European works councils: a progress report

By Jacky DeLorme, ICFTU OnLine..., 186/980908/JD, 8 September 1998

European works councils are there to counterbalance the ruthless might of the multinationals. But now that the euphoria of the first voluntary agreements has died down, the European trade unions are trying to catch their second wind.

Brussels, September 8 1998 (ICFTU OnLine): Don't have any illusions warn the trade unions on the subject of the European works councils. Both the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which fought for years to obtain a directive, and the task forces set up by the European federations, concede that from now on progress will be slow. After the signing of more than 400 voluntary agreements between the adoption of the directive in 1994 by the European Council of Ministers, and the deadline for transposing the text into national legislation in 1996, negotiations were successfully concluded in only 30 multinationals. Given that there are between 700 and 800 industrial groups covered by the directive, this is a poor performance.

The process has clearly run out of steam, admits Patrick Itschert of the textile, clothing and leather European works council. Of course the first to come forward were the most open-minded, most cooperative enterprises. There was a certain creativity, an enterprise culture which led to more ambitious agreements. Today, that initial enthusiasm has waned. The big groups have had time to develop new strategies. For once the trade union movement had a head start over the employers, but now they are ready to fight back. Many have assembled packs of lawyers and advisers. What we are seeing now is that employers will stick to the strict minimum laid down by the directive, or will only go marginally further.

Günther Vandevelde, an adviser at the Belgian metalworkers' federation, never believed in this supposed initial advantage. We simply weren't ready at the trade union level. Imagine what would happen if we succeed in lowering the thresholds for enterprises covered by the directive. It would be a victory, of course, but it would require a lot more energy, not forgetting the extra work involved by extending the directive to cover companies from the United Kingdom! Are the trade unions more forward-looking, more realistic? No doubt, although their assessment should not be seen as resignation, just a warning of how much more remains to be done.

In the European federations, which are behind most of the agreements already signed, no effort is being spared to revitalise the process: strengthening the task forces, establishing guidelines detailing the levels to be achieved in the agreements, examining cases that appear to have been shelved, collecting the 100 workers' signatures needed to open negotiations, etc.

The appeal for better preparation was also heeded. When it comes to international negotiations, improvisation won't do. Researcher Torsten Müller believes members of European works councils must be trained in the skills they need to master the information received from management, and in human relations terms to understand cultural differences and the differing demands from workers across the continent(1). This can range from practical measures such as language courses (see page 19) to three or four day seminars during which trade union advisers, consultants and employers go through the text of the directive with the participants, dismantle the workings of a multinational, its financial situation and its business strategy, explain how to get the information across to workers and how to organise preparatory meetings.

Better communication is also needed. Signing an agreement is not the end of the matter, the works council must be operative. There is sometimes a hiatus between signing the text and putting it into practice explains Patrick Itschert. One meeting a year is not enough, there has to be a structure to ensure a proper follow-up. Where there is a dynamic secretariat, it works. Where there isn't they are getting nowhere: the delegates turn up to their works council meeting in the morning with no preparation, there are no documents, or they are not translated, the agenda is cobbled together, etc. And then they are surprised to see fights between colleagues every time they hear bad news for jobs, out of the blue. Management may fulfil its side of the bargain honestly, I'm not questioning that. But bombarding members of the European works council with 200 pages of figures and all kinds of information isn't enough. At Sara Lee they even get a fashion parade thrown in!

There is no ready-made solution for improving communication between members scattered across Europe. The characteristics of the group and its industrial relations traditions are decisive in the choice of strategy. But the most interesting trend emerging today is the establishment of a steady flow of information through computer networks. Aware of what is at stake for the European works councils, the international federation of technical and managerial staff, FIET, has been campaigning for months to gain free access for workers to electronic mail and the Internet (see Trade Union World no.7-8, 98).


The third important condition for European Works Councils to function well is a good understanding of developments in industry. This is fundamental for the creation of EWCs, as they have to adapt to today's situation, namely the growing number of multinationals. But it is a constantly changing situation, and therefore very hard to keep track of, which is of great concern to the unions. Which enterprises are covered by the directive? In short, how can we adjust the definition of an enterprise to meet economic reality today? asks Willy Buschak.

Let us take the case of a joint venture. If we look at the text of the directive, there is no case for creating a works council, because there is no dominant enterprise. We have to avoid being faced with a fait accompli, and if possible sense what is happening, anticipate change. It is a difficult task, and there are many failures. At the Duracell works council meeting, the management simply announced that the group had been taken over by Gilette and that the works council would have to be dissolved. explains Günther Vandevelde. That means starting from scratch. Everything that had been achieved was lost in the new industrial group.

There isn't always such an abrupt end. Management may show willingness to continue constructive dialogue during restructuring. Hans Fluger, General Secretary of the European Metalworkers Federation, EMF, calls this the Electrolux method. That means sticking strictly to the directive and going no further. Their method is to say: you want information? Here it is. In every language? Fine. Sub-groups? No problem, we'll have eight meetings. They are quite happy to collaborate on information and consultation, but the essential problem is the same: 12,000 jobs are still being lost at Electrolux. Any negotiations are just to find alternative employment or to agree terms for early retirement. Their philosophy has not changed.

To use the EWCs to their full potential, therefore, it is essential to make a qualitative change, to move beyond the minimal programme that the management of many companies try to stick to. The trade unions must take the initiative, show some imagination. The creation of working groups on specific questions is part of this. The aim is to prepare recommendations to submit to the works council. At the Ericsson group, thanks to the work of a sub-committee, an agreement was signed on equal opportunities for women and men. Little by little, the EWCs are extending the scope of their activities, and codes of conduct are being established thanks to their action. What the EWCs need most of all is time.

The BSN (Danone) council is upheld as a good example, but it must not be forgotten that it is the oldest. The knowledge and skills built up over the years are only just beginning to bear fruit now. They have learnt lessons from every mistake, making each future agreement a little stronger.

And while UNICE (the European employers' federation) seems little inclined to give any ground on the evaluation of the directive in a few months time, the ETUC and through it the European federations are determined to negotiate changes that bring the text more into line with recognised workers' rights.

(1)European Works Councils Bulletin, issue 15