As the German playwright Berthold Brecht once said: “Two men – one rich, one poor – come face to face. The poor man said with a contraction: If I were not poor, you would not be rich .”
The Covid-19 pandemic has not been bad for everyone. Billionaire wealth has increased more during the pandemic than in the past 14 years – the biggest increase in billionaire wealth since records began.
As we mark International Workers’ Day to celebrate the achievements of the labor movement around the world, the case for abolishing billionaires has never been clearer.
At a time when Europeans are going through a severe cost of living crisis, with soaring fuel and food prices, it is immoral to allow a minority to accumulate unprecedented wealth through greed and exploitation , threatening our rights and democracy itself in the process.
The European Union likes to boast about its defense of social rights. A year ago, the EU even organized a social summit, ostensibly reaffirming its commitments to the so-called European Pillar of Social Rights.
However, we must judge EU governments by their actions, not their words.
The EU fell short of its 2020 target of lifting 20 million people out of poverty, which the UN called a “defeat for social rights”.
117 new European billionaires
While Europe’s 628 billionaires grew $1 trillion (950 billion euros) richer in the first year of the pandemic, including 117 new members added to the billionaire club, a huge proportion of Europeans slipped towards poverty.
In 2020, 96.5 million people in the EU were at risk of poverty or social exclusion, i.e. one in five Europeans. Almost a quarter of children in the EU are at risk of poverty.
These shocking numbers have only gotten worse with the pandemic. Two-thirds of EU citizens consider their current financial situation to be worse than before Covid-19, with 68% reporting difficulties in making ends meet.
The EU unemployment rate stood at 6.2% at the start of the year. But what this figure does not show are the millions of people who have a job but who earn wages that are not enough to live with dignity.
Families unable to pay their bills and unable to afford safe and stable housing or childcare. The phenomenon of the working poor has reached alarming levels in the EU.
So what do billionaires have to do with it? They and their companies have constantly worked to weaken and undermine labor rights in order to maximize profits.
In other words, the accumulation of billionaire wealth is directly linked to and could not exist without the persistence and pervasiveness of labor exploitation and social inequality.
The billionaires have lobbied aggressively to weaken European legislation aimed at protecting hard-won workers’ rights, such as dignified wages, health and safety standards, social safety nets and collective bargaining.
They also went on a buying spree of the most influential mass media and engaged in political fundraising, especially to benefit the far right, causing conflict and pitting workers against each other.
All the while, governments have allowed them to divert much-needed public funds through aggressive tax planning and tax evasion.
In 2016, the offshore wealth of EU residents amounted to €1.5 trillion. Companies like Amazon, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, earned €44 billion in 2020 in the EU but paid no corporate tax.
Faced with these attacks, the workers did not sit idly by. The growing discontent with the billionaire class and the political forces defending their interests has led to inspiring mobilizations.
Amazon workers and activists have led outstanding protests under the “Make Amazon Pay” banner to fight labor abuses, tax evasion and the company’s environmental crimes.
Recognizing the role the company plays in the global economy, they have organized coordinated strikes and protests to stop the company’s operations in their tracks and pressure governments to act, even in the face of a intolerable repression.
Workers in France, Belgium, Germany and Spain are resisting raising the retirement age.
Faced with shrinking public budgets, governments have used workers as scapegoats instead of forcing big business to contribute fairly to pensions.
Notably, in France, workers succeeded in forcing the government to stop the increase through organized protests.
Workers’ struggles are too numerous to count.
Their lessons from centuries of resisting oppression are that when workers come together, they can change the order and the prevailing system.
The proliferation of billionaires and the other side of this phenomenon, the working poor, call for a historic mobilization on a global scale.
The workers are pushing in the right direction. On the path to equality and justice, making billionaires pay is a mandatory step.