Legal barriers to European-level collective bargaining

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Judging from a recent exchange of letters between a Dutch trade unions and the Department of Justice, it would appear that cross-border cooperation between unions, let alone their international merger, is beset with legal difficulties.

Trade unions are confronted by legal problems in their endeavour to explore the possibility of collective bargaining at European level. At least, this has been the recent experience of the Dutch union for printing and allied trades Druk en Papier (Printing and Paper) which has 44,000 members and is affiliated to the Dutch Federation of Trade Unions (FNV).

This union has been discussing the establishment of a European "corporation" with its counterparts in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. The proposed corporation could be granted the right to negotiate collective agreements with multinational companies in the printing and allied trades sector. Ultimately, the unions involved might even merge. In that way, contends Druk en Papier, trade unions could genuinely contribute to the European social dialogue and catch up with the process of business mergers across Europe.

However, according to an exchange of letters between Druk en Papier and the Dutch Department of Justice, it appears that such a far-reaching form of international cooperation between unions may be hampered by legal difficulties - at least in the Netherlands. The problems centre on the legal status of any European-level structure created by the unions. To date, the Netherlands has not ratified the 1968 European Community Treaty on International Recognition of Legal Persons, because, according to the Department of Justice, it contains requirements that do not match Dutch practice. A subsequent attempt in 1973 by the European Commission, to bring about a treaty on the international merging of legal persons, failed. Then, in 1992, the Commission submitted a proposal to the Council for Regulations on Statutes for European associations, cooperative societies and mutual societies. However, it has not been decided whether such associations should be allowed to employ workers across several member states. Another issue blocking progress pertains to aspects of employee information, consultation and participation. As a result, discussions are still going on.

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