EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Strike action at EU level

Definition

Strike action at EU level refers to industrial action undertaken with the aim of securing a common outcome, usually in response to developments in EU policy, in two or more countries across Europe.

Current status and regulatory aspects

Strike action at EU level is rare but has occurred a number of times in the recent past. The ability to take action – whether at EU level or transnationally – is potentially narrowed by the rulings of the Court of Justice of the European Union. (It should be noted that strike action at EU level is different from transnational industrial action, which aims to take action against a transnational company that operates in more than one EU Member State.)

In the landmark joined cases of Viking (Case C-438/05) and Laval (Case C-341/05), the employers submitted that the right to take industrial action is subservient to the rights under Articles 43 (freedom of establishment ) and 49 EC (freedom to provide services) – now Articles 49 and 56 TFEU – and that any industrial action that impedes these fundamental rights be prohibited. The two cases were considered by the Advocates General in May 2007 who were of the opinion that industrial action is subject to the Treaty right to exercise freedom of services. However, in Laval, the Advocate General also held that unions can use collective action to compel service providers from another Member State to provide equivalent terms and conditions, provided the collective action is motivated by public interest objectives, such as the protection of workers and the fight against social dumping. In Viking, the Advocate General held that industrial action which restricts such a freedom might be objectively justified.

The two opinions suggest that the right to freedom of movement cannot be seen as an all-embracing restriction on the right to take collective action; at the same time, collective action cannot be placed outside of the provisions on freedom of movement, so as to exclude it from having to take account of rights derived under the Treaty. However, industrial action, which is legitimate and proportionate, can co-exist with the right to freedom of movement, even if in practice it places some restrictions on that freedom. This ruling applies in cases of strike action at EU level in the same way as it clearly does for transnational industrial action.

Background

While rare, the 2008 financial and sovereign debt crisis triggered several examples of strike action at EU level. One notable case is the day of action and solidarity called by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) on 14 November 2012. Taking advantage of general strike actions against austerity and the power of the so-called ‘troika’ (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus, the ETUC invited trade union movements in other EU countries to join the industrial action. These actions included strikes, demonstrations, rallies and other actions, thus mobilising the European trade union movement behind ETUC policies as set down in their Social Compact for Europe. Moreover a ‘European Day of Action’ was called by the ETUC on 16 November 2017 – the day before the Gothenburg EU Social Summit adopted the European Pillar of Social Rights.

Historical development

An earlier example of strike action at EU level is the strike conducted by employees working in air traffic control in several countries in Europe on 19 June 2002 in protest against the European Commission’s plans to create a single European airspace. Similarly, action taken by the International Transport Workers’ Federation on 14 March 2002 could be considered as EU-level action. In this case, the organisation used its fourth annual international railway workers’ action day to draw attention to health and safety issues resulting from the deregulation of railways.

Related dictionary terms

Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union collective industrial relations Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers EU system of industrial relations Laval case right to strike right to take collective action solidarity in industrial relations transnational industrial action Viking case.

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