The European Commission published its much-delayed Communication on Social Dialogue and its Recommendation on Strengthening Social Dialogue in the European Union on 25 January. It is a mixed bag and something of a disappointment.
No new framework for social partner agreements.
It disappoints as the Commission has made very limited effort to provide the European social partners with a transparent process and clear criteria on how it will deal with social partner agreements. This concerns both the autonomous agreements which are binding for the signatory parties, as well as agreements where the social partners have requested the Commission to propose to the Council to take a decision, thereby making them generally binding in the EU through a directive. The Commission convinced the European Court of Justice that it had all the discretion in the world to determine how to handle such social partner agreements. It argued this to win its case against EPSU and justify its arbitrary arguments and decision to refuse to bring forward the agreement on Information and Consultation.
With such great power comes great responsibility to define how you use this power. This is not reflected in the Communication. Social partners remain liable to the whims of the Commission. And its shows. The recent agreement on digitalisation in central government administration, signed at the highest level by two ministers to represent the employers’ side, is stalled. The Commission decided that it does not yet want to deal with it. The social partners simply have to accept its decisions with no recourse possible other than going to the European Court of Justice if you disagree with a decision. This uncertainty will undermine the ability of social partners to come to such agreements despite the call of the Commission on the social partners to make more of such agreements. It lacks credibility.
No decision on social services
Another disappointment was that the Commission did not take a decision on the request of EPSU and the Social Employers - made in June 2021 - to set up a new social dialogue committee on social service. The municipal employers recently agreed to join the employers’ side, meaning that different employers of workers represented in EPSU unions are now present. While the 1998 decision on setting up social dialogue committees refers to the joint demand of employers and unions as the ground for setting up a committee, the new Communication wants to revise that decision. The Communication attempts to justify the non-decision of the Commission by introducing a criteria of inclusiveness for existing and future social dialogue committees. There is no definition of what this means, raising the risk that the Commission toys with the autonomy of social partners to impose solutions on them. And again, the Commission shapes a framework which gives it powers of arbitrary decision-making as there are no criteria, no process, no recourse and it can do as it pleases. This paves the way for bad public administration. Or worse - in the hands of a more authoritarian Commission, it can be abused.
A silver lining
Is it all negative? No. The recommendation is positive when put in the context of the Minimum Wage Directive, the Gender Pay Transparency Directive and the Recommendation on Long-Term Care. It has been a long time since there has been such attention for social dialogue and collective bargaining at EU level. This is a recognition that social dialogue and collective bargaining are key parts of democracy. They are crucial to balancing power of employers. Collective bargaining remains one of the main methods, together with fair taxation, to redistribute wealth in our societies and to protect workers and our communities. Collective bargaining has proven to be a flexible way for employers and unions to address challenges, such as those which arose during the COVID-19 pandemic or which come with digitalisation.
A frame for European Industrial Relations is now shaping up. We have the Charter of Fundamental rights, the Pillar of Social Rights, the Treaty on the European Union, the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Social Charter and the ILO conventions. The new directive on Adequate Minimum wages refers to collective bargaining coverage of at least 80%. But by not setting out a clear and transparent framework for its role regarding European social partner agreements, the Commission missed an opportunity to ground the social dialogue firmer.
This week saw industrial action including strikes of affiliates in Netherlands, Switzerland and UK. Finnish workers in the state sector will decide soon if they join. Verdi commenced its bargaining round for millions of workers in public services and it is broadly expected this will result in actions as employers say “No” to the demands of workers. Next week will be full of action as French unions strike on 31 January against the pension reform; Belgian care workers take action for higher pay and more staff; and UK workers in a range of public services such as the civil service, education, nurses, ambulances strike on 1 February and days following. Please do not forget to show your solidarity with the UK public service workers on 1 February, now also fighting against the legislation to impose minimum service levels on them in an effort to weaken the strike movement. Solidarity to all.