Social dialogue, tripartitism and bipartism at national level / Foundation Focus, September 2015
Social dialogue – whether conducted through tripartite concertation or bipartite dialogue in the Member States – is concerned with more than just topical issues: it also involves efforts to establish, readapt and revise the system of industrial relations. Eurofound’s most recent comparative analysis of developments in collective bargaining in Europe found that most legislative changes made over the past two decades have in fact bolstered the collective bargaining process (Eurofound, forthcoming). This article – based on contributions from Eurofound’s network of European correspondents – selects the most recent reforms and debates that are currently underway in the EU Member States.
Reforms of the industrial relations system are often made against a background of attempts to resolve deadlocks in concertation. In Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Romania, this has involved reforming the tripartite bodies with a view to strengthening tripartitism.
In the Czech Republic, the role of social partners was strengthened after the Czech government, in December 2014, changed the procedural rules for preparing legislation and statutory regulations. Under the new rules, the comments of social partners to draft regulations and guidance will be forwarded to the relevant Deputy Ministers who have proposed the amendments to the legislation; the government’s Legislative Council is obliged to discuss the comments and address possible conflicts.
In Poland, following a long-standing stalemate in social dialogue, the deadlock seems to have been overcome. New tripartite bodies – with an increased scope of responsibility – began operations in early 2015. Under draft legislation, it is proposed that a Social Dialogue Council will replace the Tripartite Commission on Social and Economic Affairs.
In Malta, a working group has proposed changes in the structure of the tripartite national institution for social dialogue – the Malta Council for Economic and Social Dialogue (MCESD). Its key recommendation was that MCESD should have administrative and financial autonomy. The working group also recommended that MCESD move away from the Ministry for Social Dialogue in order to assert its independence.
In Romania, further amendments to the law governing the Economic and Social Council (CES) aim to unlock social dialogue at sectoral level and revive tripartite dialogue through the National Tripartite Committee for Social Dialogue. Another goal is to enforce dialogue within the CES with third parties representing civic society (similar to that operating in the European Economic and Social Committee).
In Lithuania, proposals for a new social dialogue model were put forward in December 2014 and presented at the Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania (LRS) in May 2015. Under the new model, the current main national tripartite social dialogue institution, the Tripartite Council of the Republic of Lithuania (LRTT), would be replaced by the National Council. Moreover, the status of employer organisations would be defined by legislation, which should also establish representativeness criteria for social partner organisations, regulate relations between work councils and trade unions, and provide better protection for the leaders of trade unions and works councils.
In Luxembourg, after signing a bilateral agreement with employer representatives, and another with trade unions, the Luxembourg government has been encouraging the social partners to revert to the country’s former tradition of tripartite consultation. At the same time, tripartite meetings have been held as part of the framework process of organising the national response to the European Semester.
Similar debates have been underway in Finland, focusing on the role of social partners in the traditional tripartite setting. For over a year, the peak-level social partners have been in bilateral negotiations regarding a renewal of the collective bargaining system. In February 2015, the dialogue ended in deadlock due to disagreements on how to avoid illegal strikes. Negotiations to reform the social dialogue structure were expected to continue alongside the developments following the parliamentary election in April 2015. However, the new government, which took office in May, immediately put pressure on the social partners. In a move that is at odds with the Finnish tradition of tripartite consensus, the government has threatened to introduce additional austerity measures if the social partners do not agree to a ‘social contract’ to improve the country’s competitiveness.
In Sweden, social partners have discussed ways to reinforce the bipartite model. On 3 October 2014, the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (SN) and the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) made a joint declaration to mark the opening of negotiations about how the Swedish model of social dialogue might be revised. Their stated position is that social partners – and not politicians – should continue to be the key actors in regulating working conditions in the Swedish labour market.
At the same time, in France, reform of the funding of social dialogue has been proceeding. The Law of 5 March 2014 on Professional Training, Employment and Social Democracy provided for the creation of a new fund to support trade union and employer organisations in ‘their role in the management of bipartite bodies (paritarism) and their participation in the design of public policy’. A decree of 31 January 2015 set out rules for how the fund would operate. Social partners in France have also recently expressed the need to discuss the future of national bargaining more generally, following the breakdown in January of negotiations on modernising social dialogue (on the ‘quality and effectiveness of social dialogue in companies and improving worker representation’).
Reforming collective bargaining
A new law on the ‘Promotion of collective bargaining autonomy’ came into force in Germany in August 2014, introducing a new mechanism for simplifying the extension of sectoral minimum wage agreements. Previously, a collective agreement could only be declared generally binding if it covered more than 50% of the employees in a sector. Under the new law, the prerequisite for an extension is the condition that it is ‘of public interest’; this will be the case if the agreement is vital for the protection of working conditions in a sector or for combating economic ‘maldevelopment’ – for instance, to prevent wage dumping. In March 2015, the bill on ‘Collective bargaining unity’ (Tarifeinheit) was introduced in parliament, stipulating that if more than one trade union concludes a collective agreement covering the same group of workers, only the agreement of the trade union that has the relative majority of members should be applicable. This has triggered a heated debate on whether the act will impact on the right of small trade unions to conclude applicable agreements and to go on strike.
 See http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/observatories/eurwork. The information is based on contributions received up to 1 April 2015.