Trade union rights are human rights and must be protected in EU law.
The right to join a trade union and to bargain collectively is recognised as a fundamental human right by numerous European and international charters and conventions. And yet union-busting is on the rise in Europe.
Over the last year, the European Trade Union Confederation has been receiving alarming reports of union rights violations—of obstacles, victimisation and discrimination in a number of countries—sometimes using the pandemic as a pretext. The ETUC is calling on the European institutions to take a stand and put an end to union-busting, by including measures in the proposed directive on adequate minimum wages to halt anti-union practices and to guarantee trade union access to workplaces and protection from victimisation.
The best way to secure fair wages is through collective bargaining by trade unions. The draft directive recognises this in article 4, calling for the ‘promotion of collective bargaining on wage setting’. This obliges member states to work with social partners (unions and employers) to encourage ‘constructive, meaningful and informed’ negotiations and strengthen sectoral or cross-industry bargaining. In countries where fewer than 70 per cent of workers are covered by collective agreements, governments will have to draw up action plans to promote bargaining.
All this is welcome but fails to require member states to tackle employers’ attacks on workers’ ability to organise and act together—if necessary through strike action—without risk of reprisals, victimisation, dismissal or discrimination.
The obligation on the European Union and its member states to act could not be clearer. The legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU (article 12) establishes ‘the right of everyone to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his or her interests’. Several International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions reinforce the right to negotiate on behalf of workers, including the Collective Bargaining Convention (1981). Principle 8 of the European Pillar of Social Rights further encourages the social partners ‘to negotiate and conclude collective agreements in matters relevant to them, while respecting their autonomy and the right to collective action’.
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The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association Digest of Case Law affirms:
The right to bargain with employers with respect to conditions of work constitutes an essential element in freedom of association, and trade unions should have the right, through collective bargaining or other lawful means, to seek to improve the living and working conditions of those whom the trade unions represent. The public authorities should refrain from any interference which would restrict this right or impede the lawful exercise thereof.
Yet ‘interference’ is happening throughout Europe. Union representatives are being victimised, detained or denied the right to communicate with the workers they represent.
The International Trade Union Confederation’s Global Rights Index 2020 revealed that 38 per cent of European countries excluded workers from the right to join or set up a union, 56 per cent failed to uphold the right to collective bargaining and no fewer than 72 per cent violated the right to strike. Many employers are refusing to enter talks or are choosing to bypass legitimate trade unions in favour of non-union and non-representative ‘sweetheart’ organisations.
The ETUC has growing evidence of anti-union activities by well-known companies, such as McDonald’s and Intercontinental Hotels. In Ireland, the bookmaker Paddy Power and retailer Dunnes Stores have used police to expel trade union representatives from their premises. In Latvia, legislation allows employers to set up ‘yellow’ unions, to prevent legitimate trade unions from reaching collective agreements.
Just last month, a court in Italy found that a Deliveroo algorithm discriminated against riders who took strike action and ordered the company to pay damages to trade unions. Elsewhere, ending the automatic ‘check-off’ payment of union dues from wages has had a severe impact on union finances.
A recent Vice report detailed how the notoriously anti-union Big Tech company Amazon subjected employees to surveillance in a number of EU countries, including Spain, Austria and Czechia, using ‘professional’ union-busters and private detectives to spy on trade union activities. Indeed, union-busting is now big business—and forms part of the business model of major companies such as Ryanair.
Governments are complicit in these activities. Trade unionists are still arrested and prosecuted for carrying out their duties, for instance in Turkey and Belgium. A number of countries fail to protect union members from discrimination or victimisation, including Bulgaria, Romania and Poland, where some categories of workers also do not have the right to organise.
And now some member states have adopted so-called emergency procedures in response to Covid-19, seriously limiting trade union rights such as holding demonstrations. In Hungary, a new law, introduced without consultation, prohibits collective bargaining, outlaws strikes and terminates all existing agreements in the healthcare sector.
The ETUC is calling for specific measures to be added to the directive on fair minimum wages to prevent and tackle these violations. The directive should make it clear that the definition of ‘collective bargaining’ is negotiations between employers and trade unions, rather than undefined ‘workers’ organisations’. Collective bargaining must be the prerogative of genuine, democratic trade unions, and not arbitrary groups often set up to undermine union strength and impose unacceptable conditions.
More action to promote collective bargaining is needed, ensuring that it covers all working conditions and not just wage-setting. Trade union officials must have guaranteed access to workplaces and union representatives should have the time and facilities to carry out their duties.
Governments must also act firmly to protect trade unionists from discrimination, dismissal and blacklisting. Employers should be prevented from interfering in trade unions’ internal affairs, offering bribes or incentives to non-unionised staff or intimidating workers to stop them joining a union.
To make the proposed national action plans effective in increasing the number of workers covered by collective agreements, the EU should require member states to ensure that the right to collective bargaining is respected—particularly at sectoral level. Research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that only by supporting sectoral bargaining will member states be able to achieve the targeted 70 per cent coverage of workers by collective agreements.
The ETUC is making other key demands. The first is for changes to EU public-procurement law to ensure that only companies which respect workers’ rights to bargain collectively and have implemented agreements can gain access to public contracts, grants and funding.
The second is for clarification of EU competition law, so that non-standard and self-employed workers are not prevented from organising together in a trade union and concluding collective agreements. Economic freedoms and competition rules in the EU must not be a means of circumventing workers’ protection. Nor should collective agreements be made subject to competition rules—something the European Commission seems actively to be considering in its recently published inception analysis.
In practical terms, fair minimum wages and strong collective bargaining are vital to Europe’s recovery from the pandemic, as detailed in the European Trade Union Institute’s recent Benchmarking Working Europe report. But, more importantly, freedom of association and the right to act collectively are fundamental human rights and must be defended—not just by trade unions but by the EU and governments too.
Esther Lynch was elected general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation in December 2022. She has extensive trade union experience at Irish, European and international levels, starting with her election as a shop steward in the 1980s.