EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Transnational industrial action

Transnational industrial action includes the following cases: where the collective industrial action is undertaken by a transnational enterprise, where the demands of workers or their organisations at national level taking the collective action have an objective, which is international, or is related to the EU, or where industrial action is carried out in parallel in several Member States. Examples would be industrial action to support workers or organisations in another Member State in an ongoing industrial conflict (solidarity or sympathy action), or national action to promote EU-related goals, such as action undertaken by a national sectoral federation to persuade a multinational company based in that country to establish a European Works Council.

The EU-level actors, such as the European Works Councils or the European industry federations, can play a role in developing strategies of action at transnational level. A high profile case of transnational industrial action, a ‘Euro-strike’, was provoked by the closure on 27 February 1997 of the Renault plant at Vilvoorde in Belgium, without the management providing prior information to or consulting with the Renault European Works Council. This led to sympathy actions by Renault workers from production sites across Europe. Representatives from French, Belgian and Spanish unions met to organise a one-hour strike on 7 March, which involved thousands of workers in Renault’s plants in the three countries. Workers in Volkswagen, Volvo, Opel and Ford plants in Belgium staged sympathy actions, while workers in Portugal expressed sympathy, but did not join the one-hour stoppage. More than 10,000 workers from Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal and Slovenia attended a demonstration outside Renault headquarters near Paris on 11 March 1997.

In the context of various restructuring processes, significant transnational industrial action was also undertaken at the European plants of General Motors Europe (GME). In 2001, a European day of action was organised by the European Metalworkers’ Federation (EMF) at all European plants of General Motors (GM) in order to protest against the decision to close its Vauxhall car manufacturing facilities at Luton in the United Kingdom. Over 40,000 GME employees from different European plants in Belgium, Germany, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom took part in the protest.

In 2004, thousands of GME workers participated in a European day of action in protest against the company’s restructuring programme that initially provided for relocation processes, with the closing down of at least one manufacturing plant, the reduction in employment levels and a cut in wage levels. The day of action was organised by the EMF and the European Employee Forum (EEF), i.e. the GME European Works Council. The countries involved included Belgium, Germany, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. In 2006, the management’s decision to close the Azambuja plant in Portugal again led to actions across European GM production facilities.

Another case of transnational industrial action concerned the Electrolux Group. In 2005, the Electrolux central management announced a restructuring plan that targeted the closure of production sites in various EU Member States. In this case, also, the EMF decided to coordinate the actions of the various national trade union organisations. In October 2005, a Europe-wide action day was organised in order to protest against the restructuring plans of the Electrolux Group. On this occasion, about 20,000 Electrolux employees in France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Belgium participated in a variety of activities including picketing, strikes, protest demonstrations and assemblies.

Right of transnational industrial action

Article 28 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union is entitled ‘Right of Collective Bargaining and Action’:

Workers and employers, or their respective organisations, have, in accordance with Community law and national laws and practices, the right to negotiate and conclude collective agreements at the appropriate levels and, in cases of conflicts of interests, to take collective action to defend their interests, including strike action.

Earlier drafts of Article 28 explicitly provided for rights of collective bargaining and collective action ‘including at the European Union level’ and ‘at all levels’. These phrases were later deleted. The final text appears to have made an important distinction regarding the levels at which the rights can be exercised. The right to collective bargaining is granted ‘at the appropriate levels’; but this phrase does not qualify the right to take collective action. Article 28, therefore, stipulates no limitation on the levels at which the right to collective action may be exercised.

The effect of the text’s failure to grant explicitly the right to collective action ‘at the appropriate levels’ is open to at least two interpretations. First, the qualifying limitation, ‘in accordance with Community law and national laws and practices’ could be read as implying that such laws and practices may restrict the permissible level of collective actions. However, this first interpretation is weakened by the provision in Article 52 that limitations on the exercise of the rights in the Charter, which are provided by law, are subject to a number of restrictions; not least, they must ‘respect the essence of rights and freedoms’ (Article 52).

Alternatively, in light of the apparent limitation to ‘the appropriate levels’ only of the right to collective bargaining and not of the right to take collective action, the implication is rather that collective action is permissible at ‘all levels’. In an EU Charter, this would include also the EU level.

As there is no clearly defined right to strike at EU level, obstacles to organise transnational industrial action can derive from the different national systems of industrial relations and the role of the national strike law.

See also: Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers; collective industrial relations; Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union; European Social Charter; eu system of industrial relations; Monti regulation; right to strike; right to take collective action; solidarity in industrial relations; strike action at eu level.

Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.
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