Fighting for trade union rights for all public service workers

Strengthening TU rights

(20 September 2021) Public service trade unionists from across the Mediterranean region met online last week (14-15 September) to discuss the challenges they face in asserting their fundamental rights to organise, negotiate and take strike action.

The meeting was the first 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.

The meeting discussed:

  • Trade union rights in the public services in Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain;
  • The role of the European social dialogue;
  • The transposition of the Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive (TPWCD);
  • 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 kicked off the meeting with an overview of the seven countries covered by the meeting. Looking at the right to strike he noted that all countries, apart from Malta, had the right to strike enshrined in the constitution but often with certain restrictions applying to police, military, judicial and other senior personnel.

The extent of restrictions varied from country to country, but it was a current debate in Cyprus where draft legislation was being discussed to define the extent of “essential services” in relation to which limitations on the right to strike might apply. Related to this was the question of minimum service agreements and while there was a clear procedure to negotiate and apply these in Italy, for example, it was less clear cut in other countries and in fact, had created problems in Spain, particularly for trade unions in prison services.

Alexander and his team of researchers are providing background research for each of the project meetings and will produce a report for the final conference in September 2022.

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. However, the main point of her contribution was about 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.

EPSU took the case against the Commission when it refused to put forward the agreement on information and consultation in restructuring that had been negotiated in European social dialogue committee for central government administrations. The court case not only raises questions about the social dialogue process but leaves millions of public service workers without the information and consultation rights that are provided to private sector workers by European directives. EPSU will be working closely with the ETUC to put pressure on the Commission to clarify the rules and the rights of social partners as co-legislators.

The Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive

A key aim 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 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). Potential legal strategies were outlined by Stefan Clauwaert, ETUC senior adviser on trade union and human rights, with a particular focus on the role of the ESC. He proposed that the three federations consider submitting a joint report to the ESC at the end of the year to make a case for extending and strengthening the rights to organise, negotiate and strike in those countries where limitations and exclusions exist.

ILO 151

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. Carlos Carrion Crespo, the ILO’s public services expert, outlined the main articles in the convention and ran through the ratification process, noting some of the European countries that had recently signed up to 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.

Conclusions and recommendations

Bringing the meeting to a close Ger Guinan (EUROMIL), Nigel Dennis (EuroCOP) and Richard Pond (EPSU) put forward a number of conclusions and recommendations for the next steps. Above all they echoed the comments of Antonio Coelho (EUROMIL) that military and police personnel were workers in uniform and should not be completely denied the rights available to many other public service workers.

Ger also spoke of the risks posed from failing to fight for the rights of military and police personnel because the kinds of bans and restrictions imposed on them were the thin end of a wedge that could see other public service workers faced bans or limitations on their rights.

Participants were urged to be vigilant about the TPWC Directive and 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.

It was recommended that the project steering group consider taking up the suggestion from Stefan Clauwaert to produce an interim project report by the end of the year that could be submitted to the European Social Committee at the Council of Europe highlighting some of the most contentious restrictions on trade union rights facing public service workers.

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