“We need to rely on the expertise of businesses and trade unions – our collective bargaining power,” said Ursula von der Leyen in her State of The Union address today, 13 September 2023. She stressed that trade unions and employer organisations play a core role in addressing labour market challenges: “The future of Europe will be built with and by the social partners.” Her statement recognises them not just as key stakeholders in EU-policymaking, but also in regulating workplaces autonomously thorough collective bargaining.
As collective bargaining did not feature prominently in von der Leyen’s previous addresses, this is a welcome shift in focus for Europe’s working people and UNI Europa’s 7 million services workers.
While UNI Europa appreciates the Commission President’s recognition of the importance of collective bargaining and social dialogue, her address fell short of concrete proposals to strengthen them. The Social Partner Summit in spring next year is a welcome initiative to bring social partners around the table to address Europe’s economic and social challenges. But it is not enough to tackle today’s cost-of-living crisis, erosion of workers’ rights and a dangerous return to austerity that might plunge Europe’s workers into ever more precarity.
When the Commission President criticised Chinese price dumping on the EU market by saying “we are for competition, but not for the race to the bottom”, UNI Europa would have liked her refer to labour standards, better pay and decent jobs too.
In fact, there would be simple, straightforward way for the Commission to strengthen workers’ power through collective bargaining.
Every year, over 250,000 public authorities in the EU spend around 14% of GDP or around €2 trillion per year on the purchase of services, works and supplies. But under current rules, public procurement allow authorities to ignore social criteria in tendering, resulting in 50 % of public tenders being awarded solely based on the lowest price in Europe. This lowest price tendering puts pressure on wages and working conditions, leads to less competition as better contractors refuse to bid so low, worsens the quality of public services, brings less tax income and, crucially, it weakens collective bargaining. It’s not just trade unions that think so. Employers the cleaning and private security sectors, too, recognise the need to link public money to good jobs in joint statements with UNI Europa.
Instead of fuelling a race to the bottom, public authorities could use procurement to boost jobs, growth and investment, and to create an economy that is more innovative, resource and energy efficient, and socially-inclusive. By committing to reforming the Public Procurement Directive, von der Leyen could have shown that the Commission is serious about strengthening collective bargaining.
UNI Europa’s Regional Secretary Oliver Roethig said: “UNI Europa welcomes European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s recognition of the importance of collective bargaining and social dialogue. But our 7 million services workers – who are struggling with falling living standards and the erosion of decent jobs – expect more. To put money where its mouth is, the Commission should strengthen collective bargaining with concrete measures, like ensuring that public money is only given to companies that have collective bargaining agreements in place. That would be a big step towards reaching the 80% target for collective bargaining coverage across the EU.”
You can find more information about UNI Europa’s public procurement campaign here.