Collective bargaining and strikes in 1997

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According to recently-published official figures, 1997 was a year in which collective bargaining in Portugal did not differ much, in numerical terms, from previous years. This demonstrates that the bargaining system still sticks to a certain formal rigidity that is not accompanied by substantive change. Figures also indicate that although the number of strikes remained stable, some reduction in other indicators of strike mobilisation - workers involved and days lost, for example - is noticeable.

Collective bargaining

Statistics on collective bargaining provided by the Directorate-General for Labour Conditions of the Ministry of Labour and Solidarity show that in 1997, 409 collective agreements were published of which 68% were sectoral agreements, 26.4% were company-level agreements and 5.6% were" adoption agreements", whereby social partners in one area adopted agreements already negotiated elsewhere. The number of agreements essentially remained at the same level as in previous years, though there was a slight drop in relation to 1996 - there were 410 agreements in 1995 and 436 in 1996.

Alongside collective agreements, "instruments of collective labour regulation" in Portugal also include ministerial orders whereby the state, due to the absence of social partners - either trade unions or employers - in certain sectors or companies, decides to extend the scope of existing collective agreements or to lay down terms and conditions itself. There were 154 such instruments published in 1997. The number of times the state intervened through these extension directive s or labour regulation directive s has remained basically unchanged at around 30% of all instruments for the last four years, though a slight trend toward reduction can be seen in the 1997 figure, which was 27.5%

The content of the collective agreements negotiated in 1997 was very limited, and in 84.2% of agreements, no new topics were introduced. Previous clauses were simply updated in accordance with new labour laws, while the greater part of the changes dealt with wage increases. In many cases, this meant only updating rates on the basis of reference figures laid down by the government or as a result of the central strategic concertation process between the social partners. In only 10.2% of cases were the entire contents of agreements renegotiated. The proportion of agreements where new topics were introduced (10.2% of all agreements) returned to the same level as in 1994 (10.3%). This represents a slight increase in relation to 1995 (9.2%) and 1996 (6.4%).

The highest proportion of total bargaining activity - at 48.4% - took place in manufacturing industry, followed by commerce with 15.4% and transport with 13.9%

There were 154 conciliation proceedings in 1997, which represents a slight decrease from 1996's figure of 161. This means that the social partners made less use of the process of mandatory conciliation through the Ministry of Labour. Though recourse to arbitration as a means of settlement is available, it was not utilised.

The percentage of workers covered by instruments of collective labour regulation is high in Portugal - at 97.8% of all employees (according to figures from Quadros de Pessoal 1995) - although in a relatively large number of cases this coverage is indirect or via extension directives. Of the total, 82.8% are covered by sectoral instruments, 10.4% by company-level instruments and 5.5% by labour regulation directives.

Strikes in 1997

Preliminary, yet highly reliable data on strike activity - "Annual report on industrial relations - 1997" ("Relatório anual da área de relações profissionais -1997"), IDICT (1998)- show that 1997 was marked by 313 strikes, of which: 77.3% were single-company strikes; 9.2% were sectoral strikes covering an entire sector or group of enterprises; and 9.2% took place in the public services.

The number of strikes in 1997 was not far from the number registered in previous years (309 in 1996), though the maintenance of this level can be attributed to a sharp rise in strikes in the public services - from 24 to 42 - and a reduction in sectoral strikes from 34 to 29. The sectors in which the greatest number of strikes took place were footwear, rubber and textiles. Since most of these industries are located in the north of Portugal, strike activity was more intense in that part of the country. In previous years, the greatest number of strikes had taken place in the industrial belts surrounding the cities of Lisbon and Setúbal, where strike activity centred mainly around the metalworking industry.

Preliminary data for 1997 also underline a previously observed steady downward trend in strike mobilisation indicators - the number of workers on strike, the duration of strikes and the number of working days lost. The average number of workers involved in each strike fell from 476 in 1990 to 184 in 1996 (315 and 214 in 1994 and 1995), showing clearly a gradually decline in numbers of strikers (see "Labour disputes" ("Conflitos de trabalho") Relatório e análises, No 24, MQE (1996) and "Strikes/Annual/1996" ("Greves/Anual/1996"), DE (1997). The average number of working days lost per strike fell from 541 in 1990 to 193 in 1996 (323 and 223 in 1994 and 1995), which points to a simultaneous decrease in strike duration.

The main demands at the centre of strikes concern wage increases and payment of late wages (in 1996 and in previous years). Preliminary data also show a gradual rise in strikes centred around the duration of working time.

Commentary

For some unions, strikes continue to be the key element in collective action. The number of strike notices issued - Portuguese strike law requires that notice of strike s be served some days before the strike is to start - rose from 783 in 1996 to 860 in 1997, despite the reduction in disputes in the economy which was scarcely offset by the increase in strikes within the public service .

Strikes are used as forms of pressuring management and imposing demands, mainly on pay and reduction of working hours. The increasingly precarious nature of employment contracts, new forms of work organisation, the individualisation of labour relations, and new techniques in human resources management which rely more on employee involvement, have been cited as factors influencing the decline in the number of strikes.

A debate on innovation in collective bargaining - examining the model of industrial relations, methods of regulation, and the role of the state - has recently been initiated (PT9711147F). The debate was temporarily interrupted, however, when a recent reorganisation of government took place. Despite the efforts of some of the social partners, the system has become static, negotiating mechanisms have ceased to function, and the protective nature of state and legal intervention continues. The number of agreements renegotiated in their entirety is still low and the social partners limit themselves to negotiating wage increases. One innovation is the fact that, in recent years, there has been an increase in the number of company-level agreements negotiated (32% and 31% of all agreements in 1994 and 1995 respectively and 57% and 52% of agreements with new topics). (Maria Luisa Cristovam, UAL)

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