Social dialogue

According to the European Commission, social dialogue refers to ‘discussions, consultations, negotiations and joint actions involving organisations representing the social partners – employers and workers’. Social dialogue is the dominant feature of collective industrial relations in Europe, as the Commission communication The European social dialogue, a force for innovation and change (COM (2002) 341) of 26 June 2002 acknowledges:

Social dialogue is rooted in the history of the European continent, and this distinguishes the Union from most other regions of the world. Accordingly, in its various forms in the different Member States, social dialogue is a component of democratic government and also of economic and social modernisation.

(COM (2002) 034, 2002)

Numerous provisions in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) and European labour law aim to strengthen social dialogue and the role of the social partners at European, national, sectoral, local and company levels. While the TFEU establishes and institutionalises social dialogue at EU level (European social dialogue), several European directives, policy guidelines and recommendations also aim to enhance social dialogue between the social partners at national, local and company level. On 5 March 2015, for example, the European Commission launched an initiative for a New start for social dialogue, resulting in the formulation of a joint statement from the Council of the European Union, the Commission and the European social partners, signed on 27 June 2016. The document refers globally to commitments taken by each signatory to strengthen the role of social dialogue at EU level and the use of social dialogue at national, sectoral or local levels.

A key distinction is also made between cross-industry social dialogue and European sectoral social dialogue. The latter specifically takes place between sectoral employer federations and the European industry federations on the trade union side.

Depending on the actors involved, a further distinction is made between tripartite and bipartite social dialogue. Tripartite social dialogue takes place within the Tripartite Social Summit and involves discussions between the European social partners and EU institutions in the areas of macroeconomics, employment, social protection, and education and training. European bipartite social dialogue takes place in the cross-industry social dialogue committees and the sectoral social dialogue committees (i.e. employer organisations and trade unions). The topics of bipartite social dialogue are developed from the work programmes adopted by the social partners.

In the communication Partnership for change in an enlarged Europe – enhancing the contribution of European social dialogue (COM (2004) 557) of 12 August 2004, the Commission proposed a typology of social dialogue outcomes at European level, distinguishing between:

  • agreements implemented in accordance with Article 155(2) of TFEU, either by a Council decision or by the procedures and practices specific to management and labour in the Member States
  • process-oriented texts, such as frameworks of action, guidelines, codes of conduct and policy orientations
  • joint opinions, declarations and tools
  • procedural texts laying down the rules for bipartite dialogue between the parties and the rules of procedures for the sectoral social dialogue committees
  • follow-up reports on the implementation and reporting of so-called ‘new generation’ joint texts (characterised by the fact that they are to be followed up by the social partners themselves)

Generally speaking, cross-industry social dialogue has resulted in few agreements under Article 155(2) of TFEU in recent years. In 2015, for example, the Commission consultation to reinforce work–life balance did not lead to an agreement between the social partners.

On the other hand, cross-industry social partners concluded an autonomous agreement on active ageing and an intergenerational approach on 8 March 2017. This agreement is the last of the five autonomous agreements concluded at cross-sectoral level since 2002. Such agreements are part of the ‘new generation’ texts produced by European social dialogue, whereby the European social partners make recommendations to their affiliated member organisation and agree to follow them up at a national level. The crucial steps for ensuring proper implementation of such ‘new generation’ texts – especially autonomous agreements – are considered to be: strengthening the interaction between the European Member States and other levels of social dialogue; promoting effective industrial relations systems; and advocating for strong social partner capacities at a national level.

In addition to cross-industry and sectoral social dialogue, it is worth emphasising the significant developments that can result from an agreement by a coalition of social partners from several sectors as an outcome of European social dialogue via Articles 154–155 of TFEU. The case of the 2006 crystalline silica agreement is one such example.

Sectoral social dialogue has been slowly developing since the establishment of sectoral social dialogue committees in 1998. As of 2018, there are 43 such committees. 

In terms of outputs, data can be different depending on the typology of outcomes chosen. According to the European Commission’s social dialogue texts database, the outcomes of European social dialogue are as follows (as of October 2018):

  • 16 agreements to be implemented by Council decision
  • 9 autonomous agreements
  • 9 codes of conduct
  • 150 declarations
  • 53 follow-up reports
  • 11 frameworks of actions
  • 41 guidelines
  • 516 joint opinions
  • 20 policy orientations
  • 51 procedural texts
  • 98 tools

The scope of subjects addressed by both cross-industry and sectoral dialogue has evolved considerably and covers topics such as economic growth, quality of work , new technology, education and vocational training, flexicurity, anticipation of change and restructuring, demographic change, working conditions, health and safety, gender equality and corporate social responsibility. In recent years, some new topics have also emerged in line with major changes occurring in companies and sectors, for example, digitalisation and its impact on work and employment.

See also: autonomous agreement; BUSINESSEUROPE; CEEP; ETUC; European collective agreements; European social dialogue; European social model; framework agreements; representativeness; SMEunited; Social policy agenda

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