Defending and strengthening trade union rights

Strengthening trade union rights

(24 November 2021) Public service trade unionists from Central, Eastern and South East Europe met online last week (16-17 November) to discuss the challenges they face in asserting their fundamental rights to organise, negotiate and take strike action and ensuring that all workers are protected by ILO or EU labour provisions.

The meeting was the second regional conference of a two-year trade union rights project being run jointly by EPSU and the European federations for police (EuroCOP) and military personnel (EUROMIL). The project, financially supported by the European Commission, was launched in May and focuses on the need to defend and extend trade union rights for all public service workers and to prevent EU governments from using the possibility for exemptions for millions of public sector workers from the EU Transparency and Predictability of Working Conditions Directive (TPWCD).

The meeting discussed:

  • Trade union rights in the public services in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia;
  • The role of the European social dialogue;
  • The transposition of the TPWCD in domestic law;
  • Legal strategies to defend and extent trade union rights; and
  • The importance of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention 151 on labour relations in public services.

Trade union rights in the public services

Alexander de Becker of the University of Ghent, leader of the team that is providing background research for the project, kicked off the meeting with an overview of the five EU countries. He noted in particular the problems faced by public service unions in both Hungary and Romania where collective bargaining rights were restricted, with recent evidence from Romania also revealing attempts by the government to intimidate trade union leaders.

The situation for public service trade unions in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia was less difficult but there was still some concern over the extent to which collective bargaining over pay was possible. While there had been some relaxation of restrictions to the right of civil servants to take industrial action in Bulgaria, there were still significant limitations facing public service workers there, as there was also in the Czech and Slovak Republics.

Desislava Yaneva from the FCW-Podkrepa construction and water union in Bulgaria explained in more detail the situation in Bulgaria and the importance of articles in the Constitution relating to the rights to assembly that also impact on the right to strike.

Viktória Szűcs from the BDDSz childcare workers’ union in Hungary clarified the extent of the restrictions on the right to strike and the particular problems arising from the 1994 agreement signed by five trade unions which forms the basis of the current arrangements. She also explained that the problem for public service trade unions is often that there is no equivalent public sector employer with whom to negotiate.

Jan Paulech of the SV SR military trade union in Slovakia explained how his union had been pursuing their case for the right to organise and that while some progress had been made it was still a lengthy legal process involving the office of the ombudsman and eventually the constitutional court.

In view of the participation of trade unions from outside the EU (from Moldova and Russia), it was also noted that the project could consider how the European institutions could play a role in influencing the protection and strengthening of union rights in neighbouring countries, particularly those in the Eastern Partnership.

European social dialogue

Nadja Salson of EPSU, responsible for national and European administration, gave a presentation on the role of the European social dialogue, its potential for strengthening trade union rights and the extent to which the European Pillar of Social Rights might provide support for social dialogue at both national and European levels. She explained EPSU’s legal challenge to the European Commission and the ramifications of the recent ruling that effectively allows the Commission complete discretion over whether to refer social partner agreements to the European Council for implementation as directives.

Nadja went on to outline the latest developments with the European Commission running a consultation process over a review of the European sector social dialogue, promising to set out a new framework. While trade unions are willing to contribute to this initiative, particularly if it involves a clarification of the rules regarding agreements and directives, there was some concern about how the Commission was running the process, its attitude to the sector social dialogue and its intentions on funding.

The debate also considered the potential for extending the European social dialogue to military and police personnel and the extent to which there might be scope for innovation around sub-sector working groups that could meet under the remit of the sector social dialogues in central government and/or local and regional government.

The Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive

One of the aims of this trade union rights project is to monitor the transposition of the Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive (TPWCD) at national level. Nadja explained that the concern for the three federations is whether any EU Member State will take advantage of the provision that allows for an exclusion of civil servants, police and military personnel and those delivering emergency public services.

Referring to the Commission’s experts’ report on the transposition of the Directive, she set out a number of important points from the directive, EU legislation and case law that could help trade unions at national level to  prevent any exclusion or at least limit its impact. Beyond this specific directive, Nadja also raised the broader question about the inconsistent approach towards public service workers across EU social legislation.

Legal strategies

Trade unions have the possibility to defend and assert their fundamental rights by pursuing cases through international bodies such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Council of Europe’s Committee dealing with the European Social Charter (ESC), which provides for both individual and collective complaint systems in case of violations of labour rights

Potential legal strategies were outlined by Stefan Clauwaert, ETUC senior adviser on trade union and human rights. He explained the various procedures and opportunities, noting also the challenges in putting together cases with the International Trade Union Confederation rather than ETUC coordinating any action in relation to the ILO.

Stefan focused on the role of the ESC as providing a more useful and practical avenue to pursue, noting that this was also relevant for non-EU public service unions in countries like Moldova and Russia. He explained that most countries would be required to submit reports to the ESC by April 2022 and this could provide an opportunity for coordination between the federations and relevant national affiliates in responding to some of these. Stefan also suggested that it might be worth submitting a comparative report to the ESC by the end of the year to highlight some of the major concerns of the three federations, not least for Hungary and Romania. Finally, he also said that the ESC process for considering the reports would continue in late 2022 and early 2023, allowing for further possibilities for the federations and their affiliates to intervene.

ILO 151 – labour relations in public services

While the key fundamental rights to organise and negotiate are set out in ILO conventions 87 and 98, convention 151 on labour relations in public services provides a number of additional rights that can assist public service unions. In a pre-recorded video, Carlos Carrion Crespo, the ILO’s public services expert, outlined the main articles in the convention.

Carlos stressed that the position of the ILO Committee of Experts was that it was only legitimate to exclude a small group of workers – those senior officials responsible for administering the state – from coverage of the fundamental rights to organise, negotiate and take strike action. He also made clear that while the ILO left it to the discretion of national governments as to whether they afforded these rights to military and police personnel, this was not to be taken as justification of their exclusion from exercising these rights.

Final panel – conclusions and recommendations

Maebh Butler of EUROMIL kicked off the final discussion noting the major challenges facing some public service unions, particularly those in Hungary and Romania. Colleagues from Hungary (Orsolya Dobrovits, (KKDSz culture workers’ union), Viktória Szűcs (BDDSz), István Bácskai (HOSz, military union) and Ernö Pinczés (EVDSz electricity union) provided further clarification on the change of status imposed on some public service workers, the limitations on the rights to strike including for some categories of tax administrations employees, and negotiate, the different rights applicable in the private sector and the relatively positive situation, unique in Eastern European countries, relating to the right to organise in the military.

Mariya Krashevska from the BUAFWA military union outlined the relevance of the TPWC Directive to military personnel in Bulgaria and participants from EU countries were urged to be vigilant about the Directive. They were asked to keep their federations posted on developments so that they could support national affiliates in their efforts to ensure that governments do not use the exclusion clause to deny public service workers the new rights afforded by the Directive.

Bringing the meeting to a close Emmanuel Jacob (EUROMIL) and Richard Pond (EPSU) put forward a number of conclusions, including:

  • The need to continue to monitor the situation in countries facing major problems, in particular Hungary and Romania, and ensure they are covered in the project report;
  • Assess the extent to which collective bargaining on pay is denied or restricted and whether this is becoming more problematic; and
  • Consider how to make the most of the opportunities afforded by the Council of Europe’s European Social Committee to intervene at both country and European levels.