EU Commission must restore social partner autonomy

Tuesday 7 September 2021

A ruling by the European Court of Justice has highlighted the need for decisive action to rehabilitate EU social dialogue.

The ruling, announced last week, concerns a case brought by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) which challenged Barroso Commission-era efforts to undermine social partner autonomy at EU level. By finding the process adopted by the  Commission over a decade ago to be legal, this judgement prolongs the paralysis of EU social dialogue.

UNI Europa joins the European trade union movement in calling on the EU Commission to ensure that workers’ unions and employers’ organisations have the ability to make their agreements legally applicable across their sectors.

“It is urgent that the EU Commission restore institutional avenues for workers’ interests to shape EU law- and policy-making. This judgement shows that the social dialogue structures foreseen to deliver shared prosperity and improve workers’ conditions have largely been undermined. It is time to get back on track towards a social Europe,” said Oliver Roethig, Regional Secretary of UNI Europa.

The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) foresees two official paths for implementing social partner agreements. Autonomous implementation is through agreements by social partners (workers’ unions and employers’ organisations). Workplaces where neither the employers nor the workers are members of those organisations are not held to it, which allows for undercutting that would undermine the viability of an agreement. This left legislative implementation, by which social partner agreements could be written into law, as the only viable path taking a cue from erga omnes declarations of collective agreements at national level. However this judgement indicates that this path is now compromised. The court states clearly that the Commission is the absolute gatekeeper and can freely decide whether a social partner agreement fits its political agenda or not.

Opening of another route? The case of the hairdressers

Similarly to EPSU, UNI Europa also had one of its social partner agreements blocked by the EU Commission during the Barroso presidency. Our agreement with employers in the hairdressing sector Coiffure EU proposed to write health and safety provisions into law. These provisions were designed to minimise the risk of workers contracting work-related asthma, skin conditions and musculoskeletal diseases, which are highly prevalent in the sector. A more detailed summary of this case is available here.

To overcome the impasse, the hairdressing social partners developed an alternative way to implement their agreement in close cooperation with the European Commission. The solution found draws on the social partners’ self-regulatory competences as well as non-legislative EU action across a range of policy fields. At its core is a continuous process at European level where all three actors work together on the implementation. This case could provide hints as to another path to making social dialogue operational. However, it remains an ad hoc approach that needs a lot more work if it is to be made fit for purpose.

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