Workers and public services already spent the last decade paying for the Global Financial Crisis, sparked by irresponsible financiers. While bankers and investors gouged on bailouts, tax cuts and buybacks, workers struggled with frozen wages, lay-offs and brutal cuts to frontline services. Meanwhile, austerity and inequality fueled the fear-mongering and false promises of right-wing populism, sweeping dozens of far-right leaders into power across the world.
To prevent the same thing from happening again, we must realize that finance and the far right did not end up the winners by chance. Effective international organizing by corporate lobby groups, political parties and billionaire financiers such as Robert Mercer played a key role in shifting policies and influencing public opinion: from Brexit to Bolsanaro and beyond.
For example, the finance industry coordinated over 700 organizations to influence EU economic regulation, outnumbering civil-society organizations and trade unions by a factor of more than seven. The World Economic Forum — sponsored by over 100 major banks and investment companies — has become arguably the most influential event on the global political calendar.
Meanwhile, Europe's far-right parties were able to share a stage, exchange strategies and set out a joint vision ahead of the last EU elections in a way that the European left could not. This is more than a cruel irony: it's an existential threat.
Of course these forces aren't always united, effective or successful: the Covid-19 pandemic has made the compounding failures of this toxic cocktail of finance and the far-right plain for all to see.
Our public services are stretched beyond their limit. Under-staffing and a lack of resources have resulted in the needless deaths of too many frontline workers. Privatized care facilities, many milked by private equity firms, have become hubs of infection and deaths. Starved public budgets - slashed to fund corporate tax cuts - are dipping deep into debt to prop up the private sector.
Meanwhile, the very idea of internationalism is under threat. The EU's imposed austerity programs and expenditure rules — which saw Italy cut its health fund by 30 billion euros across the past decade — have undermined the credibility of its social pillar and fueled euro-skepticism. The withdrawal of the United States from the COP21 agreement and the WHO are two giant blows for multilateralism.
Trump and those of his ilk would have us believe that the devastating effects of the Covid-19 crisis could not have been predicted - or avoided. This, of course, is an outright lie. But getting up in arms at Trump's latest horrific tweet is not how we change the game. Instead, we must look beyond the symptoms - of which he is one- and forge new coalitions and strategies to out-organize our adversaries.
We already know that linking unions with social movements, local actors and unlikely partners can be a winning approach.
Like when the Troika tried forcing Greece to privatize parts of its water service. Inspired by the fights against privatization in Colombia and Italy, Thessaloniki's unions partnered with local activists to organize a public referendum, with 97% of respondents opposing the sell-off. International solidarity, strategy-sharing and visibility proved essential in stymieing the plans.
Or the struggle against corporate tax avoidance. Unions, through our pension funds, helped mobilize over $10 trillion in equity - that's 15% of Global GDP - in support of new reporting standards that would require corporations to publicly reveal where they are (or are not) paying their taxes.
Or the fight against corporate trade deals. Lobbyists, such as the Coalition of Services Industries led by a senior banker from Citigroup, poured huge resources into advancing the TiSA and TTIP trade agreements. Our Union Federation Public Services International worked with a wide coalition including Greenpeace, Attac, and Church groups to expose these deals for what they were: a brazen attempt to put corporate profits ahead of people. We brought hundreds of thousands into the streets and garnered more than 3 million petition signatures. These deals became so toxic that they lost support from across the political spectrum and have now been shelved.
Have we managed to vanquish the corporate trade lobby, end tax evasion and defeat the privatization agenda? No. Not yet at least. But we've shown there is hope when we build the struggle together. Here's what we must focus on now to win the world we need:
First, we push for a fairer global tax system. A 50% tax on excess profits. An immediate digital services tax on tech giants — irrespective of the OECD BEPS process. A wealth tax for the mega-rich and no bailout funding for corporations who continue to operate through tax havens.
Second, we support calls for debt relief, restructuring and the removal of public expenditure caps and loan conditionality, so that repayment crises do not limit the health response, undermine economic growth or exacerbate social divisions.
Third, we fight to end privatization and build Universal Quality Public Services. Free public healthcare, education, utilities, transport and social protections. Fully funded, localized, well-staffed and ready to respond to whatever might come next.
Fourth, we lead the campaign for a Global Green New Deal. A corporate-driven transition with a narrow focus on jobs is not enough. To change the game, we must reduce inequality, unemployment and our carbon footprint while limiting the systemic threats posed by climate change.
This might all seem impossible. But many of the policies implemented since the Pandemic began — such as nationalizing entire sectors, suspending patents and converting factories for essential production — would also have been unimaginable just months ago.
Now is not the time to be complacent, meek or conciliatory. Everything is on the line.
Already far-right leaders, emboldened by the crisis, are trampling over democracy and human rights. Hungary's Viktor Orban created a basis for extraordinary and unlimited government powers. The failure of a pan-European pandemic response has fueled nationalist tendencies. Trump's Justice Department has asked Congress for the power to indefinitely detain citizens without trial and deny the right of asylum to those who test Covid-19 positive. Meanwhile, for the second time in a generation, many of the world's largest corporations are set to receive huge sums of taxpayer money; all while paying lobbyists to stifle progressive reforms.
But there is hope. Support for workers and the public sector is growing by the day. You've probably stood at your window to join the applause for comrades who are giving it all to save lives. Our job as unions is to convert this applause into meaningful, long-term political change which improves the lives of all working people. There's no doubt that the forces we are up against form a powerful coalition. They are already using the crisis to deepen their influence and sow division. We will only win if we join with other progressive actors to out-organize them at every level. We have no choice. Our people and planet simply cannot risk another decade lost to finance and the far right.
Rosa Pavanelli is General Secretary of the global union federation Public Services International.
Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown