As the dust was settling on the regrettable British referendum presaging the UK’s departure from the EU, one bit of potentially good news received scant attention.
For more than 30 years, the EU has been enabling employers’ and workers’ representatives to negotiate and reach agreements that improve working conditions and workers’ rights across Europe. During this period, at cross-sectoral level, the so-called European Social Dialogue has chalked up a list of achievements covering part-time work, parental leave, workplace stress and harassment and violence at work, lifelong learning and more, as well as a series of joint autonomous work programmes. Besides, more than 40 different industrial sectors have also launched their own Social Dialogue committees, under the EU umbrella, negotiating concrete benefits for workers ranging from train drivers to hairdressers. On Monday 27 June the social partners – the European Trade Union Confederation and employers’ organisations BUSINESSEUROPE, CEEP and UEAPME – together with the European Commission and Council, signed a joint statement pledging ‘A New Start for Social Dialogue’. They jointly expressed that this new start should lead to more substantial involvement of social partners in the European Semester, a stronger emphasis on capacity building of national social partners, a strengthened involvement of social partners in EU policy- and law-making and a clearer relation between social partners’ agreements and the better regulation agenda.
Earlier in June, for the first time ever the Council of the European Union adopted conclusions on strengthening European Social Dialogue, recognising that “social dialogue is a crucial factor and a beneficial tool for a well-functioning social market economy”, and calling on Member States to involve the social partners closely in the design and implementation of policies. This is another significant step in formalising the role of unions in EU policy-making.
It was Jacques Delors who launched a structured framework for a dialogue between trade unions and employers in the EU, in 1985, at Val Duchesse in Brussels. It was part of an important process of involving in the EU’s construction those who know the work place most closely, both companies and working people, but also showing that the EU had something to offer them – a cornerstone of the EU’s social dimension.
But the results of European Social Dialogue in recent years have been disappointing. One problem has been hesitation, and sometimes a clear “NO” to engaging fully by negotiating within the Social Dialogue on the part of employers’ associations. During the economic crisis, in some EU member states the National Social Dialogue was simply non-existent or failed to protect workers against worsening employment conditions (embodied in a range of insecure and precarious contracts, on-call and involuntary part-time work, false freelancing and online platforms).
Job losses occurred even in countries with a good to excellent economic performance. Wages have failed to keep up with productivity gains. This is why, in some countries, where social partners did not conclude agreements or do not have the capacity to do so, setting minimum wages is more important than ever before. But, a significant precondition for a successful European Social Dialogue, with tangible results in the member states, is a functioning National Social Dialogue.
In various countries, agreements concluded at EU level that should have been put into effect, were not. Social partners in some – particularly newer – member states lacked the experience, resources, and organisation to implement and follow up the joint instruments. They also faced a more negative climate towards Social Dialogue, often generated by changes in the labour code that weakened their bargaining power. That is why the ETUC was particularly pleased to secure, in the recent statement, a commitment from the Commission to “support capacity-building through mutual learning, identification, and exchanges of good practice”. The Commission has a duty to ensure that national governments fulfil their obligations enshrined in the Treaty and put in place supportive frameworks that promote Social Dialogue – should this be at tripartite or bipartite level – depending on the industrial relations traditions.
In 2015 newly-elected Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced at the beginning of his mandate that he wanted to become “the president of social dialogue”, and at the ETUC’s Congress in Paris later in the year declared: “It is absolutely essential to revive the social dialogue in Europe.” In light of this, the ETUC was surprised that the Commission, eventually a partner in the tripartite statement, did not take more of a leading role in turning words into action right after the conclusion by the EU social partners of their joint declaration ‘A new start for a strong social dialogue’ agreed in January.
This went further than ever before in affirming the role of labour and management in EU policy-making. It means the Social Partners now have a stronger framework for joint actions in pursuit of a Social Europe and, after the damaging UK referendum outcome, could help to show people how the EU is working in their interests. But that means the EU and the member states have to deliver results, not just statements. The instruments are there, but are they matched by political will? Trade unions are willing to contribute to the re-launched social dialogue. But, if it turns out that it was just paying lip service which led to a series of declarations but not to tangible results for workers and companies/public services it will add yet more frustration about European social policy. The ETUC is ready to play its role but all the actors that signed the joint statement should be on board. The benchmark is clear: will Social Dialogue generate better working and living conditions for European workers?
The statement will certainly not solve all the problems working people face in Europe today, but it does mean that trade unions can expect to be at the table to make their views heard on economic and social policy-making. The EU has reaffirmed the importance of bipartite and tripartite dialogues between unions, employers and also public authorities at both national and European levels. But Social Dialogue is only valuable when agreements are fully implemented and become a tangible reality on the shop floor. 27 June will have been a historic date if we can say in three to four years’ time that we have delivered for European workers.