Progress in the sectoral dialogue in the public services

The actors, processes and outcomes of the sectoral social dialogue process at EU level are often overlooked in the light of the high level of attention accorded to the intersectoral social dialogue. However, the sectoral dialogue is increasingly gaining momentum as procedures become more established and better relationships are established between organisations. Here we examine the participants and outcomes of the sectoral social dialogue in the public services, a sector which employs a substantial section of the EU workforce. Progress has been made in particular in the dialogue between the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) and the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), with joint statements drawn up on employment and the modernisation of public services.

The Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties strengthened the role of intersectoral and sectoral social partner organisations in the European decision-making process. While the outcomes of intersectoral discussions between the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE), the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) are widely reported, the processes, participants and outcomes of the sectoral social dialogue process are less well known. This EIRO record - which focuses on the sectoral social dialogue in the public services - is the first in a new series outlining the actors involved in, and the outcomes of, a process which is gaining increasing momentum and importance at the European level.

Approximately 25% of all employees in the European Union are engaged in the public sector, including health (11%), public administration (7.5%), education (7%), transport and utilities. This proportion varies significantly from Member State to Member State, being as high as 30% in some Scandinavian countries, and lower than 10% in some southern European countries. This is a sector which spans a very wide spectrum of industries and activities - ranging from public administration to the police and fire service, to the health service and municipal waste collection, as well as key utilities such as electricity and water. The public services are an area where the EU principle of subsidiarity is generally seen to apply, and direct EU intervention in this area is therefore limited. Nevertheless, employment and working conditions in this sector are crucially affected by many European-level policies, such as requirements for competitive tendering, the liberalisation of the utilities, and, more generally, European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). The latter has imposed budgetary stringency on most national - and in turn regional and local - governments. Public sector cutbacks have not failed to have an effect on employment and the quality of service provision.

With the "Europeanisation" of the influences shaping the public services at national, regional and local levels, the momentum for the greater involvement of the social partners representing employers and employees in this sector, and for the establishment of joint initiatives, has grown.

Actors in the sectoral social dialogue in the public services

There are potentially a number of employers' side participants in the European social dialogue in the public services, representing the various sectors and types of activity, while there is only one main employees' side participant - the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU). Below we set out brief details of EPSU and of the employers' side body which has so far become most involved in the dialogue process - the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) .

The Council of European Municipalities and Regions

The Council for European Municipalities (CEM) was founded in Geneva in 1951 in response to a growing global interdependence and the perceived need for greater cooperation, exchanges of experience and transfer of know-how. The CEM became the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) in 1984.

CEMR brings together almost 100,000 local and regional authorities in the European Union and beyond, federated through 38 large national associations of local and regional authorities in 27 European countries. These national associations delegate a certain number of representatives, depending on the size of their country's population and in accordance with the CEMR statutes, to a general assembly (called the "assembly of delegates"). This assembly then elects a set number of representatives of each country to the policy committee, which in turn elects the president, vice-presidents and secretary-general, and appoints a special executive bureau. These statutory bodies set CEMR's policy positions, its position with respect to the process of European unification and particularly the representation of local authorities to the official European institutions in order to defend their interests there in the best possible conditions. CEMR's other activities include:

  • supporting all the national sections and all their members in the establishment of twinnings between two or more European local authorities;
  • encouraging interregional cooperation in supporting local and regional authorities in their search for Community funding set aside for EU programmes. CEMR manages exchange-of-experience programmes and cooperation networks;
  • supporting local and regional authorities when dealing with the EU, which has decided to help most of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in this area; and
  • organising specialised symposia for local and regional authorities, for the promotion of exchanges of experience and transfers of know-how in all sectors of local management - financial, administrative and technical.

In 1992, CEMR set up specialised committees as a forum to exchange views on relevant Community policies. These committees became more flexible "working groups" and are a framework for dialogue with representatives of the European institutions to ensure that the interests of local and regional authorities are taken into account in the decision-making process. Five main working groups currently meet regularly, covering:

  • environment;
  • transport;
  • Employers' Platform;
  • women elected representatives; and
  • information society:

The main working group involved in the sectoral social dialogue is the Employers' Platform of CEMR. This brings together experts in the employment field, appointed by national-level organisations which are representatives of local and regional authorities situated throughout Europe, in their capacity as employers. The Platform was created in April 1994 as a direct result of the need to establish a competent body, at European level, "to respond and implement employment legislation emanating from Brussels, and to participate in social dialogue at European level".

Since the time of its creation, Platform members have worked towards gaining recognition in the European arena, and establishing a dialogue with the different European institutions. For example, one of the main activities of 1995 was a meeting with the member of the European Commission responsible for employment and social affairs, Padraig Flynn, to discuss the future role of the Platform in the social dialogue. A variety of issues were debated including the White Paper on social policy; the medium-term social policy Action Programme; the proposed Directive on "atypical work"; the negotiation of collective agreements; and the efforts of local and regional authorities in the field of job creation.

The CEMR Employers' Platform is involved in an ongoing social dialogue process with its trade union counterpart, EPSU (see below).

The European Federation of Public Service Unions

Based in Brussels, the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) works closely with the Public Services International (PSI) and its affiliates which are members of PSI, and constitutes the European regional arm of PSI. PSI organises 500 trade unions in 130 countries with a combined membership of 20 million public service workers. In Europe alone, EPSU represents the interests of 10 million public service workers from more than 170 affiliated trade unions, occupied in the following areas of activity:

  • production, transport, supply and distribution of electricity and gas;
  • nuclear energy;
  • drinking water supply and sewage and waste water disposal;
  • waste management and refuse collection;
  • ambulance services, nursing and private and public healthcare;
  • social security services, childcare, care for the elderly and other social and community services;
  • firefighting and other local government services;
  • police, defence (both civilian and military staff), prisons, air-traffic control, customs, labour inspectorates and other central government services;
  • culture, recreation and education; and
  • European institutions.

While the PSI has been in existence since 1907, EPSU was founded in 1978, initially with the aim of creating an alliance between the European member organisations of PSI and the trade unions affiliated to the European Federation of Public Employees (EUROFEDOP), which comprises the European public service unions within the Christian-oriented World Confederation of Labour. In 1994, EPSU finally suspended its cooperation with EUROFEDOP and in 1996, the unions of EUROFEDOP affiliated to EPSU. At its general assembly in Vienna in May 1996, it was decided to amend the EPSU statutes to rename the organisation (from the European Public Services Committee), changing its status from an industry committee to an industry federation. At the same general assembly, Herbert Mai, the president of the German ÖTV union was elected president of EPSU, succeeding Rodney Bickerstaffe, the general secretary of the British union, UNISON.

Between the four-yearly meetings of the general assembly, the EPSU executive and steering committees act as the policy-making bodies of the federation. They also act upon recommendations of the standing committees of EPSU, of which there are four, covering:

  • public utilities;
  • health and social services;
  • national and European administrations; and
  • local and regional government.

Outcomes of the social dialogue in the public sector

The EPSU standing committee on public utlities covers the areas of energy, water provision and waste disposal. Over the past decade, the public utilities have been significantly affected by public sector restructuring, privatisation and budgetary stringency. The social dialogue in this area has primarily focused on the electricity industry, where these developments have been most prevalent. EPSU started a process of social dialogue with Eurelectric, the body representing the interests of European electricity companies, in 1995. Agreement was reached on a joint discussion document on health and safety and training which was co-signed with Commissioner Flynn on 12 September 1996. Other issues which are being discussed within the framework of the electricity social dialogue include: equality between women and men, vocational education and training, new technologies and the future organisation of work. Further work is envisaged following up a report on equal opportunities and the reconciliation of work and family life. Taking forward the discussion document on health and safety and training, further activity is envisaged compiling information on best practice across Europe in this area. Work is also continuing on the impact of restructuring in the electricity industry, the issue of employment, flexibility and working time, as well as greater customer orientation and equal opportunities.

Links are also being established by EPSU with Eurogas, Cedec (municipal employers) and Eureau (water companies). EPSU is also part of the trade union delegation on the recently-established EU Energy Consultative Committee which consists of 30 representatives of industry, consumers, trade unions and environmental organisations.

In the healthcare sector, an initial dialogue has been established by EPSU with HOPE, an organisation representing private healthcare providers. This dialogue has so far focused on issues of healthcare policy, childcare and care for the elderly.

The Dutch social partners in the central government sector organised a round-table conference on social dialogue on 28 May 1997 in The Hague. Participating were trade unions from national and European administrations as well as local government trade unions. For the employers' side, various directors-general for public administration and the CEMR Employers' Platform took part. The main themes were flexibility and free movement of workers.

As mentioned above, the dialogue between EPSU's standing committee on local government and CEMR has been the key area of social dialogue in the public services. This process got underway in November 1995 and has so far yielded two joint conferences on developments in industrial relations in local government (November 1995) and on the modernisation of public services (November 1996). Furthermore, the parties have agreed a joint declaration on the modernisation of public services (November 1996), a joint statement on employment (October 1997) and a further joint statement on employment (October 1997) - see annex below. In the joint texts, the social partners expressed their willingness to continue their dialogue on these issues.

Other topics discussed in the framework of the local government social dialogue include: equality between women and men; future organisation of work (in relation to the Commission's April 1997 Green Paper on the issue - EU9707134F) and working time; vocational education and training; and the information society and telework.


The social dialogue in the public sector, between EPSU and CEMR in particular, has gained significant momentum in recent years, partly due to the development of more coherent structures both on the trade union and employer side and partly because of common pressures, such as European regulations and budgetary stringency. Recent joint statements indicate the willingness to continue a dialogue on the key issues of employment and the modernisation of public services. Other key areas of activity are equal opportunities and working time policies.

In other areas of the public sector, the development of a social dialogue has been impeded by the lack of a coherent structure of employer organisations at European level. However, initial contacts are also being established at this level and may lead to greater cooperation in future. Some work remains to be done to highlight the significance of the European dimension of policy-making in this area, as the principle of subsidiarity continues to prevail in the perception of decision makers in the area of public services. (Tina Weber, ECOTEC Research and Consulting Ltd)

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