Social partners assert their collective bargaining autonomy

The social partners at EU level have stressed the importance of their collective bargaining autonomy in a meeting with the European Commission’s Employment Committee. Trade union representatives in particular had voiced their concern about what they saw as interference from EU institutions in national-level wage determination and wage policy. They reacted after the Commission issued a discussion note calling for a tripartite ‘exchange of views’ on wage developments.

Background

On 20 December 2012, the European Commission (EC) issued a discussion note (268Kb PDF) on a tripartite exchange of views on wage developments. The note proposed ‘an exploratory tripartite exchange of views through the European Commission’s Employment Committee (EMCO) on wage developments with national and European social partners.

The idea was to:

...generate a reflection on the economic, employment and social implications of wage developments across Europe, contribute to enhancing social partners’ input in European economic governance and provide an opportunity for the EU institutions to benefit from the national social partners’ expertise.

The meeting was scheduled for 1 February 2013.

Trade union concerns

The European trade union IndustriAll Europe responded to this note on 31 January 2013 in a press release (135Kb PDF). The union said it was not opposed to the gathering of information on wage developments in Europe and welcomed the Commission’s acknowledgement of the role of the social partners at all levels in wage bargaining. However, it voiced its concern that:

...it seems to be the overall intention of the Commission to interfere with national wage policies and wage determination.

IndustriAll stated that this was not acceptable.

The union also took issue with Commission suggestions on modernising wage-setting systems and enhancing flexibility in wage determination. The Commission suggested using means such as ‘easing the conditions for firms to opt out of higher-level collective bargaining agreements and the review of sectoral wage agreements’.

IndustriAll set out its position by highlighting a number of basic principles. It asserted that:

  • it is the prerogative of the national social partners to decide at what level collective bargaining takes place;
  • social partners – trade unions and employers’ associations – must negotiate wage increases autonomously without the interference of any governmental institution, at any level whatsoever;
  • creating an extra tripartite forum for an exchange of views on wage developments is not necessary because the macroeconomic dialogue with the participation of the European Central Bank (ECB) is already a suitable forum that, with some adaptation, can discuss wage policy in Europe;
  • collective bargaining on core issues, such as wages and working time, currently take place between the social partners, trade unions and employers’ organisations and/or employers, at the national level and so, in IndustriAll’s view, this is not a European issue;
  • national trade unions can and do coordinate their collective bargaining policy at European level, but this is their decision and it is not the same thing as a wage-setting policy at European level, influenced by the Commission;
  • the IndustriAll Europe Trade Union does not have a mandate to discuss wage setting with the Commission at European level, nor does it give the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) a mandate to do this on its behalf.

Meeting goes ahead

The tripartite meeting was held on 1 February 2013 as planned, and was attended by around 150 delegates. They represented trade unions, employers, governments and European institutions. A discussion was held on wage developments, productivity and prices, wages, employment and unemployment, and wage inequalities.

There was criticism regarding the format and purpose of the meeting from both employer and trade union representatives, and there was no appetite for regular meetings of this kind. Nevertheless, EMCO felt that this had been a useful exchange of views and that it had helped it to improve its understanding of the positions of the social partners.

Commentary

It is clear that the social partners on both sides would strongly resist any attempts by the EU institutions to guide or otherwise provide any kind of framework for their autonomous wage bargaining activities. These are obviously difficult times for Europe economically, and the crisis is having a continuing impact on European industrial relations and collective bargaining activities. But the European social model is clearly robust enough, in terms of the commitment of the actors on both sides, to continue a strong commitment to bargain autonomously at national level and all levels below this.

Andrea Broughton, Institute for Employment Studies

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