Italy up until now, according to Centro Einaudi’s estimates [25th Annual Report on Global Economy and Italy, June 2021]. Company closures and staff reductions (in a mixture of arrogance and callousness) have marked the summer months, only to announce a difficult autumn, when the redundancy ban will be lifted also for small businesses and services. However, it is clear how uncertain the workers’ condition remains, regardless of any collective agreement signed, and how necessary it is always to organize and fight for the defence of our class.

One must add future prospects to the lasting effects of the past. And the future is now called electrical and digital restructuring which, in the third decade of this century, is the updated version of the European restructuring. They indeed both follow the same rules and have the same raison d’être: the world contention, which pits industrial systems of a continental scale against each other, from Europe and America to China. One should not be surprised to see the ideological armour of this contention painted in the fashionable green of environmentalism, so that the poisonous content of an imperialist clash — which embitters workers against other workers — is concealed.

The regularity of restructuring

Our Marxist analysis has already faced moments of restructuring — one example for all: the 1970s. Even if the 1970s capitalist restructuring differs from the current situation, the common element is what Arrigo Cervetto indicated at the time: restructuring means new proportions and new dislocations for the shares of capital in different geographical areas and economic sectors; consequently, new proportions and dislocations arise among social classes and new class stratifications.

All this is not the result of an overall plan aimed towards modernisation, but is the outcome of what falls beneath the axe of the market logic, with all the contradictions it brings about. On the one hand, this may mean unemployment for our class, and on the other hand, labour shortages, social mobility and the entry of immigrant workers. In short, a chance for further divisions to be sown within our class.

The future of work in Europe

Looking to the future, the Centro Einaudi’s report states that the pandemic crisis’s impact was a game changer — that is, a turning point in accelerating the digital transition. It estimates that, in Italy, at least 1.5 million working people are at risk of finding themselves forced to look for a different job. An interesting study by McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) in June 2020 broadens this analysis to most of Europe (EU, UK and Switzerland): 235 million workers in 1,095 regional labour markets, grouped into 13 categories [depending on their demography and economy] (aka clusters).

In summary, MGI forecasts that 94 million (40%) will have to acquire new skills in their current roles to keep up with innovation by 2030, while 21 million (9%) will have to change jobs. Among the latter, the group types that indicated are: metalworkers (2.3 million), plant operators (1.7 million), retail workers (1.3 million), construction workers (1.2 million) and so on. While we should take these figures with a pinch of salt, the trends are crystal clear. One can consider the example of the automotive sector, in the throes of a conversion from combustion engine to electric power, which the European Fit for 55 legislation has recently accelerated. The effects of this conversion on the working and living conditions of millions of wage earners are expected to be extremely serious.

The MGI study also speculates on the geographical shifts that restructuring will impose. By 2030, about 40% of Europe’s population could be living in areas where jobs are declining overall: they are largely in Eastern Europe or in disadvantaged regions in the West, such as Southern Italy. More than half of the new employment will be in the two megacities (London and Paris) and 46 other areas centred on large cities (superstar hubs), including Amsterdam-Rotterdam, Brussels-Antwerp, Frankfurt, Cologne-Düsseldorf, Munich, Madrid and Milan. In these clusters, it is estimated that less than 60% of the additional vacancies will be able to be filled by local people. Filling the other 2.5 million job vacancies will require substantial immigration flows.

These flows will result in the establishment of some working-class accumulation points and a further step towards the formation of the European worker — who is a social figure produced by the development of European imperialism and can therefore be in the best position to fight against this imperialism.

The demographic decline as a structural difference

Another trend that will deeply characterise the next 10 years is in demography. According to MGI, the working-age population will drop by 13.5 million by 2030 — a drop of 4% for Europe, which becomes 7% in Italy, 8% in Germany and 9% in Poland. This phenomenon will jeopardise the idea of raising productivity through the introduction of a younger, more qualified workforce: in reality, while 68 million or so will leave the job market, only 54 million new workers will enter.

It should be stressed that it is precisely this demographic decline that is the material, structural difference between today’s and the 1970s restructuring. This aspect already manifests itself in the widespread shortage of labour and must be considered as a factor in support of salary increase claims — provided that there is some form of organised labour to advocate for them.

Another aspect that should not be overlooked is that electrical and digital restructuring acts as a game changer in all sectors of wage labour, not just the most skilled. This is the case for logistics, which has been strongly impacted by the pandemic, with a worsening of working conditions. In Italy it accounts for 9% of GDP and about one million employees. On these workers, mostly immigrants, weigh the small size of companies and the resulting Italian old curse that makes them pay for their bosses’ attempts to compete through lower labour costs and poorer safety standards, instead of seeking greater efficiency. This is also true for a good part of the industrial sector, as recent, sad episodes show: worse than the loss of one’s job is only the risk of losing one’s life.

The two hands of the trade union struggle

In summary, this restructuring, like all of them, betokens growing divisions among our class. This poses problems for the trade union struggle: we must leave no stone unturned in pursuing opportunities to improve working conditions and wages wherever possible. At the same time, we must defend workers threatened by unemployment with a guaranteed wage and reduced working hours.

These are the two hands of the struggle demanded by the complexity of the moment. It will then be up to the balance of power to decide in what form and to what extent these objectives can be achieved. It goes without saying that the delay of a European trade union capable of providing a continental dimension to this struggle weighs heavily.

However, this is a teaching that we Leninists do not forget: it is in the strategy for the struggle for communism that it will be really possible to unify a class that capitalism in its unfolding divides, especially in times of restructuring. This is the commitment of our Workers’ Clubs.

Lotta Comunista, July-August 2021