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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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