Collective bargaining: The ETUC priorities and working program (Resolution)
At its meeting in Brussels on 06 - 07 March 2012, the Executive Committee of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) adopted the resolution "Collective bargaining: The ETUC priorities and working program".
The austerity measures decided on by the European institutions and governments are having a heavy and negative impact on wage trends, on wage formation systems and on collective bargaining. The role of the social partners has been undermined in most EU countries and it has had repercussions for trade union power.
In a time of economic recession, a downward spiral of wages has replaced currency devaluation and has become a tool of competitiveness for the European Union.
Wage freezes and cuts, both in the public and private sectors, opening clause contracts as well as bipartite and tripartite agreements are strongly influencing the collective bargaining activity.
These changes follow a decade of comparably slow increases in wages and unit labour costs (often due to labour market reforms) in some countries and a lack of bargaining in other countries, notably in Central and Eastern Europe. This has weakened collective bargaining coordination and undermined positive experiences like the Doorn process.
After the Europlus Pact, the “six pack” and the Fiscal Compact, this competitive strategy is spreading across the whole of Europe, through imposed decentralization of collective bargaining and the setting of wages according to productivity only. Even if the Treaty does not allow wage intervention from the European level at the national one, this constraint has been bypassed through the “institutional coordination” of wage policies which are currently undermining or totally suppressing the role of social partners in a number of countries.
How can we coordinate collective bargaining policy?
To confront this austerity context and fight against wage dumping, the Collective Bargaining Committee of the ETUC launched the idea of shaping a “new kind of coordination”, with the aim of supporting affiliates’ actions by trying to define an articulated range of updated principles, to be implemented according to the different national situations.
We want to strengthen the unions in their performing of the task of safeguarding the wage levels for their members. Therefore we must better analyse short falls in our previous processes, better define the limits and objectives of our action and adapt it to the new context and to the various national needs.
Of course there is no “one size fits all”-solution and we must not impose anything to anyone: there are affiliates that need our help and support, others that don’t; some affiliates prefer to coordinate their collective bargaining policy in groups of countries or sectors, others that don’t want or cannot participate in a coordinating process.
We need to respect these different traditions, but at the same time we need to agree on common goals, learn more from each other, share more information and lessons with each other and form a common strategy for strengthening the unions and the union capacity in Europe.
In the current extraordinary situation we cannot adopt a “stand-alone position”, because the austerity measures and notably the new Commission scoreboard on wages’ imbalances in Europe will force wage intervention and austerity on even the stronger countries.
Therefore we need more solidarity, we need to combine forces through differentiated strategies, to find new ways of mutual help.
Different strategies for different situations
In countries where collective bargaining coverage is high, affiliates seek to strengthen or want to preserve their current wage formation systems.
In other countries, notably where collective bargaining is weak or non-existent, trade unions want new tools to defend wages. The effects of minimum wages on wage trends and coverage, and TU membership, were discussed in this context.
The extension of collective agreements coverage was recognized as a fundamental tool to prevent wage dumping.
The possibility of promoting a Social Contract at European level, to implement the recovery strategies, to guarantee the social partners’ autonomy and rights in collective bargaining, fair wages, good employment and a common level of social protection throughout Europe, was also discussed.
The definition of wages in the various countries depends both on bilateral negotiations between social partners and trilateral social dialogue. Fiscal and social measures influence the wage formation process and should be dealt with by social partners.
The scope of collective bargaining has to be seen in a larger context. Not only wages have to be negotiated, but also qualitative objectives regarding working conditions, equality principles and employment policies.
In the countries with high levels of unemployment, the priority of the trade union activity must also continue to be the maintenance and creation of jobs. This means that flexible formulas could be agreed in order to maintain jobs as well as to create them but, in any case, this should not constitute the poaching of jobs from other companies, other regions or other countries.
Solutions at European level are also sought through strengthening macroeconomic dialogue and social dialogue, and by organizing more effective joint campaigns.
The general message from the affiliates is that the European trade union movement should coordinate these different tools more concretely in order to avoid competitive trends. They generally need to exchange information and notably best practices, but in some countries they also need to set up common demands and actions. Confidence is needed between the affiliates and trust must be restored.
A new coordination of collective bargaining policy
A general coordination with single guidelines for all is difficult to reach in the new economic context, or it can’t even allow us to achieve the results we need. It is also difficult to propose a universal campaign title appealing to all workers independently of their country of residence, sector or professional position.
We should better focus our analysis and strategies on the different priorities of affiliates in the various countries, regions and sectors. We will try to provide some concrete help to our members.
Thus we should move from a general abstract idea of coordination, to a more concrete set of initiatives, focused on the different situations and needs. We should adopt a “new coordination of collective bargaining policy”.
Collective bargaining remains a matter of national trade unions and in some countries, sectors and companies is also coordinated by confederations and ETUFs. The ETUC can provide a forum to bring the different affiliates together and organise a coordination of the various coordinating activities.
The possibility of creating informal regions for developed cooperation and coordination of policy - with the common features of labour market, economic situation, structure of collective bargaining systems, trade union density and structure and so on – could be developed, discussed and tried.
Our future coordination of collective bargaining policy could be founded on four main priorities, to be discussed in greater detail in the coming months in a continuous process of “step by step” implementation.
1. Strengthening collective bargaining
Collective bargaining is the core business of trade unions.
Unfortunately, in many countries collective bargaining does not exist or is not able to provide sufficient protection. The bargaining powers of social partners as well as the content of collective agreements vary considerably.
The ETUC and its affiliates should take more responsibility for safeguarding and promoting trade union rights in Europe.
The ETUC and its affiliates should fight to preserve, enhance and spread collective bargaining everywhere, keeping some principles in mind:
We have to defend the autonomy of social partners in collective bargaining;
We should fight against the unwanted decentralization of collective bargaining, achieved by getting rid of undermining the collective agreements at national level;
Wages should rise according to annual rates reflecting – among other developments – increases in inflation and gains in productivity;
Increasing wages and boosting internal demand, together with investments and innovation, is a fundamental tool for supporting economic growth;
Collective bargaining is a key instrument in combating discrimination and tackling the pay gap between men and women.
While we should stick to these principles, we should be aware that they could be applied in different ways and degrees, depending on the actual possibilities existing in the countries.
It should be a target to be achieved progressively, an objective to be pursued by offering a degree of flexibility. At the same time, nominal wage increases should stay in positive terrain, and wage cuts and freezes should be rejected.
These guidelines enable us to devote part of the total bargaining space to measures that support job creation by, for example and amongst other things, increasing the number of trainees, investing in lifelong learning and reducing the incidence of precarious and insecure job contracts. In situations or countries where trade unions wish to do so, collective bargaining can go beyond the sum of inflation and productivity.
A greater coordination between us is needed to manage this kind of flexibility; some shared guidelines have to be set, that should not be crossed below which we shouldn’t go.
This has to be done by starting from a common evaluation of the recommendations on salaries and economic imbalances issued by the Commission with its scoreboards. The EU institution put an external coordination on the table that we must counter with an autonomous and shared TU strategy.
The reaction to the scoreboard (that concerns 12 member states, even with strong economies) has to come from the entire European trade union movement: the responses have to be coordinated and the Collective Bargaining Committee is the ideal place in which to start this discussion.
2. Defensive agreements, opening clauses
Over the last 10 years and especially after the crisis, affiliates in several countries have negotiated tripartite or bipartite defensive agreements at national level, or opening clauses agreement at company level, aimed at saving employment or supporting competitiveness.
In order to avoid the possible negative dumping consequences of these kinds of agreements, we may need some guidelines that could be shared between the affiliates, for example:
Avoid all practices which are aimed at bypassing trade unions; the agreements have to be signed by representative trade unions wherever they exist, not only by work councils or by committees that have no mandate from workers;
Defensive agreements should aim at avoiding dismissal, supporting investments and innovation, facing the effects of the crisis, and not wage dumping or competition between workers;
The possible negative effects of an agreement aimed at saving employment should be temporary and not affect the general collective bargaining system and its coverage in the country or sector or company involved;
Concessions made by the unions must have a clear and well-defined compensation; the principle of “quid pro quo” exchange should be taken into account;
Company level agreements should be embedded in higher-level framework agreements, clearly setting lower limits to be respected by company level concession bargaining;
Procedures to control deviations should be set up by social partners at the level involved.
3. Minimum wage and collective bargaining coverage
The coverage of the collective agreements at any level should be pursued in each country. It is the most suitable instrument for trade unions to ensure fair wages and avoid social dumping. A high level of trade union membership is fundamental to improving collective bargaining coverage.
In countries, sectors or companies where collective bargaining does not exist or is not strong enough to ensure decent and fair negotiated wage coverage for the majority of employees, the legal minimum wage and/or the erga omnes coverage could be useful tools.
Minimum wages and indexation systems, as well as collective agreements coverage, have to be preserved and strengthened where they already exist.
The minimum wage is not an objective by itself but an instrument for fighting the development of precarious work and to shift the wage ladder upwards.
Legislation on the minimum wage should provide for a specific involvement of social partners in bipartite/tripartite bodies/consultations before the adoption of the minimum wage by public authorities.
The ETUC and the EU federations should strongly support our affiliates at every level in order to achieve these objectives, in accordance with their national circumstances.
The different systems of minimum wage, indexation, erga omnes, collective agreements coverage should be analysed at a technical level within the ETUC with the aim of better understanding of the different systems and proposals, as a precondition for a possible coordination.
4. Transnational and cross-border agreements
There was a strong request by our affiliates, especially at cross-border level and in Central and Eastern European countries, for enhancing cooperation and coordination of the negotiations in multinational companies.
This is an important way of preventing social dumping and wage competition and of achieving a progressive approximation of working conditions within the same company.
This issue falls under the scope of Transnational Company Agreements and is going to be discussed by a specific coordinating body setup by the ETUC together with the ETUFs. The discussion should also involve the national trade unions and federations, in order to submit a specific resolution to the Executive Committee in the near future.
Practical commitments and actions
The four principles mentioned above are a first list of proposals that need to be discussed further.
There might be some organizations that are interested in applying some guidelines; some trade unions in implementing other priorities. For any priority we should set specific guidelines.
We should start an enhanced cooperation process, to strengthen our positions and actions in all the fields we choose as a basis for our strategy of a “new kind of coordination of collective bargaining policy”. Possibilities for starting regional informal clusters for enhanced cooperation and mutual learning between national trade unions should be discussed and developed.
The CBC should develop its working methods in order to work in a more effective way.
A Summer School will be organized, with a general discussion and four working panels, aimed at better analysing and defining the four principles and the guidelines we will set out.
This will be the scope of the project we are going to submit to the Commission this year in the field of the coordination of the collective bargaining policy.
Furthermore, we need to discuss in more detail the way to apply the decision already taken in the last Executive Committee’s resolution on collective bargaining in 2010, aimed at setting up a Steering Committee within the CB Committee.
This kind of Steering Committee (that already exists within other permanent Committees in the ETUC) would not be a political or decision-making body, but simply an internal task force, whose purpose should be to support the work of the CB Committee at technical level.
From this perspective, and in order to avoid confusion with the statutory Steering Committee of the ETUC and the elective Steering Committees within the ETUC’s other permanent Committees, it may be necessary to call this particular committee by another name.
In the last resolution the Steering Committee proposed involving the ETUFs only, in order to strengthen the coordination at European level between them and the ETUC. In the new context we should also consider the involvement of few representatives of the national affiliates, from the main regions where an enhanced coordination will be achievable.
The new name and the composition criteria of this committee will be defined by the Secretariat, in agreement with the Collective Bargaining Coordination Committee.
That decision should not imply a cost increase for the ETUC.
Meanwhile, a range of practical actions has to be defined in order to:
Enhance ‘networking’ amongst members so that they learn the most effective bargaining strategies from each other;
Promote the exchange of information, in order to share common priorities and guidelines;
Try to involve in the coordination process the most relevant people in charge of collective bargaining by the affiliates;
Support the creation of coordinating activities between confederations and federations in those countries and regional areas in which they don’t exist;
Encourage the ETUFs in improving their internal coordination of collective bargaining with the national federations in each sector and across the sectors;
Ensure that the European dimension is taken into account when affiliates pursue their collective bargaining aims (also, wherever possible, through the ETUC’s involvement in the regional clusters for enhanced cooperation);
Ensure that the gender dimension is taken into account in collective bargaining (e.g. women are included in negotiations; negotiators are trained on gender equality issues etc.);
Coordinate the annual questionnaires and surveys issued by ETUC, ETUFs and national affiliates;
Organize common training activities with the affiliates that request it, regarding collective bargaining policy and notably technical matters, for example, the indicators for wage negotiations (inflation, productivity etc);
Launch joint campaigns and actions to spread information and to support affiliates in strengthening each other their collective bargaining activities.
Was this article interesting and relevant for you? Do you have any comments?
You can post a reply to this article here.