Unions set agendas for collective bargaining in 1998

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Spain's UGT and CC.OO trade union confederations want to put employment at the top of their collective bargaining agenda in 1998. Job creation and promoting secure employment are the main demands.

The Spanish trade union confederations, CC.OO and UGT, have recently set out their collective bargaining agendas for 1998, when bargaining will be carried out in an institutional framework that has undergone considerable change over recent years.

This is the first time for a long while that trade unions, employers and the Government have reached a certain degree of agreement on employment policy. This consensus is expressed in the intersectoral agreement "for employment security" signed in April 1997 by the main trade unions and employers' organisations and later converted into a law at the initiative of the Government (ES9706211F). For the trade unions, the development of this agreement is one of the key points for collective bargaining in 1998: the aim is basically to put an end to new temporary employment contracts and to obtain specific commitments to convert temporary contracts into permanent ones at a sector or company level.

The other two intersectoral agreements signed in April 1997 - on "collective bargaining" and "filling the gaps in regulation" - also play an important role, since they express the consensus between unions and employers on the need to make universal collective bargaining and to "articulate" it (that is, base company-level bargaining around the nationwide sectoral collective agreements), demands that the unions have been making for some time. For the unions, these "April agreements" constitute an extremely important point of reference because they have cleared up some of the ambiguities of the 1994 labour reforms. These gave greater autonomy to the social partners in collective bargaining but at the same time introduced a greater degree of vulnerability and meant that agreements on the regulation of working conditions were often restricted to the company level and individualised.

Economic situation, employment and wages

Spain's economic situation is following the line of development that started in the mid-1990s: higher economic growth than the European Community average, export growth, a decreasing public deficit, and falling inflation and interest rates (ES9711230F). Even domestic consumption, which has been very weak in the last few years, is showing a slight tendency towards recovery. However, the trade unions claim that: the distribution of wealth is also more unequal; there is still a high level of unemployment; the situation of a third of all workers is still insecure; there have been cuts in social benefits; and the tax system is more regressive.

The unions feel that in this scenario it is possible to combine the expansion of employment - and above all of secure employment - with a pay increase that is slightly higher than the rate of inflation. This is their basis for approaching collective bargaining in 1998. The aim is not only to introduce a greater degree of equality into the distribution of wealth, but also to strengthen the dynamics of economic growth. The unions maintain that the decrease in unemployment and insecure employment, plus stable or rising purchasing power, will help to stimulate domestic consumption, which has so far been the main obstacle to higher growth rates.

Dynamics and structure of collective bargaining

The unions believe that the current structure of collective bargaining is not the most suitable for dealing with the new labour situation. The structure of production is increasingly complex and working conditions increasingly diverse. Sectoral collective agreements concluded at provincial level, which are the predominant type, are largely ineffective in regulating the working conditions of small companies and have only a minor impact on collective bargaining in large companies.

According to the unions, the company and sectoral levels of bargaining must be better articulated. Negotiations should focus on the workplace in order to organise, represent and defend all groups of workers by paying more attention to the diversity of situations and demands. But this is only possible within a solid framework of general working conditions regulated for the entire sector. In 1998, therefore, a great effort will have to be made to make collective bargaining universal and to promote general, sector-level agreements.

The unions also recognise the important transformations that are taking place in companies or workplaces. The creation of groups of companies, along with trends in outsourcing demand new forms of representation and collective bargaining that go beyond the limits of the workplace. The same is true in highly "atomised" sectors, in which it seems more effective to organise representatives and forms of negotiation on a regional rather than a company or sectoral basis. This idea has been present in union circles for some time, but little experience has been acquired as yet and the proposals are very general.

Reinforcing the instruments of union control and participation is another key aspect. The unions wish to extend the functions of the joint commissions for monitoring agreements, to create employment and contracts commissions and health and safety commissions at a sectoral level, and to reinforce the joint commissions at company level. These are only a few examples of how important it is for the unions to reach a greater degree of control over the development and application of the agreements that are reached.

Both UGT and CC.OO consider it essential to maintain unity of action with regard to collective bargaining in 1998, though in 1997 there have been problems in some federations, such as construction and banking, and in some regions, such as Asturias. They therefore wish to establish mechanisms for mediation amongst the unions to prevent differences of opinion from breaking their unity of action

Main union demands

Promoting more jobs and greater security

Throughout the 1990s, the unions have increasingly put forward employment as the main focus for collective bargaining. The objective has been to promote the creation of new jobs and the conversion of temporary contracts into permanent ones, whilst accepting in exchange a certain degree of pay moderation or internal flexibility. They have also stressed that overtime must be controlled and replaced by new contracts (ES9703204F).

The results obtained over this period, however, have been quite poor. The clauses in collective agreements that regulated aspects related to employment were normally very general and in only a few cases were specific commitments made. The most widespread line of action has been the negotiation in large companies of a "double pay-scale", that is to say, lower wages for newly recruited employees. In some cases such agreements were linked to the future incorporation of these workers into the permanent workforce (ES9705209F).

The main novelty for collective bargaining in 1998 is the insistence on specifying and quantifying the clauses on employment, and in particular those concerning the promotion of secure employment. The unions wish: to negotiate specific commitments to convert temporary contracts into permanent ones both at sector and company levels; to specify the reasons for temporary contracts and to limit their use by defining the activities of a contingent nature for which they can be used and avoiding the use of temporary contracts to perform permanent activities; to prevent the indiscriminate use of temporary employment agencies; and to reinforce the instruments of control and union participation in recruiting. Since the signing of the intersectoral agreement for employment security, some important agreements of this type have already been reached, above all at a company level.

Defining the proposals for job creation is more difficult. The unions are still prepared to accept some degree of pay moderation in exchange for job creation, though this type of agreement rarely establishes specific commitments for the creation of new jobs. However, the reduction and reorganisation of working time as an instrument for creating jobs is being proposed with greater force than in the past (ES9711133F). The reduction of working hours and overtime already formed part of the union arguments, but these demands will be given far greater priority in collective bargaining next year.

Finally, the unions also consider that it is necessary to take greater action on dismissal. The intersectoral agreement for employment security extended the reasons for objective dismissal, giving the social partners the chance to reach agreements to regulate it more specifically. In collective bargaining, the unions intend to reach a greater degree of control over the reasons for termination of contract, greater participation in the search for alternative solutions to termination of contract and measures to palliate the impact on those affected.

Promoting health and safety at work

The accident rate in Spain is the highest in the European Union and still rising, so health and safety is becoming one of the main areas of conflict and negotiation in labour relations in Spain.

The unions do not believe that this situation is due to deficiencies in the current legislation on health and safety. In the last few years great progress has been made in legislation: the drawing up of the law on the prevention of occupational risks and the regulations that develop it has been accomplished with a high degree of participation and consensus amongst the social partners. In their opinion, the problem lies in the general failure of employers to comply with the prevailing legislation (ES9711132F).

Because of this, the main objective of collective bargaining is to promote compliance with the law in each company and to ensure the participation of workers in risk prevention through the safety delegates and the health and safety committees. The unions have already begun a campaign with these objectives in mind and intend to reinforce this line of action through collective bargaining next year. At a sector level they also intend to negotiate aspects that improve the legislation or adapt it to the specific situation in each sector.

Pay policy, qualifications and equal opportunities

Employment along with health and safety are without doubt the main union priorities for collective bargaining in 1998. But many more areas are also being covered on union agendas. Pay policy is still, of course, a central topic: as stated above, the unions are prepared to accept pay moderation in exchange for job creation. But the area of pay policy is far wider, and also includes other demands such as the defence of fixed wages against variable wages or control over the clauses on non-application of wage agreements in companies in economic difficulty.

Qualifications are also receiving increasing attention from the unions, with proposals for the promotion and certification of continuing training and the revision of occupational grading systems. Also, one of the latest topics is the defence of equal opportunities regardless of sex, age, ethnic group or nationality. Though this line of action has always formed part of union discourse, it will be given greater emphasis in collective bargaining in 1998. The proposals are still very general, but it seems that they will be gradually defined over the next few months.

Commentary

Employment is far higher up union collective bargaining agendas in 1998 than it was in previous years. The unions wish to promote job creation, secure, skilled and safe employment and equality in employment.

The climate of public support that has been created by the intersectoral agreements allows the unions to face this challenge with greater capacity than in the past. The union proposals that most affect employment, such as the reduction and reorganisation of working time and the penalising of temporary contracts, are still being negotiated with the employers at a confederal level. On the whole, the agreements provided a stimulus that has given the subject of employment greater importance in collective bargaining. It is to be expected that the successes that can be achieved will encourage all the social partners to make further efforts towards resolving the central problem of employment.

For the trade unions this is without doubt a challenge. It cannot be forgotten that the persistence of a high rate of unemployment is having very important repercussions on work, collective bargaining and the unions. Working conditions have tended to become more fragmented, thus weakening the capacity for organising and making collective demands. This is a phenomenon that is expressed in very diverse forms: wage-earners and the self-employed, permanent and temporary workers, full-time and part-time workers, the double pay scale, subcontracting, outsourcing... These differences are sometimes created or reinforced in terms of inequality due to gender, age, ethnic group or nationality. In order to deal with these problems, the capacity to organise and represent workers in very diverse situations is as important as the content of the proposals. The criteria for collective bargaining in 1998 are a step forward in this direction, but the unions are still suffering from a serious lack of experience in this area. (Maria Caprile, CIREM Foundation)

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