Spain's first sectoral agreement on the structure of collective bargaining

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In March 1998, the metalworking employers' organisation, CONFEMETAL, and the metalworking federations of the UGT, CC.OO and CIGA trade unions signed an Agreement on the structure of collective bargaining in the metalworking industry, aimed at rationalising bargaining in the sector. This is the first agreement of this type to be signed following 1997's intersectoral agreement on collective bargaining.

On 24 March 1998, the employers' organisation representing the metalworking sector, CONFEMETAL, and the metalworking federations of the UGT, CC.OO and CIGA trade unions signed an Agreement on the structure of collective bargaining in the metalworking industry (Acuerdo sobre estructura de la negociación colectiva en la industria del metal). Its objective is to rationalise collective bargaining and to standardise the basic norms and procedures of labour relations in the metalworking sector. The agreement is of great significance because it is the first agreement of this type to be signed following the conclusion of the intersectoral agreement on collective bargaining in April 1997 (ES9706211F). Its impact is also very important in quantitative terms, because it will affect around 900,000 blue-collar workers, 11% of the workers covered by collective bargaining.

Structure of collective bargaining

For some time, the social partners have been expressing their concern about the lack of structure in collective bargaining, a problem that was inherited from the Franco régime. Bargaining is based largely on provincial sectoral agreements, coexisting with many agreements at a company and national level, all of which repeat the same content without any degree of coherence: all the agreements deal with the same type of subject and there is no division of responsibility among the different levels. This situation generates many problems because it dilutes the negotiating efforts of the parties, allows major differences between provincial agreements in the same sector and prevents the application of the agreements in small companies. With the labour reform of 1994 a still more complex map was drawn up: the new text of the Workers' Statute allows agreements at a lower level to include better or worse conditions than those agreed at a higher level. Until that time, collective bargaining could only improve the conditions agreed at a higher level.

This situation has proved unsatisfactory for both the employers and the trade unions. For some time the employers' organisations have been considering the need for a better adaptation of collective bargaining to the reality of production by decentralising negotiation as far as possible to facilitate the adjustment of the agreements to the specific situation of each company or sector. They therefore welcomed the 1994 labour reform. But even from this decentralising perspective, it was necessary to rationalise collective bargaining and to define the different levels and subjects more clearly in order to avoid a tier-like bargaining structure. The trade unions, on the other hand, have always defended the need to "articulate" and "give structure" to collective bargaining by implanting at a national level a solid and homogeneous framework of labour conditions that can be developed and improved at a lower level. This position has been reinforced since the 1994 reform, which in the opinion of the trade unions made collective bargaining incoherent and chaotic.

From very different positions the employers and the trade unions have agreed on the need to rationalise collective bargaining. A result of this was the April 1997 intersectoral agreement on collective bargaining. Its objective was to "distribute subjects among the different levels of negotiation for reasons of specialisation". However, this agreement established only a series of general recommendations, leaving negotiations in the hands of the social partners in each sector. The Agreement on the structure of collective bargaining for the metalworking industry is the first sectoral agreement that deals with this question.

Negotiation of the agreement

The metalworking sector is an exemplary illustration of the incoherence of collective bargaining in Spain. It has traditionally been one of the most emblematic sectors in labour relations with a long tradition of collective bargaining, which is perhaps why it is less structured than other sectors. In the sector, there is no framework collective agreement at a national level and the basic reference is the provincial agreement. Also, in such a wide area as the metalworking sector - which embraces such diverse subsectors as the iron and steel industry, the automobile industry and electronics - subsectoral regulations are of great relevance. Finally, large companies have a major presence, which is why there are more company agreements than in other sectors: according to 1997 figures, 87% of the agreements in the metalworking sector are company agreements covering 22% of the workers, while across the Spanish economy as a whole company agreements represent 72% of the total and cover 11% of workers.

The dynamics of bargaining at national level began to gain momentum with the 1994 labour reform. In addition to altering the structure of collective bargaining, this reform involved a major deregulation of employment and gave a greater degree of autonomy to collective bargaining, forcing the social partners to regulate aspects that had been governed by laws until that time. The first step was the constitution in 1995 of a permanent commission, whose task was to monitor, mediate and give advice to the commissions set up at other levels of bargaining. This commission sought at an early stage to introduce a certain degree of regulation in the dynamics of collective bargaining in metalworking. Later, several agreements were signed on specific matters at a national level: the agreement on the occupational grading system (1996), which replaced the old labour ordinance; the ratification of the agreement on the solution of labour conflicts out of court and the setting up of a joint commission in the metalworking sector (1996); and finally, the continuing training agreement for the metalworking sector (1997). This experience made it possible to begin negotiations to rationalise the structure of collective bargaining even before the intersectoral agreement on this topic was signed.

Main content of the agreement

The Agreement on the structure of collective bargaining in the metalworking industry seeks to "establish the most suitable articulation among the different levels of negotiation, so that certain matters are reserved for sectoral collective bargaining at a national level, others are negotiated at this level but are open to development at lower levels, and yet others are directly reserved for the lower levels".

The subjects that will be negotiated exclusively at a national level are:

  • trial or probationary periods;
  • types of contract;
  • occupational grading and professional groups;
  • discipline;
  • minimum standards for health and safety; and
  • geographical mobility.

The general criteria governing the following subjects will also be negotiated at a national level for subsequent development at lower levels:

  • promotion of permanent employment contracts;
  • training and career progression;
  • procedures for negotiating agreements;
  • mediation and arbitration;
  • wages and wages structures;
  • regulation and calculation of annual working hours;
  • limits on overtime and compensation for overtime;
  • flexible working hours;
  • equal opportunities;
  • trade union rights and information and consultation on labour relations; and
  • time off and leave of absence.

The remaining subjects may be negotiated directly at lower levels.

The agreement also establishes procedures for resolving disputes over discrepancies between what is agreed at the different levels of bargaining. The general rule is that disputes will be resolved by applying the most favourable terms for the workers.

The permanent commission is responsible for negotiating all matters of a national scope. The agreement is valid for four years.


This agreement is of great importance for several reasons. It is the first sectoral agreement that deals with the structure of collective bargaining; the metalworking sector has a great deal of experience in collective bargaining, but it is very unstructured; and the number of workers and companies that will be affected by the agreement is very great. The deal will therefore without doubt serve as a benchmark for other sectors. Its effectiveness will depend largely on the results of the negotiating round that is just beginning. The permanent commission has before it the task of negotiating and reaching agreements on topics of great relevance as well as monitoring the application of the agreements that are reached. The objective of articulated collective bargaining is above all to achieve a more effective application of the agreements in small and medium-sized enterprises. (María Caprile, CIREM Foundation)

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