Working together to defend trade union rights

Strengthening trade union rights

(27 January 2022) Public service trade unionists from the Nordic region and North East Europe met online earlier this week (25-26 January) to discuss the state of trade union rights in their countries.

The meeting was the third 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 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) and in particular whether or not governments are attempting to use 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 Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden;
  • Developments in the European social dialogue following the EPSU case against the European Commission;
  • The transposition of the TPWCD in national 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 seven EU countries. He noted the strong tradition of trade union rights in the Nordic region and the arrangements in Denmark and Sweden in particular that put collective agreements rather than the law at the centre of industrial relations.

Alexander explained that the situation was very different in the Baltic countries and Poland where levels of trade union density and collective bargaining coverage were very low and there were some restrictions on collective bargaining and the right to take collective action for civil servants. However, he underlined that some progress had been made in Lithuania recently with the conclusion of sector collective agreements in health, social care and other public services.

Vegar Monsfall from the Norwegian police trade union underlined the fact that rights on paper don’t guarantee rights in practice and that governments may step in to control or end collective action on the grounds of any threat to life or national security.

Poul Sørenson from the HKKF military union in Denmark raised the question of how trade unions can be effective in collective bargaining if they face bans or significant restrictions on the right to strike. He explained that for the HKKF it was very useful to be part of a larger bargaining group in the public sector, including unions that did have the right to strike. 

Dalia Jakutavice of the LITUF industry in Lithuania explained some of the key provisions of the new labour code, particularly on the right to take collective action. She said that the problem for trade unions is that employers have the option of instigating a lengthy legal process that can delay the action for weeks and even months and so pose problems for trade unions in maintaining support for the action.

Key debates on the European social dialogue

Nadja Salson of EPSU, responsible for national and European administration, spoke about the role of the European social dialogue and its potential for strengthening trade union rights, particularly in the context of the European Pillar of Social Rights. She explained EPSU’s legal case against the European Commission and the ramifications of the ruling from last September that effectively gives the Commission complete discretion over whether or not to refer social partner agreements to the European Council for implementation as directives.

While the outcome was disappointing it has kick-started an important debate and Nadja went on to outline the latest developments with the European Commission currently running a consultation process in the lead up to publishing a Communication in the autumn. Nadja explained that EPSU was involved in this process and would present a position paper to its Executive Committee in May. She outline 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.

The Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive

Nadja explained 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. Beyond this specific directive, Nadja also raised the broader question about the inconsistent approach towards public service workers across EU social legislation.

Legal strategies to defend trade union rights

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 the Council covers more countries than the EU, extending East as far as Russia. He explained that most countries are currently required to submit reports to the ESC by April this year and this provides an opportunity for coordination between the federations and relevant national affiliates in responding to some of these.

Stefan also proposed that the three federations consider submitting a comparative report to the ESC to highlight some of their major concerns and focus on countries where there are particular problems with trade union rights.

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. Carlos Carrion Crespo, the ILO’s public services expert, outlined the main articles in the convention.

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.

Irene Petraitiene of the Lithuanian state workers’ union reported that her union had been trying for some time to get their government to ratify the convention but had been repeatedly blocked. She welcomed the opportunity to discuss next steps with EPSU and use the resources of the ILO.

Main conclusions

Nigel Dennis (EuroCOP), Antonio Lima Coelho (EUROMIL) and Richard Pond (EPSU) brought the seminar to a close with a few key points concerning:

  • the benefits of working together across the federations to promote trade union rights and be aware that any denial of rights to the military, police or other specific groups of workers pose a risk to the rights of all public service workers;
  • the scope of the project research and final report and to consider the question of collective action more broadly, including action short of a strike, and what dispute resolution mechanisms or other processes might be available where rights are denied or restricted; and
  • how to intervene in the Council of Europe’s European Social Committee on the basis of a comparative report and/or responses to specific country reports.

With the financial support of the European Commission

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