UNI Europa held conference on strengthening collective bargaining across Europe


EU Affairs

In the next few months, EU member states will have to start preparing national action plans to strengthen collective bargaining. There are some positive steps, but more remains to be done.

UNI Europa held conference on strengthening collective bargaining across Europe

“It is UNI Europa’s objective to strengthen collective bargaining across Europe. The EU minimum wage directive calls on member states to promote collective bargaining through national action plans. Now, it is time for member states to take action.” With these words, UNI Europa Regional Secretary Oliver Roethig opened a UNI Europa conference held in Brussels on 26 June 2024.

In his kick-off presentation, Stan De Spiegelaere, UNI Europa Director of Policy and Research, asked participants in the room to signal what they think of the EU minimum wage directive’s role. Most agreed that it could be a game-changer for strengthening collective bargaining across Europe.

One of the best ways of increasing collective bargaining coverage are multi-employer or sectoral bargaining systems, he argued further. They make companies compete on quality, not on driving down wages, preventing a race to the bottom. This is crucial as union density is low across many European countries: “Without multi-employer bargaining, EU member states cannot reach the 80 per cent target of collective bargaining coverage as set out in the directive,” said De Spiegelaere.

Beyond multi-employer bargaining, public procurement can help increase collective bargaining coverage. More and more public tenders are based on companies offering the lowest price. Having a collective bargaining agreement in place should be an award criterion.

The services sectors employ a majority of workers in our economies, so they need to be at the centre of any attempt to strengthen collective bargaining. “We have 140 pages of ideas of what policymakers can do,” concluded De Spiegelaere, referring to a recently published UNI Europa report.

Country testimonials

Next, UNI Europa affiliates shared testimonials from their countries, the state of the transposition of the directive and sectoral collective bargaining.

“In Ireland, we are dealing with bad English laws and bad American employers,” Ethel Buckley said as she urged a far-reaching implementation of the EU minimum wage directive in Ireland. “Ireland has the structure for sectoral collective bargaining, but employers can participate voluntarily. The government’s report on the EU minimum wage directive would eliminate that veto. That’s good, but it’s not enough.”

In Romania, the transposition of the EU minimum wage directive has helped bring back sectoral collective bargaining. “We are very happy with that, but more needs to be done,” said Adrian Soare from Trade Union UPA Romania.

“The problem with company-level bargaining is that most companies we bargain with are multinationals. And they can make their accounting show zero or negative results in Poland. It’s so easy to shift money around within capital holdings. We need a response here,” argued Rafal Tomasiak, Director of the organising centre COZZ. He is concerned that the Polish government is rushing through the consultation on the transposition of the EU minimum wage directive, which is supposed to be voted on in November.

Belgium doesn’t have to present national actions plans as its collective bargaining coverage is above 80 per cent. But we should think twice about this, argued Alexis Fellahi from Belgian union ACV, as a Belgian law from 1996 limits wage negotiations obtained by collective bargaining. If the government wants to promote it, they could reconsider this law.

The role of EU institutions

After hearing the testimonials from a variety of countries, ETUC General Secretary Esther Lynch moderated a panel debate with Oliver Roethig, the European Commission’s Maria Luisa Cabral and former Member of European Parliament, Agnes Jongerius, on the role of EU institutions in strengthening collective bargaining.

Maria Luisa Cabral, Director in the EU Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, talked about the instruments the EU has to promote collective bargaining. Key legislation, besides the minimum wage directive, is the Council recommendation of strengthening social dialogue of last year as well as the results of the summits in Val Duchess and La Hulpe this year.

“The next five years should be spent on enforcement of the directive,” Agnes Jongerius called on the European institutions to push member states towards a progressive transposition of the directive. She went on to say that “we should insert clauses on reaching the 80 per cent target of collective bargaining coverage in public procurement rules.”

Oliver Roethig joined in the call for a revision of the EU Public Procurement Directive in the next EU mandate: “We even have employers in the cleaning, security and catering sectors who say that they don’t participate in public tenders because they have collective agreements and can’t offer such a low price.”

Agnes Jongerius responded to a question from the audience about winning in the institutions: “You win by building alliances.” This is what UNI Europa, its affiliates and the wider European trade union movement will do during the EU mandate.

Esther Lynch called on the European institutions to keep supporting collective bargaining in Europe: “A clear democratic majority emerged from the European elections to double down on the path taken by the European Commission during the last mandate. We expect the next Commission and Parliament to put pressure on member states to promote collective bargaining with ambitious national action plans.”

Oliver Roethig concluded: “We will keep fighting together to strengthen collective bargaining across Europe on the road to the UNI Europa Conference in Belfast in March 2025. Europe’s workers deserve real say and more pay.”

This conference was organised in the context of the EU co-funded “Level-up” project (1010487).

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