EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Strengthening collective bargaining


Collective bargaining is the process of negotiation between unions and employers regarding the terms and conditions of employment of employees, and the rights and responsibilities of trade unions. Collective bargaining is a key means through which employers and trade unions can establish fair wages and working conditions, and it provides the basis for sound industrial relations. Typical issues on the bargaining agenda include wages, working time, training, occupational health and safety, and equal treatment; the objective of negotiations is to arrive at a collective agreement that regulates the terms and conditions of employment. In recent years, there has been growing recognition in the European Commission that strengthening this process will help also to equalise wage distribution, lower barriers facing some workers because of their gender, disability or ethnicity, boost inclusivity and stabilise industrial relations.

Background and status

The central role that collective bargaining plays in EU Member States is recognised in Article 28 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union of December 2000 and in Article 12 of the Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers of 1989. ‘The right to bargain collectively’ was also declared a fundamental right in the 1961 European Social Charter of the Council of Europe (Article 6). Article 156 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states that the Commission ‘shall encourage cooperation between the Member States and facilitate the coordination of their action in all social policy fields’, particularly in matters relating to, among other things, collective bargaining between employers and workers. At the end of 2020, the European Commission put forward its proposal for a directive on adequate minimum wages in the European Union. The draft directive is aimed at increasing collective bargaining coverage.

Involving social partners

In 2020, Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, entrusted Andrea Nahles, Special Advisor on Social Dialogue, with the task of creating proposals for involving social partners to a greater extent in implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights and strengthening their engagement in national-level social dialogue. The Commission’s report of February 2021 formulates 10 proposals.

1. Creating a European award for good practice in the area of social dialogue.

2. Setting up a training programme on European social dialogue for future leaders of national social partner organisations.

3. Taking measures to ensure the greater involvement of the national social partners in the preparatory work on recovery and resilience plans within the framework of the European Semester.

4. Reviewing the workings of the Tripartite Social Summit and of the social dialogue committee at cross-industry level.

5. Improving the consultation process for European social partners (at cross-industry and sectoral levels) on the initiatives taken by the Commission in fields other than social affairs. The report proposes that each of the Commission’s directorates-general should appoint a member of staff responsible for social dialogue.

6. Increasing the number of European agreements. The report announced that the Commission would take a position after the judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union on the European Public Service Union case to ‘clarify how any future requests by EU social partners for the incorporation of their agreements into EU law are to be handled’.

7. Providing financial support for the creation, in each country, of national registries of collective agreements, including company agreements.

8. Funding programmes, notably via the European Social Fund, to strengthen the capacities of national social partners.

9. Encouraging exchange of experiences and good practices by setting up a platform supported by the Commission.

10. Enhancing dialogue on future-oriented subjects (digitalisation and climate change) with the support of the European agencies concerned (Eurofound, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work and the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training). Social partners could offer to include ‘forward-looking dialogues of this nature’ in their future work programmes.

Draft directive on adequate minimum wages

Based on the 2020 draft directive, the Member States are required to take action to promote the capacity of social partners to engage in collective bargaining on wage setting and to encourage constructive, meaningful and informed negotiations on wages.

One of the pillars of this directive is strengthening collective bargaining in the Member States so that at least 70% of workers are covered by a collective agreement. Without interfering in domestic social dialogue practices, the Commission requires that Member States in which the proportion of workers covered by a collective agreement (‘collective bargaining coverage’) is under 70% establish ‘a framework for collective bargaining’, either by law or by tripartite agreement. This framework should be supplemented by ‘an action plan to promote collective bargaining’. The 70% target is a very ambitious one: at present, only 11 Member States (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden) meet it.

Commission work programme for 2022

On 19 October 2021, the Commission adopted its work programme for 2022, entitled ‘Making Europe stronger together’, in which it announced that it would present a communication seeking to boost social dialogue at national and EU levels. The aim is ‘to support the key role of social partners in fostering a fair economic, social and cohesive recovery and the green, digital and labour market transitions’.

Related dictionary terms

Collective bargaining European Pillar of Social Rights European Semester European social partners social dialogue Tripartite Social Summit

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