New data from the European Commission show that greater public investment in early childhood education would bring excellent returns, while funding for higher education also needs to be strengthened. ETUCE welcomes the conclusion that sectoral collective bargaining and high levels of trade union membership can help build a socially sustainable Europe.

The European Commission’s latest review of Employment and Social Developments in Europe (ESDE) focuses on economic, social and environmental sustainability. This year’s review, Sustainable growth for all: choices for the future of Social Europe, was released in September 2019.

The data confirm that strong collective bargaining and social dialogue are a cornerstone of sustainable growth – a stance that ETUCE and its members constantly advocate for. The review highlights that collective bargaining improves social sustainability by reducing income inequality. High union density also reduces in-work poverty rates. It also matters at which level bargaining takes place: negotiations on a sectoral or national level cover more people than workplace agreements, and so have a stronger positive impact. Moreover, the review finds that social partners contribute to sustainable development by promoting inclusive workplaces and multi-stakeholder governance.

Chart: Gross income equality tends to be lower for higher coverage rates: Income inequality and collective bargaining coverage

Gross income inequality tends to be lower for higher coverage rates: Income inequality and collective bargaining

Source: Coverage rate: ICTWSS & GINI-Coefficient DG-EMPL calculations, EU-SILC UDB.

The chapter on social sustainability focuses specifically on education and training. In particular, it shows the benefits of investment in early childhood education, which is especially fruitful because it has a significant influence on both children’s future and the parents’ life. Increased funding for early childhood education can help to close inequalities based on gender and income. This is partly because rich families are able to pay for childcare in situations where there is insufficient publicly funded provision. The review also calls for more investment in higher education. The number of students increases yearly, but real expenditure per student decreased between 2008-2017.

ETUCE sees in this EU report a clear recognition that European governments should increase public spending across the education sectors after decade-long budget cuts to public education across almost all EU countries. The report also calls for meaningful and effective collective bargaining and social dialogue as part of a European growth strategy which is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable, and fully contributes to strengthening the rights and professional condition of education workers. Indeed, we are pleased to see a European Commission report that is so in line with the demands of our campaign ‘Shape the future of Europe with Teachers’! We call on the Commission to take note of its own research report when designing future policies, for example when drafting recommendations on education and public spending in the European Semester.

The title of this year’s report was the focus of the conference ‘Sustainable growth for all: choices for the future of Social Europe’. Participants from a wide range of organisations participated, including ETUCE and other social partners. The main areas of discussion were economic sustainability, social sustainability and environmental sustainability.