Defending the rights to organise, negotiate and take industrial action

Strengthening trade union rights

Public service trade unionists from North West Europe met online on 10-11 May to discuss the state of trade union rights in their countries in the fifth and final regional meeting in 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 last year and focuses on the need to defend and extend trade union rights for all public service workers, particularly the fundamental rights to organise, negotiate and take collective action.

The project is also monitoring transposition of the EU’s Transparency and Predictability of Working Conditions Directive (TPWCD) with the main concern about the risk of member states using the exclusion clause that would allow them to deny new rights to millions of public sector workers.

The meeting discussed:

  • Trade union rights in the public services in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
  • The latest developments in the European social dialogue with a major review under way;
  • The transposition of the TPWCD into national law and the risk of the exclusion of public service workers; and
  • International Labour Organisation (ILO) information on asserting trade union rights in the public services and the role of convention 151 on labour relations in public services.

Trade union rights in the public services

The opening presentation was by Alexander de Becker of the University of Ghent and leader of the team that is providing background research for the project. He provided an overview of the six EU countries covered by the seminar, noting the variations in the extent of the fundamental rights afforded to public service workers and their trade unions.

In most cases, there was a right to organise for civil servants, police and military personnel although this was not the case in Ireland, where the police and armed services are denied full rights to collective bargaining and collective action. In Austria, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg civil servants still enjoy a special status which means special arrangements for collective bargaining and, in the case of Germany, no right to strike. In the Netherlands, public service workers, including civil servants, are now covered by the same rights to organise, negotiate and take industrial action as other workers, although the police and military face some restrictions.

David Threadgold and Calum Steele of the Scottish Police Federation outlined the situation in the UK, noting that while there was a form of negotiating machinery in Scotland, even if not exactly collective bargaining, this didn’t exist at all in England and Wales.

Reviewing the European social dialogue

A major debate is taking place at European level over the role of the European social dialogue at both cross-sector and sector level. Nadja Salson, responsible for national and European administration in EPSU, argued in her presentation, that, with its strong legal basis, the EU social dialogue has the potential, on paper at least, to protect, reinforce or introduce new trade union rights but that in practice it faced structural and political obstacles.

She set out the main processes and structure and some of the main outcomes over the past 20 years and went on to explain EPSU’s legal case against the European Commission. Nadja outlined the ramifications of the ruling from last September that effectively leaves the Commission with complete discretion over whether or not to refer social partner agreements to the European Council for implementation as directives.

While the outcome of the case was disappointing it had kick-started an important debate and consultation process in the lead up to the European Commission publishing a Communication and Recommendation later this year, with the latter expected to focus on social dialogue at national level. EPSU expressed some concern about the lack of clarity in the Commission’s approach but it has been heavily involved in this process and a position paper was due to be debated in its Executive Committee later in May. Nadja put forward a number of options for trade union action at European and national level with a view to testing further the process of transforming agreements into directives and other measures to strengthen social dialogue.

In response to a question from Emmanuel Jakob of EUROMIL, Nadja provided some detail on how the social dialogue worked in practice across EPSU’s sectors and the challenges faced in terms of securing agreement to negotiate from the employers. Nigel Dennis of EuroCOP referred to the example of Malta where the police union was attempting to assert its right to collective bargaining while Uwe Hahn of the military union in Germany outlined the challenges his union was facing in relation to its right to negotiate.

ILO 151 – labour relations in public services

Carlos Carrion Crespo, the ILO’s public services expert, began his presentation with an overview of convention 151 highlighting some of the key provisions that provide rights in addition to the fundamental rights to organise and negotiate in ILO conventions 87 and 98.

He 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.

Carlos also drew on a recent ILO survey that looked at the rights of workers in police services to form trade union unions and for their unions to be involved in collective bargaining.

The Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive

Nadja's presentation covered the new rights provided by the Directive and underlined the concern of the three federations that EU Member States might 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.

With only just over five months for member states to transpose the directive it was important for affiliates to remain vigilant and work with their confederations to monitor the process. Nadja reported on the findings of an ETUC survey, noting that very few national confederations had indicated any concerns about potential use of the exclusion clause.

Main conclusions

The final panel debate emphasised a number of the main points that had been debated in both this and the previous seminars, namely: 

  • the benefits of co-operation between federations and their affiliates at both European and national levels;
  • the challenges faced by affiliates in not just asserting their rights to organise, negotiate and take collective action but also to do this without interference by governments and employers; and
  • the importance of using the opportunity provided by the project to submit a report on the infringement of trade union rights in the public services to the Council of Europe's European Committee of Social Rights.


With the financial support of the European Commission