A short history of the USOEB

A short history of the USOEB

Agora #88
Pages 46 - 49

SUEPO (Staff Union of the European Patent Office) was born in 1979 out of the “Syndicat du Personnel de l’Institut International des Brevets” (SP- IIB) which was founded in 1969, following the creation of the European Patent Office (EPO) in 1977, and the merging of the IIB into the EPO.

SUEPO (Staff Union of the European Patent Office) was born in 1979 out of the “Syndicat du Personnel de l’Institut International des Brevets” (SP- IIB) which was founded in 1969, following the creation of the European Patent Office (EPO) in 1977, and the merging of the IIB into the EPO.

In agreement with its 1979 Constitution (SC), SUEPO comprises four local sections, at the four EPO sites: Munich, The Hague, Berlin and Vienna. A Congress, a Central Bureau and an Audit Board were established as central bodies of SUEPO. Despite the existence of these central bodies, the local sections enjoy quite a lot of autonomy and can be considered as quasi-independent entities. Some of them have legal status under their respective national law, like SUEPO-TH under Dutch law.

As the acronym USOEB, the French name for SUEPO, clearly suggests, SUEPO was created with the intention of being a branch of USF. Presently two of the SUEPO local sections, SUEPO-TH and SUEPO-BE, are affiliated with USF. SUEPO-MU was also affiliated in the past. Today, SUEPO is by far the largest union of the EPO, and around 40% of all EPO employees are members of it. As for other unions in international organisations, SUEPO is involved with issues that go well beyond the scope of Staff unions at the national level.

The objectives of SUEPO were primarily stated as “…to defend the interests of all persons employed by the European Patent Office, as well as all former employees and their successor in title, especially by seeking to improve conditions of employment…” and “… to ensure that employees’ rights as individuals are respected…” (cf. SC, Article 2). These objectives could be summarised as ‘to represent and defend staff interests’. This is surely what one can expect from a Staff union. In the jargon of the EPO, we would say that these objectives are neither novel nor inventive for a union….

“There is a fundamental difference in approach between Unions and Management. Management takes decisions based on short term gains, whereas Unions think in the long term.”

However, the objectives stated in the SUEPO Constitution further included “… to contribute to the attainment of the objectives of the EPO and to its proper functioning, and to safeguard the independence of permanent employees of the Office as international public servants” (cf. SC, Art. 2). These objectives are not necessarily what could be expected from a Staff union. The reasons they were stated in the SC, are probably linked to the peculiar legal status of the EPO, i.e., a quasi-judicial entity in a legal vacuum. The quasi-judicial aspect is evidently linked to the granting (or refusal) of patents, or to be more precise to the green light given by EPO to the national patent offices to grant them. The legal vacuum is linked to the EPO’s governance or to the lack or the shortcomings of it. Unlike Labour Law in a national civil service, the rules dictating employment conditions and staff rights at the EPO are determined by the Office’s Administrative Council, an organ with only limited accountability. This loose governance combined with the low visibility of the EPO on the public stage set the scene for a long history of social tensions and union actions at the EPO. The huge number of complaints originating from the staff of the EPO pending (or judged) at the International Labour Organization Administrative Tribunal (ILOAT) over the years is a clear sign of this “malaise”.

The objectives of SUEPO could be summarised as “to represent and defend staff interests”

Since its creation SUEPO has always striven to attain the above objectives through a large variety of means: discussions, negotiation, publications, general assemblies, demonstrations, work-to-rules, strikes… Many legal actions were also launched or supported by SUEPO with good results. Discussions and negotiation with the management have always been the first choice of SUEPO, whenever possible. When the EPO administration was serious about social dialogue, good outcomes could be reached without resorting to industrial actions, a win-win situation for everybody. However, despite all the good will, divergences with the management led many times to confrontation and to industrial and/or legal actions from the first years onwards.

The issues at stake have been similar throughout the more than 40 years of existence of SUEPO. Careers, salaries, pensions, contracts, financial sustainability, work pressure, recruitment, staff well-being and IT development are just some of the recurrent items that have been at the centre of the discussions with management and have more often than not led to confrontation, escalation and industrial or legal action. The lack of proper consultation of the Staff representation and SUEPO is probably the most recurrent and important issue. Most of the other problems faced by the EPO in all these years can be seen as originating from this. As a former SUEPO official and later EPO manager once said: “There is a fundamental difference in approach between Unions and Management. Management takes decisions based on short term gains, whereas Unions think in the long term.”

The advent of the Battistelli presidency in 2010 inaugurated a new era. Until then the relations between SUEPO and the management had been mostly in line with what one could have expected, sometimes cordial, sometimes tense. From then onward, things evolved dramatically at the EPO. In May 2013 a Communiqué was issued stating that sending emails to more than 50 employees would be allowed only for authorised employees. Since “surprisingly” neither the Staff representation (SR), nor SUEPO were part of these “authorised employees”, this limitation, still in force today (19.09.2022), amounts to plain censorship for the SR and SUEPO. In June 2013 an article was added to the Service Regulations, de facto limiting the fundamental right to strike of the employees. In March 2014, new amendments introduced to the Service Regulations violated the right to freedom of association of the Staff. All these amendments (or at least parts of them) to the Staff Regulations and the cited Communiqué have been recently found unlawful by the ILOAT (see respectively ILOAT J 4551, J 4430 and J 4482).

During all this time SUEPO has continuously and actively supported the complainants. Having muzzled SUEPO and the Staff Representation, the Battistelli administration took the opportunity to pass some more convenient reforms. In December 2014 a New Career System (NCS) was introduced to the detriment of Staff, in particular to the newcomers and to the ones who had already been negatively impacted by a 2009 reform of the pension system. In March 2018 a new employment framework was introduced, which in practice amounted to offer 5 + 5 years of contract to almost every new newcomer, despite the inadequacy of such a system for the staff of the EPO.

Since SUEPO and the SR did not like to be muzzled and were still voicing their discontent, the administration in January 2016 dismissed two SUEPO leaders, and downgraded another in Munich on various alleged charges. In June 2018 the ILOAT ruled that the decision to dismiss the two SUEPO leaders and downgrade the other were unlawful and must be set aside . At the end of 2016 another SUEPO leader was dismissed in The Hague. This last case was settled in 2020 before going to court. Other SUEPO officials or SR nominees had received different kind of reprimands. Some cases should still be settled. No official excuses from the EPO have been received to date, even though such harsh and unlawful treatment of Union leaders has never been heard off in any other international organisation.

In June 2018 the Administrative Council (AC) elected Mr. A. Campiños as the new president of the EPO, with a mandate to establish and foster social dialogue. Today, after four years, the climate of fear of the previous presidency has given way to a climate of disengagement and disillusion, as a recent Technologia Staff survey has shown. Despite some initial optimism, Mr. Campiños has failed so far to fulfil the mandate the AC gave to him. Social dialogue with the Staff representation seems like a tick all the boxes exercise, and social dialogue with SUEPO is almost non-existent. There has been no meeting, in person or by videoconference, between SUEPO and Mr. Campiños, for more than a year.

The reforms introduced by the previous administration, like the New Career System and the New Employment Framework are still in place. Some more reforms were pushed through during the last four years, like the new Salary Adjustment Procedure (SAP) , while SUEPO and the SR were impeded from operating properly due to the limitations introduced by the former presidency. Moreover, it took an ILOAT judgment (J 4430) and 8 years, 3 of which under the present presidency, to remove the limitations to the fundamental right to strike.

Similarly, concerning the removal of the limitations on the freedom of association (J 4482) it took more than 8 years, 3 and a half of which under the present presidency. The last ILOAT judgment (J 4551) concerning the removal of the limitations on the number of emails addressees had not been implemented at the time of writing (19 September 2022). It has been more than 9 years since the email limitation was introduced. This is not worthy of an International Organisation like the EPO, the second largest European Organisation by number of employees after the EU Commission.

The history of SUEPO is intrinsically linked to the history of EPO. Since its creation it has always acted tirelessly to attain the objectives stated in its Constitution, i.e., to defend the rights of the Staff and to safeguard the proper functioning of the EPO. Even in the worst moments, its leaders have fought hard to defend these principles, sometimes at a very high cost for themselves. SUEPO has been and continues to be a major actor in shaping the present and the future of the EPO.

Mr. Campiños has just been re-elected for a second mandate of five years, starting in July 2023. I wish him well, but if he wants to succeed in his endeavour, he will have to commit to proper social dialogue with SUEPO and the Staff Representation.

Roberto Righetti

About this Author

Member of the USF Federal Bureau
Secretary of SUEPO-TH