UGT holds congress

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The Portuguese trade union confederation, UGT, held its eighth congress in May 2000, highlighting the general themes of "development and solidarity". The congress stressed the need to step up social dialogue and negotiation, especially at the European and company levels. The congress, held during a period of considerable industrial conflict, called for more and better employment, sustainable economic growth and the reform of social security, tax and incomes policy. UGT also decided on internal restructuring measures to promote participation and lend greater dynamism to union activity.

The General Workers' Union (União Geral de Trabalhadores, UGT) held its eighth congress, under the slogan Towards development and solidarity (Por um país desenvolvido e solidário) in Lisbon on 5-7 May 2000. The congress adopted the following principles as the basis for its future action:

  • promoting and defending the fundamental values of a democratic and participatory society, justice and solidarity;
  • fighting for full employment and defending the welfare state;
  • real convergence at the European level of wages, pensions and better living and working conditions;
  • respect for, and promotion of, social rights within a framework of law;
  • a trade unionism that makes proposals and demands, honours its commitments and does not shy away from conflict;
  • supporting a model of sustained and sustainable growth, rejecting a "dual society";
  • fighting for recognition of the value of labour, bolstered by human resources development, in the battle against discrimination and for equal opportunity;
  • supporting a "social clause" in international trade;
  • demanding a new international framework for globalisation, supported by the regulation of markets and balanced development among countries and regions; and
  • supporting social dialogue, negotiation and concertation at the national and international levels.

As well as UGT delegates, the congress brought together a large number of invited guests representing other Portuguese social partner organisaitons and public institutions, plus international union organisations - such as the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the International Federation of Workers' Education Associations (IFWEA) and the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) - and unions in Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa and elsewhere. This reflected the fact that the congress examined the consequences of globalisation for the restructuring of trade unions at world level.

Organisation

The UGT congress renewed the mandate of João Proença as general secretary, a position he has held since 1995. The confederation tries to strike a balance, in the context of political and trade union pluralism, by having a general secretary with socialist leanings and a social-democratic president.

UGT is currently experiencing a degree of reorganisation and concentration. UGT now has 80 directly-affiliated organisations, including two federations. There has been an increase in membership of around 10%, according to the confederation.

During the congress, changes were made to the statutes in order to make the UGT function more efficiently and to strengthen ties with the unions. About 50% of the members of the confederation's governing bodies were changed at the congress, and the percentage of elected members of such bodies who are women is now around 25%, while more young people have been admitted directly to administrative posts. Important organisational changes agreed at the congress included:

  1. broadening the national secretariat to include more women as well as representatives of pensioners, young people and managerial and professional staff;
  2. creation of an executive secretariat as a standing committee. The secretariat functions as an intermediary body, allowing for greater participation on the part of the larger unions and representation of more sectors of activity, as well as greater representation for the civl service and banking sectors. The objective is to make it possible to follow up more closely company-level activity in the areas of collective bargaining, disputes, and general union-political activity;
  3. reducing the size of the women's and youth committees and the managerial and professional staff committee, but increasing the involvement on the part of the unions. The secretariats will now be made up of unions themselves rather than persons nominated by the unions; and
  4. reinforcing trade union structures in companies.

Another issue brought up at the congress was the state's perceived discriminatory treatment with regard to financial support for the activities of the social partners. According to UGT, unions should have a support framework, just as the employer associations already have, to help improve their participation and involvement in society at various levels (in the employers' case, state support is available to strengthen associations, improve facilities and equipment, and provide compensation for activities carried out within participatory structures in general, and for services rendered in the course of collective bargaining in particular).

The congress supported united joint action with the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses, CGTP) with respect to trade union independence.

The European issue

The congress noted that great challenge facing the unions today is action at the international and company levels. Each European Union (EU) Member State has its own model of industrial relations, making the task even more difficult. Meeting this challenge will involve making changes in collective bargaining in order to take into account transnational factors, especially in neighbouring states, since wages in such countries tend mutually to influence each other. EU-level talks on certain types of work, such as teleworking, must also be stepped up.

The congress stressed that Portugal also faces the added challenge of convergence. In recent times the national rate of economic growth in relation to the EU has not been particularly good, nor has there been an increase in solidarity. On the contrary, disparities have increased. More training and better quality industrial relations are needed and low pay must be rejected.

Asserting demands

The UGT congress was viewed by the press as one which "hardened the lines of debate" and asserted demands more forcefully. The interventions made during the congress, and particularly the general secretary's speech, addressed a number of important structural demands, notably covering:

  1. employment, especially with respect to qualifications and precarious employment, as well as the lack of an immigration policy, and the need to improve education and vocational training;
  2. sustained economic growth, as opposed to the current perceived short-term policies of the private sector, based on low wages and skill levels. Ways of regulating subcontracting chains must be be found, as must mechanisms enabling access to employment without resort to precarious or illegal forms of work;
  3. social concertation, collective bargaining and "contractualisation" of employment relations - for example, in relation to working time;
  4. reform of the social security system and tax and incomes policies; and
  5. improvement of labour legislation and health and safety at the workplace

UGT also called attention to the way that the government's action has evolved over recent months. It claimed that there has been little opportunity for solving concrete problems and for dialogue, which has been limited to discussion of methodology and processes in the Economic and Social Council (Conselho Económico e Social) (PT0001179F). There have, it is said, been only vague European-related debates, disappointing workers' expectations of approaching the level of wages elsewhere in the EU in these times of economic growth.

Commentary

UGT has always practised, as was further borne out at its eighth congress, a trade unionism based on "proposition", "negotiation" and "results". It currently finds itself in a setting where there has been strong mobilisation around various conflicts among the rank and file, whereby CGTP has in some sectors reaped rewards in terms of leadership and increased membership by being insistent and steadfast in its claims. For the same reasons, independent unions - usually occupational in nature - have also gained advantage. Responding to this situation and illustrating its underlying sentiment of making more assertive demands, the 2000 UGT congress was marked by much criticism of economic policy and of the lack of dialogue, presented in a new and more conflictual language.

The UGT congress took place at a time of considerable conflict in Portugal, coming as it did right after Mayday and on the heels of stalled wage negotiations in the public sector (PT0004192F), the release of government inflation projections which many found implausible, and an unexpected increase in the price of petrol. On the eve of the congress, UGT, acting jointly with CGTP, called a general strike in the civil service and public transport (PT0004188N). (Maria Luisa Cristovam)

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