(7 June 2011) Dear Editor, As a European trade union organisation representing over eight million public services workers, we have been monitoring with concern the spread and impact of austerity measures across Europe.
We would certainly endorse Employment Commissioner Andor’s argument that the European social model has strong industrial relations at its core and that: “We must come out of the crisis with more — and not less — social dialogue.” Unfortunately, we see in Southampton City Council an example of an employer going to extreme lengths to avoid social dialogue and impose cuts on a public sector workforce. The Council wants to cut pay and conditions and has threatened to do this by sacking over 4,300 of its employees and then hiring them again, on poorer contracts.
It is astonishing that UK legislation even allows employers this option, without providing workers, in this case the lowest paid group of public sector workers, with the kinds of protection seen in most other EU Member States. In the meantime, our affiliated trade unions, Unite and Unison, have offered to negotiate a package of measures to reduce spending and save jobs. The response of the council has been to delay any confirmation of talks with the unions, overseen by ACAS.
At European level, EPSU works with employer organisations across several sectors. Last year, we signed a joint statement with the CEMR Local Government Employers Platform to “support an improved and exemplary social dialogue that can assist with the ability to adapt to change which is an important part of the response to the impact of the crisis” ([for full statement see here->art6212]). Clearly this message and the implied good practice is being ignored.
Our members see strikes as a last resort and certainly it is no surprise that they have backed the industrial action in Southampton, in the face of the threat of mass sackings by the employer. Strike action is permitted by the European Social Charter and its jurisprudence. International conventions of the ILO consider such action as justified for workers and their unions to defend their interests. The Southampton case clearly shows the importance of unions being able to take industrial action when faced with such an intransigent employer.
EPSU would certainly echo the response of GMB Congress delegates (another of our affiliates) to business secretary Vince Cable’s speech. His veiled threat to the right to strike, should the unions’ campaign to defend jobs and services lead to industrial action, is not acceptable and the affiliated unions in EPSU will support our UK colleagues in the event that the government tries to undermine our affiliates’ decision to undertake legitimate industrial action.