Ninth ETUC Congress calls for a European system of industrial relations

The European Trade Union Confederation's ninth Statutory Congress took place in Helsinki between 29 June and 2 July 1999. The Congress emphasised the importance of the development of a European system of industrial relations and the greater coordination of economic and social policies in the European Union. A conference on gender mainstreaming, which took place on the eve of the Congress, recommended for adoption a new plan to promote equality in ETUC, which aims to increase the representation of women in collective bargaining and trade union decision-making bodies. Persistent pay inequalities are also targeted.

From 29 June to 2 July 1999, 500 delegates from 33 countries attended the ninth Statutory Congress of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) in Helsinki. Issues debated ranged from the importance of combining Economic and Monetary Union with employment and social progress, to the role of trade unions in a changing world of work, equality of opportunity, union participation in the process of enlargement and the provision of aid for economic and democratic reconstruction in Kosovo.

The Helsinki Congress coincided with the launch of the Finnish Presidency of the European Union. In a memorandum to the Presidency, ETUC called upon decision-makers to move away from the "one-sided" pursuit of monetary stability towards a more balanced policy approach, combining the safeguarding of economic and monetary stability with active and concerted policies to achieve higher growth. In particular, taxation policies are considered to be in need of revision in order to combat harmful tax competition. Most importantly, ETUC calls for "maximum synergy" between: the European employment strategy; the "Cardiff process" of structural reform and modernisation to improve the innovative capacity and efficiency of the labour market and the markets in goods, services and capital (EU9806109F); and the new macroeconomic dialogue agreed at the June 1999 Cologne European Council (EU9906180N).

The memorandum emphasises the importance of the adoption of the proposed Directive establishing a general framework for national information and consultation of employees (EU9812135F). ETUC also supports the envisaged establishment of a "European observatory on industrial change" (as proposed by the "Gyllenhammar report "on the economic and social impact of industrial change -EU9805106N). ETUC also emphasises that the next intergovernmental conference should not solely be charged with questions of accession and institutional reform, but should also address the inclusion of key fundamental rights in the European Treaties. The implementation of Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty (on the fight against discrimination) is also stressed in the text. Progress is also urged in relation to the coordination of social security systems and on pending proposals in the area of health and safety at work. In terms of enlargement, ETUC considers that the March 1999 Warsaw social partner conference (EU9904166F) was a useful starting point in involving the social partners more closely in the process of EU accession and enlargement.

Speaking at the ETUC Congress, the European Commission President designate, Romano Prodi, emphasised that employment would remain one of the key priorities of EU policy. He also underlined the importance of the role of trade unions and of a partnership approach in adapting EU labour markets and enterprises to new forms of working.

The Congress unanimously re-elected Emilio Gabaglio as general secretary of ETUC, while Jean Lapeyre and Erik Carlsund were also re-elected as deputy secretaries general, for a third and second term respectively. The Congress also unanimously confirmed Friedrich Verzetnitsch as ETUC president.

Towards a European system of industrial relations

Delegates at the ninth Congress adopted a resolution entitled Towards a European system of industrial relations, in which ETUC reiterates its call for a stronger "social Union". It argues that, with the deepening of economic and monetary integration, the need for European social regulation grows. ETUC believes that this regulation must lead to "upward harmonisation in working and social conditions in the integrated economic area".

While ETUC welcomes the increasing emphasis placed on the European social dialogue process at sectoral and intersectoral level, it is argued that the Commission must continue to play an important role in stimulating negotiations on social regulations. This is seen to be particularly important, as the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) is viewed as being willing to negotiate only on issues where there is a threat of legislative action on the part of the EU.

Although the social dialogue is seen to have already made a significant contribution to the European social dimension, historically speaking, as well as more recently through the negotiation of framework agreements on parental leave, part-time work (EU9706131F) and fixed-term contracts (EU9907181F), ETUC argues that this needs to be strengthened further in order to meet the challenges of an increasing "casualisation" of the labour market. Together with its European industry federations, ETUC is keen to develop a sectoral social dialogue in a number of sectors where employers' organisations have so far been opposed to entering into a dialogue. It calls upon the support of the European Commission to achieve a comprehensive coverage for the social dialogue in every sector. It is argued that a procedure should be in place to exert pressure on reluctant employers and, if necessary, to establish concertation with only the trade unions.

In the belief that the intersectoral sectoral and sectoral social dialogue will need to be supplemented with a strong network of autonomous negotiations between employers and trade unions, ETUC calls for the definition of "an adequate framework for collective bargaining at European level including, where appropriate, rules for settling disputes and for the full recognition of specific trade union rights in the EU Treaty, beginning with the ILO Conventions on freedom of association, collective bargaining, the right to strike, child work and forced labour".

The ETUC proposes to UNICE and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) that they should open discussions with a view to reaching a new agreement to update their 1991 agreement on social dialogue, which was subsequently was enshrined in the Maastricht social policy Agreement, and to define more clearly the scope, content and rules of a European system of industrial relations.

ETUC emphasises the important role the social partners can (under the new Treaty on European Union) and should play in the debate on the European employment strategy, and underlines its willingness to participate fully in this process, provided that equal importance is attached to the new employment pact proposed at the June Cologne summit (EU9906180N) as to the Stability and Growth Pact.

The resolution also calls for the establishment and development of a coordinated collective bargaining policy aimed at ensuring that workers obtain a fair share of income, promoting employment and improving living and working conditions. This is seen to be particularly important in order to combat the perceived trend towards "social dumping" and to counter increasing income inequalities. What is seen to be required is a solidaristic pay and collective bargaining policy, developed at sectoral or intersectoral level across national boundaries. The September 1998 "Doorn declaration" on bargaining coordination by Belgian, German, Luxembourg and Dutch trade union confederations is perceived to point the way forward in this respect (DE9810278F). Such coordinated collective bargaining should also incorporate qualitative elements such as provisions on training, occupational health and equality of opportunity. The industry federations are considered to bear prime responsibility for the development of such a European approach to collective bargaining, supported - wherever possible - by ETUC. The dissemination of reliable data on pay and conditions in the different sectors across national boundaries is therefore considered to be particularly important. Of similar relevance is the training of trade unionists in the understanding of different industrial relations systems.

ETUC stresses the importance of European Works Councils (EWC s) in helping to create a more European system of industrial relations. Information and consultation provisions should therefore be strengthened in the forthcoming review of the Directive. Furthermore, it is argued that EWCs should be assisted in order to operate more effectively through professional advice and training.

Finally, ETUC recognises that in order to achieve its aims, a Europeanisation of trade unions is inevitably required. National structures need to be modernised and further steps need to be taken towards the cross-border recognition of trade union membership and the mutual provision of trade union protection across borders. A stronger identification of the rank and file with ETUC and its aims is considered vital.

In the resolution, the Congress commits ETUC to:

  • continue to press for social regulation and for upwards harmonisation of living and working conditions at the European level, by supporting affiliated organisations in their national collective bargaining, taking full advantage of the complementary European social dialogue and through European framework agreements;
  • insist that the Commission "lives up to its responsibilities to initiate legislation in social policy matters";
  • regularly assess the implementation of framework agreements, in particular regarding their impact on the improvement of working conditions at all levels and in all sectors;
  • support the European industry federations in generalising the social dialogue in all private and public sector activities, and support the continuation and consolidation of the social dialogue within the sectors that had well-established committees before 1999;
  • propose to UNICE and CEEP a new agreement to set the framework for autonomous negotiations at European level, thus developing a European system of industrial relations based on the independence of the social partners;
  • press for the recognition by the EU of basic trade union rights and for the establishment of a legal framework of industrial relations at European level;
  • work for the conclusion of a European employment pact involving all the relevant actors, and based on real social concertation;
  • promote a strategy for coordinated European collective bargaining at sectoral and intersectoral level and secure a consistent approach via coordination within the ETUC;
  • establish the tools and procedures needed for such coordination , including the creation of a committee for the coordination of collective bargaining policies and through reordering the work of the secretariat and refocusing the activities of the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) and European Trade Union College (ETUCO) in their respective fields of research and training;
  • exert pressure on employers in the public sector, in particular in the municipal and state sectors, for the generalisation of the social dialogue in these sectors and to ensure that EU regulations and agreements should cover public sector workers without discrimination;
  • support the European industry federations in generalising EWCs to cover all the relevant companies, and in supporting the work of existing EWCs; and
  • prepare to establish a charter of mutual recognition of trade union membership among the affiliates of ETUC.

General trade union policy

The other major resolution adopted at the conference sets out general trade union policy for the coming years. It covers the areas of: the "European social model"; Europe and globalisation; Monetary Union, "economic government" and social cohesion;" top priority for employment"; the future of social protection; enlargement of the European Union for peace, rights and solidarity; a more effective and democratic EU; new rights at work; and meeting new challenges. The specific points of the resolution, which has a strong equal opportunities dimension, include - among many others - commitments to:

  • realise the objective of a return to full employment by a job creation programme over five years leading to an unemployment rate of 7% with 70% in work;
  • campaign vigorously for equal opportunities and equal pay for women and men. Concrete measures in this regard should be included in the collective bargaining process;
  • press for affordable, high-quality child- and elder-care services, provided by Member States, with budgetary commitments as well as a timetable for implementation;
  • ensure that black and ethnic minority workers and people with disabilities fully benefit from all aspects of EU employment policy;
  • continue to campaign for the 35-hour week and all other forms of reduction and reorganisation of working time through collective bargaining "combined, where necessary, in an appropriate fashion with legislative initiatives";
  • fight against the systematic exclusion of elderly workers from employment;
  • call for a European initiative guaranteeing the maintenance of social security rights during parental leave, and for the revision of existing European legislation regarding equal treatment for women and men, in order to strengthen personal rights and maternity rights;
  • work for the establishment of social dialogue mechanisms and industrial relations systems in the applicant countries in line with those existing in the EU;
  • campaign for full recognition of civic and social rights as well as trade union rights, including cross-border sympathy action, to be enshrined in the Treaty at its next revision;
  • maintain the ETUC's commitment to equal rights for immigrant, black and ethnic minority workers;
  • establish, through agreement or legislation, regulations which preserve the rights of workers and which prevent enterprises abusing temporary work;
  • pursue "the necessary regulation of atypical work and of new forms of work" (temporary work, home working, teleworking etc) through framework agreements or European legislation
  • call for a Directive on the protection of dignity at the workplace;
  • continue to press for workers' rights to information, consultation and participation in the establishment of the European Company Statute, to complement national rights;
  • campaign for social and labour standards and trade union representation in small and medium-sized enterprises;
  • ensure the development of "social concertation" at European level, including through the reformed Standing Committee on Employment; and
  • further promote the participation of women in the trade union movement, including in decision-making bodies and in collective bargaining, and promote "gender mainstreaming" in all policies.

Equality of opportunity and the second sex of European trade unionism

On the eve of the Statutory Congress, the ETUC's women's committee organised a conference entitled Gender mainstreaming revealed, which was attended by 200 delegates. As the title suggests, the conference sought to shed light on the arguably over-used and often little understood concept of "gender mainstreaming", by providing examples of its practical applications. Gender mainstreaming was defined to mean: "mobilising all general policies and measures specifically for the purpose of achieving equality by actively and openly taking into account at the planning stage their possible effects on the respective situations of men and women ... This means systematically examining measures and policies and taking into account such possible effects when defining and implementing them."

One of the aims of the conference was to assess the extent to which this concept had been translated into practice at the following levels:

  • in EU policy;
  • in the collective bargaining process at European, sectoral and national level; and
  • in the trade union movement.

Various speakers argued that despite some significant advances in the achievement of greater equality of opportunity, much still remained to be done. The facts were seen to highlight the importance of: the integration of gender considerations in every policy arena; the greater involvement of women in decision-making and; a process of cultural change to root out inherent gender stereotypes. Pay inequalities between men and women continue to be prevalent. In Britain (the worst-performing country in this respect) men earn 34% more than women, despite nearly 30 years of equal pay legislation. The pay gap was also found to be wide in Greece at 32% and the Netherlands at 31%. The earnings gap between the sexes was lowest in Sweden at 17%, followed by Luxembourg (19%), Denmark (21%) and Finland (22%). The narrowest gap was found in the former East Germany at 12%, compared with 26% in the former West Germany.

A further aim of the conference was to review progress in the involvement of women in decision-making, particularly in the trade unions. In 1995, the ETUC executive committee had adopted an action plan for European women trade unionists. The aim of this action plan was to inspire ETUC and its member organisations to give more practical effect to their commitment to the principle of equality between men and women. Four years later, the ETUC secretariat launched a study to assess the implementation of the action plan and to assess the changes which had occurred since 1995. This study, entitled The second sex of European trade unionism found some slight progress in women's participation in the decision-making process, though without an improvement in their under-representation in relation to their rates of union membership.

The conference discussed a new plan to promote equality in the ETUC, which has three key objectives:

  • ensuring that women are properly represented in bodies for collective bargaining and decision-making;
  • incorporating equality between women and men in all areas of trade union policy (gender mainstreaming); and
  • achieving equal pay.

With the plan having been adopted by the Statutory Congress, ETUC and its member organisations are now to draw up specific proposals to achieve these aims, and interim reports on the progress made are to be presented by mid-2001. A final evaluation report will be published at the next ETUC Congress in 2003.


With this "largest gathering of trade unions and workers since World War II", ETUC sought to emphasise its role in the European policy-making process and its willingness to work constructively with European institutions, national governments and employers' organisations to create the basis for growth and sustainable employment creation in the EU and the accession states. The Congress also reflected a realisation of the need for change within the European trade union movement to enable it address a number of pressing issues more effectively.

For example, the conference on gender mainstreaming was not short on criticisms of the unions' own track-record in relation to involving more women in decision-making and collective bargaining strategies. Actions are set to be developed at European and national levels to remedy this situation.

There was also a realisation that national trade union structures needed to become Europeanised to allow unions to become more aware of the collective bargaining and policy strategies of their neighbours across borders, if a solidaristic wage strategy is to be developed. The outcomes of the Doorn initiative will be watched closely to be able to assess the initial outcomes of such processes of coordination.

Bill Jordan, general secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), also emphasised to the Congress the increasing need to think more globally in the context of the globalisation of production processes. These arguments are already beginning to set the scene for discussions at the next ETUC Statutory Congress, scheduled for 2003. (Tina Weber, ECOTEC Research and Consulting)

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