Belgian, Dutch and German construction unions sign cooperation agreement

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In June 2000, construction workers' trade unions from Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands agreed a joint declaration on measures to seek harmonisation of working conditions in the industry. They also signed an innovative cooperation agreement, which comes into force on 1 October 2000, providing for mutual trade union assistance and support for construction workers posted to other countries.

In the construction sector, the dialogue between trade union organisations from different countries goes back a long way. The free circulation of workers on major European construction sites such as the Channel tunnel has brought national trade union organisations closer together, as they realise that the demands they voice for their members are often identical to those of workers from other countries. In some cases - such as the current Alpine transit tunnel project in Switzerland, or the bridge linking Denmark and Sweden- international negotiations have occurred on major building projects, with a joint union committee representing the workforce to management for the duration of the work, with a view to harmonising working conditions and health and safety provisions.

The European Federation of Building and Woodworkers (EFBWW) - a European industry federation affiliated to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) - has played a leading part in the sector's European social dialogue (EU9808124F). As well as other joint activities and initiatives with the sectoral employers' organisation, the federation has been involved in the drafting of several EU Directives, and is currently being consulted on the process of revising Directive 96/71/EC on the posting of workers in the framework of the provision of services (TN9909201S). Prior to the introduction of the European Works Councils (EWC s) Directive (94/45/EC) (TN9807201S), EFBWW had already set up structures known as "multi-projects", bringing together workers' representatives from multinational groups' operations in various countries. The construction industry now has over 50 EWCs.

EFBWW's general assembly brings representatives of its member organisations together every four years. At the most recent general assembly, which took place in Luxembourg in November 1999, member unions adopted an action programme for the next four years. In the programme, the unions asserted their wish to intensify EFBWW's interventions in trade union policy in the sector. In line with the approach agreed at the assembly, trade unions from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany subsequently stated that they "wished to foster the social dimension of unified Europe by harmonising their policies on working conditions", through a joint declaration.

Joint declaration

On 19 June 2000, five trade union organisations met and signed a joint declaration concerning policy on working conditions:

  • from Belgium, the Christian Building and Woodworkers' Union (Centrale Chrétienne des Travailleurs du Bois et du Bâtiment/Christelijke Centrale Hout en Bouw, CCTBB/CCHB) affiliated to the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV) and the General Workers' Union (Centrale Générale/Algemene Centrale) affiliated to the socialist Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV);
  • from the Netherlands, the Building Workers' Union (FNV Bouw) affiliated to the Dutch Trade Union Federation ( Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging, FNV) and the the Building and Woodworkers' Union ("Hout- en Bouwbond CNV") affiliated to the Christian Trade Union Federation (Christelijk Nationaal Vakverbond, CNV); and
  • from Germany, the Building, Agricultural and Environmental Union (IG Bauen-Agrar-Umwelt, IG BAU).

The aim of the meeting, to which concrete expression was given in the joint declaration, was to lay down the basis for a process of harmonisation of working conditions between these three countries. With a view to this, 10 precise resolutions were formulated, which can be grouped as follows.

Information and analysis on national collective agreements

  • Exchange of information on collective agreements concluded and on the status and progress of negotiations, via the internet.
  • Creation of an online database of national collective agreements.
  • Analysis of national collective agreements and comparative studies of their content.
  • Identification of national "best practice".
  • Organisation of courses, or intensification of existing courses, to inform workers on current agreements.

Bargaining

  • Annual meetings of national negotiators involved in working conditions policy.
  • Definition of joint bargaining objectives to be incorporated into the unions' demands, in order to allow for coordination in bargaining strategies and the formulation of demands.

Solidarity

  • Concerted planning of joint actions by trade unions, and of demonstrations of solidarity.
  • Drawing up a joint plan to guarantee the correct implementation of the collective agreements in force as well as legal assistance to the unions' members working in each of the other countries.
  • Harmonisation of working conditions will be sought through concrete action.

Provision of union support and assistance

In order to apply the point in the joint declaration relating to mutual legal assistance for union members, the signatory unions from all three countries, along with EFBWW, also concluded a two-year "agreement for the mutual provision of trade union support and assistance to Dutch, German and Belgian construction workers", which comes into effect on 1 October 2000. The main points are as follows:

  • provision of support and assistance. When construction workers are posted by their employer to a bordering country for a maximum term of 12 months, they will be entitled to free support and assistance from the host country's trade unions. Examples of support and assistance to be provided by unions include: taking all measures to preserve the health, safety and well-being of construction workers; overseeing the proper application of working conditions and wage provisions in force; ensuring that all legal provisions and regulations concerning social security are observed; encouraging free choice of trade union representation for the workers concerned; and informing construction workers of existing training opportunities. The cost of possible administrative and legal procedures are borne by the union organisations;
  • dissemination. The organisations will make sure that the necessary information is disseminated and that the trade unions are presented to the workers concerned in an objective fashion;
  • free choice in representation. All workers are free to decide to which trade union they wish to address their request for support and assistance. Construction workers who apply for such support and assistance must first prove that they are affiliated to an appropriate trade union in their home country; and
  • settlement of disputes. Each trade union must account for the fulfilment of its obligations to both the construction worker involved and the trade union to which the worker is affiliated. All disputes, arising from the implementation of the agreement, between the construction worker and the trade union that provides assistance will be resolved by a final, binding arbitration decision, taken by a representative of the worker, the trade union that is providing assistance and the trade union of which he or she is a member.

Commentary

"Europeanisation" of industrial relations (TN9907201S) is well underway in the construction sector, compared with most other industries. Spurred on by free circulation of workers, trade unions in different EU Member States have been forced to respond by intensifying contacts among themselves. The German construction workers' union, IG BAU, for example, has already concluded cooperation agreements with its Italian (DE9804259N), Polish (DE9911223N), Portuguese and Swiss counterparts.

One is naturally inclined to establish a parallel between the new construction unions' initiative and the September 1998 Doorn declaration (DE9810278F), which involves representatives from Belgian, Luxembourg, Dutch and German unions. These unions have agreed on cross-border coordination of wage bargaining, in order to fight any tendency for wages to stagnate or drop in Europe in an attempt to safeguard the competitiveness of enterprises. The new construction initiative does not have the same ambitions (in principle it does not concern wage bargaining but working conditions), but it does provide for concrete action. Setting up mutual assistance from trade unions to foreign workers is an important step for national trade union organisations to internalise the European dimension of industrial relations (there have been some similar examples in other sectors - eg DE0009280N and DE9703206N). The question remains as to how this more concrete type of cooperation could be extended to other sectors, and what conditions are required for such initiatives to see the light of day. Thus, would such an agreement have been possible in cases involving participating organisations with unequal weight in terms of number of members, whereby members of the "heavyweight" organisation would not have been assured of obtaining a sufficient quid pro quo?

Both the Doorn initiative and the new arrangements in construction, although each has its specificities, are characterised by the fact that they take place at the regional level within Europe (in this instance, the cross-border level). One may wonder if, alongside the "macro" agreements concluded between central organisations at the European level - ETUC, the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) and theEuropean Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) - and the European sectoral social dialogue, a new level of regional relations is emerging within Europe, propelled by pragmatic considerations. The advantage of this type of development for trade union organisations will undoubtedly be greater ease of implementation (with fewer partners involved and geographic proximity). If agreements of this sort continue to be signed, the question of their coordination with other initiatives at the European level could be raised, and of the role that could be played by ETUC's industry federations. (Catherine Delbar and Pierre Walthéry, Institut des Sciences du Travail, UCL)

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