HK/Industri proposes a European collective industrial relations system

In November 1997, HK/Industri, the industrial section of the Danish commercial and clerical employees' union, published proposals for a "European collective industrial relations system", which would include transnational agreements and an industrial tribunal.

HK/Industri- the industrial section of the Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees in Denmark (Handels- og Kontorfunktionærernes Forbund, HK) - has published a comprehensive proposal on a "European collective industrial relations system". The aim is to initiate a debate on how European-wide industrial relations issues can be resolved. The union proposes the conclusion of transnational agreements, with an industrial tribunal to adjudicate on matters of dispute. These proposals were presented at a conference in Denmark on 28-29 November and at a press conference in Brussels on 8 December.

Most of the 50,000 members of HK/Industri are employed as administrative/technical officers in multinational enterprises based in Denmark. The union therefore has a vital interest in protecting and improving the rights of employees in Denmark and also in the European Union (EU) generally. HK/Industri believes that the time is overdue for the social partners to re-examine the EU industrial relations system and the position of multinational enterprises. This would be a follow-up to the historic agreement between the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) of 31 October 1991: this was the agreement on the role of the European-level social partners in the formulation and implementation of Community social policy which formed the basis for the Maastricht social policy Agreement.

HK/Industri's detailed proposals, which amount to 62 pages, advocate the need to set up a one-tier system of consultation within ETUC and to progress voluntary negotiations and agreements at European level on an industry-wide and transnational basis. In order to work towards the conclusion of transnational agreements, it is proposed that a set of transnational collective rights and obligations should be established, to be adjudicated by a newly-established industrial tribunal.

A one-tier system of consultation

The proposal argues that there is a general need to strengthen the position of the social partners in the preparation of new Directives and agreements at European level.

First, the Danish trade union movement must give more consideration as to how they can influence the substance of Directives and Regulations on employment matters. To this end, Danish trade unions will have to make their views known at a much earlier stage.

Secondly, whilst the European Commission carries out a comprehensive process of consultation, it reserves the right to decide what weight to give to the views of the various bodies involved in the consultation procedure. HK/Industri therefore recommends that the consultation process on employment matters should be restricted only to those organisations directly involved, and that the ETUC internal consultation process over Commission proposals should be simplified by the introduction of a single-tier system .

Instead of parallel consultation processes with ETUC's member national confederations and its sectoral European industry federations, HK/Industri envisages three different consultation procedures within the ETUC:

  • an ordinary cross-sectoral hearing where all confederations are consulted;
  • a sectoral hearing, whereby the industry federations are asked to conduct consultations among their members at national level; or
  • a cross-sectoral hearing where specific sub-issues are presented to one or more industry federations.

This will necessitate a more efficient consultation structure within some industry federations, and therefore a need for them to set out rules for hearing procedures and the delineation of the authority to negotiate (in the same way as is proposed for the ETUC - see below). As far as representation is concerned, it is recommended that instead of all members having a seat on the decision-making bodies, a system of joint representation of national sectoral organisations is established.

Voluntary negotiations and the transfer of mandate

HK/Industri argues that when voluntary negotiations are conducted on the initiative of the European social partners without prior consultation by the Commission, a good basis does not exist for providing a framework of authority to negotiate, because the trade union movement has not yet established a practice for giving ETUC the authority to negotiate on its behalf.

For the purposes of consultation and the transfer of a mandate to negotiate, the proposed one-tier system of consultation within ETUC could be used. However, such a system risks limiting the scope of negotiations, as a successful conclusion is often dependent on bargaining parties having a relatively wide room to manoeuvre. Therefore, HK/Industri recommends that the current system whereby the ETUC is granted on a case-by-case basis powers to appoint members of negotiating delegations and a framework for the authority to negotiate, should be gradually replaced by a general power to initiate voluntary negotiations within specific fields with employers' associations. The approval of the outcome of negotiations should be subject to a ballot among ETUC's member confederations, the result of which would be weighted according to the confederations' memberships.

The proposal states that the ETUC should recognise the powers of its industry federations to initiate voluntary negotiations and that they in turn must accept that there will be a need for coordination of negotiation issues. Similarly, industry federations need to authorised by their members to commence voluntary negotiations with a view to concluding binding agreements, or to agree joint declarations with the employers.

European collective agreements

HK/Industri recognises that some progress has already been made. The social partners' agreement of 31 October 1991 became the Maastricht social policy Agreement - under which several cross-sector agreements have been reached - and has now been included in the body of the new Amsterdam Treaty (EU9707135F). However, HK/Industri believes that the parties to the October 1991 agreement have not taken the initiative for themselves: it is still the European Commission which is the driving force and which has an all-important influence on the content of new industrial relations initiatives.

HK/Industri argues that this situation must change. The social partners themselves must establish and define the mechanisms and institutions of the future European collective industrial relations system.

In addition, much is still required when it comes to transnational agreements. Transnational agreements are not binding at Community level, and there are no clear rules on the legal rights of the parties or the enforcement of such agreements, including rules on resolution of disputes. In the view of HK/Industri, the EU should set rules on these matters in order to create a uniform and clear framework for transnational collective agreements.

At present it is impossible to conclude general or collective agreements on a transnational basis, or group agreements covering companies in several countries. On this basis, HK/Industri asks: "How do we match large European groups in relation to the implementation of collective rules for employees? How do trade unions prevent companies from deliberately exploiting differences in wages and working conditions across the EU?"

By using the Danish model of industrial relations as an example, HK/Industri proposes that a set of rules describing the collective rights and obligations of the parties should be drawn up and a European judicial body/industrial tribunal should be established. Definitions, rules and mechanisms should be agreed upon between ETUC, UNICE and CEEP in a "basic agreement" on the rules governing the European collective industrial relations system.

Collective right and obligations

In order to accelerate the development of transnational collective agreements, or agreements covering a multinational company in the EU, it should, according to HK/Industri, be made possible for trade unions to impose demands for an agreement by force. The union proposes that industrial weapons such as strikes, blockades and secondary action in support of lawful industrial disputes should be made available for trade unions on transnational matters. Likewise, transnational employers' associations and companies should be able to initiate lock-outs and boycotts.

Such rights to take industrial action would, it is claimed, make it necessary to introduce three industrial relations mechanisms:

  • a "peace obligation" in all cases where a transnational agreement has been concluded. This will prevent the use of strikes as a political weapon and ensure that strikes are employed only for an industrial relations purpose;
  • independent mediation machinery, with powers to postpone official strikes, and support negotiation during talks and after they have broken down. Compulsory arbitration to force a resolution of an dispute could also be considered; and
  • the insertion of general rules for disputes procedures in collective agreements should be considered.

The use of industrial action varies substantially from one country to another. HK/Industri acknowledges that it may be some time before it is possible to lay down a common set of rules for industrial action with respect to transnational agreements.

The establishment of an Industrial tribunal

According to HK/Industri, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) already acts as a forum for decisions on preliminary references intended to clarify the interpretation of industrial disputes at Community level, and this poses the question as to whether the ECJ could also be the future forum for adjudicating on transnational cases. Taking the Danish model of industrial relations as a benchmark for the establishment of a European industrial relations system, HK/Industri proposes the establishment of an industrial tribunal to facilitate the speedy and consistent resolution of disputes relating to European collective industrial relations law. More precisely, the objectives of the proposed industrial tribunal are envisaged as follows:

  • to ensure a uniform interpretation of transnational issues relating to industrial relations law; and
  • to settle industrial relations legal issues by giving careful attention to the case law of the Member States.

The tribunal would be presided over by judges and, depending upon political and other practicalities, may or may not be connected to the ECJ. The HK/Industri proposal contains detailed considerations on a range of specific issues relating to the tribunal. In the view of HK/Industri, the establishment of an industrial tribunal will constitute a cornerstone for creating a genuine European collective industrial relations system.

Commentary

By putting forward a proposal on a European collective industrial relations system, HK/Industri has taken up the challenge of giving pointers to the next step in the evolution of European industrial relations, building on the European social partners' October 1991 agreement.

The Commission has on several occasions called for the social partners to establish more efficient structures and methods to enable them to take up their new role as European policy-makers. The questions are whether or not: the HK/Industri proposal will make a real contribution to such a debate; it is time to move on or to consolidate progress; the social partners are prepared to engage in real talks over the instruments and institutions of a European industrial relation system.

Given that it has already taken three decades to arrive at the present state of affairs, it will not be easy to move on to the next phase. However, it is clear that many of the issues which will have to be dealt with are those raised in the HK/Industri proposal. (Kåre FV Petersen, FAOS)

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