Anti-trade Union Tactics

Anti-trade Union Tactics

Agora #89
Pages 20 - 29

This article provides a testimonial of the anti-trade union tactics that IPSO has observed within the ECB.

A testimonial from an ECB unionist

This article provides a testimonial of the anti-trade union tactics that IPSO has observed within the ECB. Some of them might have been intentionally deployed whereas some others might merely reflect unconscious biases. Overall, it might seem rationale for an employer to weaken the bargaining position of the employees´ representatives to maximize its own profit or power. On a closer look, this reflects a short-sighted vision which is damaging society as a whole and should be reconsidered.

Profit maximizing employer and strategic discrimination

For a profit-maximizing employer, it is rational to aim at maximizing the employer’s share in value- added, at the expense of that of their employees. One traditional way to do this, as explained by the Economist Thomas Breda, is to weaken the employees´ power by targeting their representatives. This can be done either by trying to capture them (for instance, bribing them) so that their negotiation objectives become more aligned with the employer’s interests, or by discriminating them in case the capture attempts did not work. In fact, empirical analysis carried by T. Breda and J. Bourdieu covering about 4,000 French establishments shows that the level of trade union representatives’ salary and career discrimination is proportional to their level of combativeness: the more they defend the interests of the employees, the more they suffer from discrimination.[1] In another research, Breda finds an approximate reduction of 10% of the salaries of employees who engaged in workers representation activities.[2]

Of course, such a targeting [falls] is to be seen as an unfair practice. The mere objective of collective bargaining is to restore the imbalance of power between capital holders, who are already incorporated in a collective body (namely the company), and the labour force, who should also incorporate themselves in a collective body (namely the trade-union) if they want to achieve the better conditions enshrined in a collective contract that will benefit to all. That is the reason why many countries provide rules to not only protect the freedom of association and collective bargaining, but also to foster them. Economically, one could see such right as the implementation of fair competition principles to the labour market.

Nevertheless, the rights protecting trade union activities did not emerge spontaneously out of the employer’s good will. They have been historically granted after workers fought for them. We should never forget that many of our predecessors were being shot by the army or the police for merely trying to secure fair deals for workers who did not manage to make ends meet despite long working hours, as most of the value-added was captured by the so-called “industry captains”. For the same reason, it would be illusory to believe that the rebalancing of imbalanced labour relations can be achieved only based on the employers good will and without putting a good fight (when such balance does not emerge from the mechanisms foreseen by the law). Unless we renounce to represent the workers´ interests, it is to be expected that we, as trade-union representatives, will have to take a lot of discrimination and dirty tactics from the employer side.

[1] Bourdieu, Jérôme, et Thomas Breda. « ‪Des délégués syndicaux sous-payés : une situation de discrimination stratégique ?‪. Une analyse économétrique à partir de l’enquête REPONSE de 2010 », Travail et emploi, vol. 145, no. 1, 2016, pp. 31-58.

[2] Breda, T. (2014) “Les délégués syndicaux sont-ils discriminés ?”, La Revue Economique, vol 65, n°6, pp. 841-880.

Public institutions: sharing power rather than sharing the profit

One might argue nevertheless that public institutions are in a different configuration. They are not profit-maximizing employers and they do pursue public interest. This would be quite a naïve view, however, as there are plenty of examples (both theoretical and practical) where the power granted to the management of public institutions has been used to serve different interests than the public one. That is why checks and balances mechanisms are needed. Furthermore, there can be different definitions of what public interest means. As hinted at by Karl Marx, one´s ideology is often determined by where one stands in the social hierarchy. The views of the top management of public organisations are not necessarily aligned with those held by citizens who might not get treated as well as the upper governing class. Without elaborating too much on the details of the specific mechanisms in place in the public sector, we hope that the reader would easily concede our view that in public institutions, the labour relation is not only about sharing the profit but also about sharing the power.

Extra-territoriality and extra-concentration of power

We should, however, be attentive to one specificity affecting international organisations, be they European or not, namely their extra-territoriality. Extra-territoriality means that most of the legislative apparatus which was supposed to protect and foster fair industrial relations at the national level is no longer binding. Even worse, the legislative competence to determine such rules have been transferred to the employer, which is therefore placed in an obvious situation of conflict of interests (having to establish laws granting powers to the workers’ representation, which will inevitably weaken those of the employer).

Finally, and this is not a minor point, a substantial difference between the national legislator and the extra-territorial legislator is that the former is elected by the citizens that will be subject to the laws, whereas the latter is not. In a democratic state, workers are also voters and can therefore have a say on the laws that will apply to them. If they are not happy with the laws adopted, they can outvote their elected legislator on the next occasion and choose different ones who can revise the laws. This is not possible in a non-democratic extra-territorial organisation-.

Overall, one should not expect that the level of protection of workers’ representatives in extra-territorial organizations will match what is available at the national level.

Anti-trade union tactics at the European Central Bank

Turning now to the situation at the European Central Bank (ECB), it is fair to say that the employer´s actions were no exception to the rule. We could observe actions which can clearly be assimilated to anti-trade union tactics and did not facilitate the emergence of fair labour relations. In that regard, the prerogatives and autonomy deriving from the institution´s extra-territoriality greatly facilitated deviations from the standards in place in most European countries.

Refusal to recognise trade unions

The most obvious anti-trade union tactics was merely the refusal to recognise trade unions at the ECB. The European Monetary Institute (EMI) was established on 1st January 1994 and then replaced by the ECB as of 1st of June 1998. Trade unions constituted very early, as of 1994 thanks to the support of EPSU and the DAG and ÖTV that were to become Ver.di. Another trade union, the Union of the staff of the ECB (USE), was also established. The ECB however refused to recognize them as social partners. The argument used at the time was that the staff was already represented by an internal Staff Committee. Also, the ECB argued that those unions have not provided proof of their representativeness. However, at the same time, the ECB did not establish, in its legislative capacity, any rules or criteria for a trade union to meet to establish their representativeness. It was therefore not possible for the union to demonstrate that it fulfilled criteria which were not existing.[1]

Such tactics severely prejudiced the capacity of trade unions to establish at the ECB. The lack of recognition seriously hindered the capacity of the trade union to operate in house: there was no formal right to be consulted, no negotiations, no time dispensation granted to union representatives to perform their duties, no job protection, no right of the union to call for a strike. Also, as the trade union was not recognised, ECB staff were not encouraged to join, as joining was not offering them access to official representation. Furthermore, the refusal of the ECB to recognise the union sent a signal that joining the union could be a dangerous decision to make for their career or even their employment. As a result, after years of infructuous exchanges with the ECB, one trade union even decided to dissolve (the USE).

Eventually, more than ten years after the ECB inception, the ECB accepted to lay down criteria for recognizing trade unions, which resulted in the signing of the so-called Memorandum of Understanding between the ECB and IPSO signed on 3 July 2008. Such recognition did come after years of fighting, with repeated complaints made by several federations of trade unions (SCECBU, UNI, EPSU) towards the ECB. Also, the recognition happened in the middle of a conflict regarding a pension reform, which triggered much disgruntled staff to overcome their fear and join the union. It was therefore increasingly difficult for the ECB to merely ignore the union´s activities. Lastly, the ECB was set to celebrate its 10 years of existence in an official and public ceremony, and there were concerns about possible public action by IPSO on that occasion. This led the ECB and its President, Jean-Claude Trichet, to agree to open negotiations on the recognition of trade unions at the ECB.

[1] You might also refer to C. Bowles. Agora (March 2010), The Lisbon Treaty at the ECB: does it change something or not?;

Confusion of bodies and breach of ILO Convention n. 135

The recognition did not however fully resolve the matter. First, collective bargaining was explicitly excluded from the recognition framework.[1] The rights granted to the Union were the same as the Staff Committee, which is being consulted before a decision is made. This differs completely from the dual model in place at the European Commission where trade unions negotiate the conditions of employment and the Staff Committee implements them. Furthermore, this confusion of competence goes against the provisions of ILO Convention n. 135, whose Article 5 precludes that the establishment of an internal representation body is used to undermine the activity of a trade union. Indeed, why would colleagues pay a fee to join a union that will provide the same services as a Staff Committee which they can use for free?

Second, the recognition criteria are not based on the results of the elections to the Staff Committee. Those still take place based on individual candidatures, rather than being list-based, without any formal involvement nor specific rights of the unions to campaign during elections. They are based on relatively stringent membership requirements (10% of the workforce[2]), in a system where there is no need to be a member of the union to benefit from the achievements secured by the union, thereby fostering conscious or unconscious free riding among the staff. The lack of anchoring of the representativeness criteria into all-ECB staff elections is often used by the ECB to question the union´s representativeness (see also later sections).

Third, the time resources granted to the union representatives are very minimalistic. The union only receives a bit less than one third of what the Staff Committee receives, whereas the tasks to be performed by each body are the same (similar consultations, participation to the same meetings etc). Therefore, the trade union is placed in a situation where it is structurally bound to be outperformed by the body set up by the employer (the Staff Committee). The electorate might notice the difference of activities between bodies. If both bodies are assigned with the same competences but one is free, more active and elected by all ECB staff, it is tempting to mainly engage with the Staff Committee and ignore the trade union.

Eventually, this situation of overlap is confusing many colleagues who do not have the necessary political or legal background to understand these subtleties. They are at pain to understand the difference between bodies, why there is a need for having a trade union on top of a Staff Committee, why colleagues in the trade union also run for election to the Staff Committee, etc.

[1] The “whereas” excluding collective bargaining from the scope of the agreement is sometimes used by ECB representatives to argue that the union would have renounced to this right, because the union would have agreed to a framework which does not refer to it.

[2] With that threshold none of the national unions existing in France would be officially recognised.

The value of an independent workers´ representation

There is however value in having an independent staff representation offered by the trade union, compared with an internal staff representation such as the Staff Committee. Historically, the ambiguity of the internal representation bodies was spotted from the very beginning of the establishment of the Works council in Germany around 1920´s.[1] An elected Works council member remains on the payslip of the employer and is an easier target than a trade unionist paid by the union. They can be offered promotions in exchange for their votes, or they can alternatively face veiled dismissal threats if they are not employer-friendly. Only an external body controlled and managed by workers can benefit from a real independence from the employer. This is even more so when the employer is empowered with a legislative competence and is free to decide about the mandate of the body, its constitution including the election rules, mandate limitations, resources availability, etc.[2]

Overall, the situation of confusion of bodies prevailing at the ECB severely weakens the position of the trade union internally, because the role of the union is not well understood by colleagues or even the union counterparts (in Human Resources or at Executive Board level) who sometimes question the participation of trade union members in the Staff Committee. Overall, the trade union is structurally questioned regarding its “raison d´être” and existence. The staff representation as a whole is weakened. This only benefits the bargaining position of an employer already empowered with very strong unilateral decision-making powers.

In that setting, the staff representation also faced adversarial actions impacting either the bodies (be it the union or the Staff Committee) or the elected staff representatives.

[1] See Emil Frankel, The German Works Councils, Journal of Political Economy , Oct., 1923, Vol. 31, No. 5 (Oct., 1923), pp. 708-736

[2] Contrary to the rules in place at the EU Commission, at the ECB the election rules are not defined by the Staff (in a Staff Assembly or by referendum) but by the employer. Again, the employer is placed in an obvious situation of conflict of interests.

Challenging the representativeness of duly elected representatives

A very damaging action is the regular challenge of its representative nature. The mechanism works like a Russian doll. To start with, the union´s representativeness is challenged on account that it would only represent the members of the union, as opposed to representing the whole staff. The Staff Committee, however, is officially elected by all staff, and a majority of the elected SC members are also members of the union. This is then used to challenge the representativeness of the Staff Committee, which would be unduly captured by union representatives only speaking for a minority of the staff. Even worse, the representativeness of the Staff Committee was even challenged by some Executive Board members because it would not be composed by “normal staff” but by staff representatives, who have different thinking because they are in a different situation, being partially or totally discharged of their Business Area duties. On that basis, the voice of the staff representatives has been sometimes dismissed by default. In order to ascertain what staff members think, our counterparts refer to private conversations they had with some colleagues and use them to challenge the perspective brought in by duly mandated representatives.[1]

There have been many instances of the above mechanism. Recently, the ECB publicly argued that IPSO´s complain about a wage adjustment twice lower than the inflation “was not necessarily representing the views of the majority of the staff” because IPSO only had to fulfil a threshold of 10% to be recognised as representative.[2] While answering this to the journalist, the ECB was however perfectly aware that IPSO holds 6 out of the 9 seats of the Staff Committee elected by all staff. Furthermore, IPSO´s claim was based on a staff survey to which both IPSO and non-IPSO members responded – a fact which was also known to the ECB. In its press comment, the ECB is also misleadingly presenting IPSO as “a union active at the ECB”, implicitly suggesting that there might be other unions active at the ECB (which could possibly have other views), whereas there are no other active union at all at the ECB.

[1] Of course, colleagues close to the circle of higher decision-makers probably express a different stance than the majority of colleagues. Also, it is not necessarily easy for an individual staff member to confront a powerful Executive Board member when discussing upon the policies they put in place, without worrying about the potential impact on one´s career. That is why we need an independent staff representation in the first place!

[2] POLITICO – ECB union suggests staff ease up at work as pay battle escalates, Johanna Treeck, 10 February 2023.

Inappropriate handling of the staff representation

On a different note, our counterparts regularly mock the confusion of bodies, making fun of the fact that the same persons would belong to both bodies and that it would be therefore very difficult to make the distinction between them. Such statements are quite out of line and seem to ignore that the ECB is the one who opted to grant both bodies the same competencies. Also if there would be no union members in the Staff Committee, this would likely be used to further argue about its lack of representativeness. In any case, even if such comments are sometimes made with a light touch, they are always humiliating, unpleasant and demeaning. They undermine the staff representative as a person who is already in a vulnerable situation because of his/her decision to take the risk of facing a powerful counterpart and convey unwanted messages. They question his/her capacity to speak on behalf of their constituency.

In fact, the real effect of such “micro-aggressions” goes much beyond the personal attack. They are essentially encouraging colleagues to think that they would be better off if trade union members would not be elected in the Staff Committee, to ensure a better articulation and differentiation of both bodies. The mechanism is somehow set to evict the collective approach of a union and leave the floor to an individual model of staff representation. In such model, candidates standing to elections are doing so in individual capacity to represent their own personal perspective in a Staff Committee. The Staff Committee thereafter is reduced to be only a “statistical sample” of ECB staff without a common direction, a membership structure to support them, a capacity to organise the staff based on a common electoral platform and action plan, etc.[1]

In a symmetric vein, staff representatives elected in the union have been regularly denied their quality of staff representatives, for instance by the Chief Service Officer. They would be only trade-union representatives, even when many parts of ECB Staff rules refer to them as staff representatives. This distinction is however short-lived, as the ECB often itself reverts to the label of “Staff Representatives” whenever there is an efficiency gain to make, for instance to save on the number of meetings (one with both bodies together instead of one meeting for each), or on the number of words in a communication. Therefore, this refusal to designate IPSO elected representatives as staff representatives is mainly used as a way to deny their representative function and minimize it as much as it can possibly be.

[1] Note that this is the election model decided by the ECB which is based on individual candidacies rather than on list of candidates. At the EU Commission, the election model is not decided by the employer but by the employees.

Further examples of unwarranted tactics

There were many more anti-trade union tactics used and it will not be possible to investigate all of them in details. Let us quickly mention:

  • Fostering competition and dividing the Staff representation: the establishment of a competing employer-friendly trade union was encouraged by some senior managers, this union could get access to internal communication tools (e.g. public screen) without having to fulfil the recognition criteria that IPSO had to meet[1]; the diversity strategy is also used to foster the creation of staff networks who do not need to fulfil the same constitutional criteria has the union, yet are given the same weight as the official staff representation in specific dossiers and can be used to challenge the representativeness of the views provided by the official staff representation.[2]
  • Interferences during elections: Directors General sending voting recommendations before the election to their subordinates in their own Directorate.[3] Intranet communication produced by HR before the elections advertising their own vision of the Staff Committee and encouraging candidates to stand (such call for candidates should normally be done by the Election Committee); Attempts to introduce mandate time limitation which would have prevented all the staff representative active in the pension body during the pension reform to stand again for election[4]; Attempts to prevent IPSO from making use of the Memorandum of Understanding with IPSO which allows the union to communicate with its members during the election. As an IPSO President once said: “when you stand for election at the ECB, you are left with the feeling that the real electoral competitor is the employer”.
  • Control of the internal communication space: the trade union is not granted the right to publish intranet announcements visible to all staff contrary to the Staff Committee ; such possibility was however granted to a staff association (charity) with twice less members as IPSO. Diversity networks are regularly given the right to publish very visible intranet headlines, but this barely happens for the union.[5] The visibility of the Staff Committee´s intranet announcement was further reduced over time, the staff discussion forum was unilaterally suppressed; there were visible pieces of intranet communication challenging the activities of the union.[6]
  • Financial strain: whenever brought to court by a colleague, the ECB decides to use an external lawyer, even if it has internal lawyers specialised in ECB employment law. External lawyers’ costs are to be paid back by the losing party, contrary to internal lawyers costs. This strategy therefore creates a significant disincentive for workers to bring their claim to the Tribunal, knowing that 72% of the cases are lost and that the financial interest of the claim might be much lower than the cost incurred in case of a lost court case (approximately 20K EUR). The union consequently offers financial support to preserve the right of colleagues to access to justice. Mechanically the union´s finances are put under strain. In the 2009 pension court cases, the expenses claimed back by the ECB amounted to approximately 130 K EUR. These covered actuarial expenses which one would have expected the ECB to have conducted before the pension reform. The ECB is fully aware that the number of court cases it will face is inversely proportional to IPSO´s financing capacities. In the pension court case, IPSO brought the matter to court and the bill was reduced from 130 K to 50K EUR. The size of the “discount” granted by the Court illustrates the extent of ECB´s strategy to put IPSO´s finances at strain. Nevertheless, even with this 80K reduction, the cost of the court case was nevertheless a blow to IPSO´s finances (who also had to pay its own lawyers´ expenses).[7]
  • Empty seat policy and retaliation strategy: the ECB´s Executive Board used this technique to put pressure on the bodies. For instance, the Annual meeting of 17 April 2018 with the Staff Committee was unilaterally cancelled by the Executive Board because of a statement made by the SC Chair in the media.[8] The President of the ECB also stopped attending the annual meetings with the SC and IPSO. He also publicly stated during a press conference that it was not possible to trust staff representatives who regularly spoke to the press.[9] Such retaliation tactics mechanically questioned the legitimacy of the staff representative actions, encouraging staff to vote for representatives making different choices. They foster division between staff representatives as some put into question the counterproductive impact of making use of our right to express our views. ECB´s retaliation strategy created an impossible trade-off between silencing the concerns of the staff for the purpose of keeping access to those who decide and could therefore improve on the situation, or expressing such concerns but then losing an opportunity to be heard by the decision-makers. It is worthwhile flagging that participating to such Annual Meetings is a professional obligation of Executive Board members.

[1] All these communications were essentially targeting IPSO, arguing that its lack of constructiveness was the reason for its lack of institutional recognition. Ironically this competing union had to close as they could never meet the stringent recognition criteria in terms of membership to gain access to the right to be consulted. The stringent recognition requirement set up back in 2008 aimed at preventing the establishment of IPSO but had the unwarranted effect of making it very difficult for a competing union to get access to formal recognition. That is also one reason why the “unofficial” forms of staff representation have been allowed to flourish. They allegedly make it easier to provide “a diversity of views” among the staff, without really granting strong representation and participation rights.

[2] In practice such networks end up bouncing on the same limits as those affecting the trade union, e.g. absence of time dispensation, having their views ignored due to the lack of a negotiated approach etc. It is however worthwhile noting that one network was specifically created for (women) managers (although later on the network was extended to facilitate participation of aspiring managers as well). This factor reveals the inherent ambiguity of such type of informal staff representation. The objective displayed is to support the promotion of women and is per se a very noble endeavour. At the same time, the intrinsic constitution of the network makes it tilted towards the managerial perspective. For instance, assistants are excluded from the network even if 80% of assistants are women. Similarly, the network was quite absent from the discussions on enhancing teleworking options – an issue which mattered to many women at the ECB but which was less supported by managerial staff.

[3] For instance, in the 2022 Staff Committee elections the Head of HR sent an email stressing that the election was an opportunity for the HR colleagues to choose their counterparts. The emphasis here is placed on the business interest constitutive of the employer side, not the employee interest who might benefit from having a more assertive staff representation. Some of these emails were sent after the election campaigning period closed and before the vote took place, which did not leave any leeway for candidates to reply to biased voting recommendations without breaching the election rules.

[4] See footnote 8.

[5] As a recent example, IPSO´s own event for the International Woman´s Day of 8 March 2023 was not reported on the list of ongoing events provided by DG-Communication on that day.

[6] For instance, in October 2019 when the union launched an end of mandate survey. DG-C published a very visible headline aiming at discrediting the survey. In July 2017, DG-C published another visible intranet posting challenging the fact that Staff Representatives would talk to the media, which would create a breach of trust (thereby suggesting the dysfunctional dialogue would be rooted in the misbehaviour of staff representatives).

[7] In Germany, the trade union fees can be relatively substantial because a worker needs to be a member of the union to benefit from the “Tarifvertrag” negotiated by the union. In the absence of collective bargaining, however, it is not possible to set union fees at the same level and the union´s finances are by construction much weaker.

[8] The ECB published a truncated version of the outcome of the ECB staff survey 2018 and the SC Chair flagged the truncated nature of the survey findings.

[9] We let you judge the irony of such a statement made towards a room full of journalists.

Targeting the persons beyond the bodies

Beyond the tactics targeting the staff representation bodies, we could also observe an impact at the personal level for Staff Representatives.

Some actions involved disciplinary threats. For instance, IPSO trade union executives were blamed for having sent an email to ECB staff on the union´s behalf. The email was providing a template for launching an internal appeal against the application of the salary adjustment. The ECB argued IPSO had no right to send emails to ECB staff and consequently sent a blaming letter to the union executives, to be inserted into their personal file.[1] Some years later, DG-HR published an intranet announcement referring to a statement made by the SC Chair in the press and recalling that all ECB Staff including staff representatives are bound by the Ethics framework which require to maintain caution with the media. [2] Oral threats of disciplinary procedure were also made on a few occasions. In general, staff representatives are very aware of the risk that breaching the rules designed by their counterparts could put in danger their employment. This is naturally placing a limit on their actions.

Another dimension of personal prejudice incurred by the staff representation naturally relates to their task allocation and career development. In fact, the ECB has been condemned by the European Court of Justice for staff representative discrimination on three occasions already.[3] The first personal impact comes from the compatibility between staff representative duties and business area duties. When there is no time dispensation, as was initially the case at the ECB (and is often the case in other international organisations), the staff representation duties add up to the business area duties. The combination of both duties thereby necessarily goes at the expense of one of the two, or at the expense of the staff representative´s health and/or private time. Managers take note of the reduced availability of the staff representative. This is mechanically having a negative impact on the salary rewards which managers can grant at their discretion. We are therefore back to the trade-off mentioned at the beginning of this article. A staff representative giving more weight to their business area duties, at the prejudice of their staff representative duties, will be mechanically better treated than one who opts for placing more emphasis on their staff representative function.

[1] Case T‑320/02, Monika Esch-Leonhardt and others against European Central Bank, February 18, 2004

[2] An Executive Board member informed us that there a demand was made to launch a disciplinary procedure but that this demand was fortunately rejected.

[3] Cerafogli vs ECB, F-84/08, 28 October 2010; Bowles vs ECB, F-94/14, 17 December 2015;

Seigneur vs ECB, F-95/14, 17 December 2015. This is purely anecdotal, but speaking about my own case, I never received a word of apologies from my employer for having discriminated me. If I would have been myself proven to discriminate someone, my first and immediate action as a civil servant would have been to apologize towards that person. Such apologies would not have cost anything to the ECB, but they somehow seemed to be too costly to make, nevertheless.

Nevertheless, after years of fighting, and also thanks to some decisions of the European Court of Justice, the ECB put in place a relatively protective (albeit insufficient) system of time dispensationand salary progression. A specific (yet limited) promotion system was also introduced. While this system is welcome, it should be reminded that it was obtained after years of prejudice incurred by generations of staff representatives and after taking action in court.

Furthermore, even with a protective system, the basic trade-off between working as a staff representative and progressing in one´s career remain. This is particularly true in a vacancy-based career system such as the ECB’s where promotions are not granted based on seniority and performance but only after applying to a vacancy, when a vacancy becomes available. Indeed, a staff representative working full time for the Staff Representation will by default have zero prospects of being successful in a selection campaign if he/she will anyway not be available to perform the job advertised once appointed, due to his full-time dispensation. The longer one stays in the Staff Representation, the longer the gap with the career of an average staff member. A typical reply from a Human Resource Department (be it at the ECB or elsewhere) is to argue that the staff representative should “come back to the business” if he/she wants to make a career. This materialises again the trade-off we spoke of. Staff representatives are discouraged to develop their competence of staff representative if they want to retain a chance to continue their career. Furthermore, assuming staff representatives make the choice to stay in the staff representation, they will be better off if they keep good relations with the Human Resources department. Indeed, as times go on, the staff representative will specialise in Human Resources matters and leadership skills, at the expense of their initial domain of competence. To get promoted, staff representatives will have to apply to vacancies in HR where they will be assessed by their counterparts. This could again either give raise to capture (for staff representatives whose perspective was aligned with that of Human Resource during their mandate) or to discrimination (for those who expressed diverging views). In any case, the mechanism is essentially unhealthy and prone to conflicts of interests.

Discrimination: the other side of the participation coin

Interestingly, discrimination of staff representatives in their career is the other side of the “participation” coin. In Europe, it is a common practice to have staff representatives participating in supervisory boards.[1] Such a participation mechanism is often protected by law. As an example, one Executive Board member of Banque de France is elected by the staff. This obviously provides an interesting career opportunity for a professional staff representative. Also, local unions are integrated within larger national federations which also offer prominent leadership positions for staff representatives, going beyond the perimeter of their employer. Therefore, it is possible to build a professional staff representative career path which is both fulfilling and serving a general interest purpose. A worker such as Daniela Cavallo raised by a family of Volkswagen workers and engaged early in IG metal could eventually obtain a very prominent position as Chair of the Volkswagen Works Council, eventually having a say on the dismissal of Volkswagen CEO.[2]

Overall, the extent of career discrimination of staff representatives is mirroring the existing system of workplace democracy. It is not by accident that staff representatives eventually suffer from discriminations. The mechanism by which the discrimination arises is the one which prevents them from performing their staff representative function as it should optimally be performed.

In that regard, one could argue that the so-called anti-trade union tactics are not necessarily the results of the employer clear intentions to cause prejudice. Sometimes, they merely reflect the personal views of the top management, which are themselves determined by their own conditions of existence. Managerial ideology differs from that of the labour movement because it pursues different objectives. Therefore, some managers can make decisions which de facto marginalise unions or cause them prejudice only because they sincerely believe that this is the right thing to do, from a managerial perspective. Such damaging decisions could almost be seen as a form of professional bias.

[1] Jeremy Waddington, Aline Conchon. (2020, November 05). Board Level Employee Representation in Europe. In ETUI, The European Trade Union Institute. Retrieved 18:31, March 02, 2023, from

[2] See for instance The new works council leader at Volkswagen: What does she stand for? Dietmar Gaisenkersting, World Socialist Website, 5 May 2021 (consulted on 02 March 2023)

On the added value of trade unions and democracy at work

This is precisely where the value of democracy at work kicks in. The history is full of example of autocratic regimes which collapse because no one around the autocrat dares to inform them about the bad news coming. Democracy is about bringing the perspective of everyone. As Condorcet argued, sharing our own piece of information will bring all of us closer to the truth because all our biases will statistically more easily cancel out – by application of the law of the large numbers. Furthermore, the existence of checks and balance within the organisation is a way to ensure that the concentration of power does not lead to a capture of the organisation by private interests, at the expense of shareholders.

Historically, IPSO has contributed to identify many organisational dysfunctions: standing against favouritism practices[1], alerting about the lack of identity controls during online recruitment tests, ensuring that a pension solvency policy is developed, contributing to obtain a reduction of burnout risks, achieving sounder promotion opportunities, protecting women´s salary during pregnancy, obtaining transparency on nationality imbalances, etc.[2] These achievements were not only made to the benefit of the staff but served an higher purpose, which is the good functioning of the institution.

In fact, even economic theory acknowledges that trade union can positively contribute to productivity development. This is a point raised by Harvard Professor Richard Freeman in 1976, which triggered a stream of research still alive today. [3] Similarly, the Harvard negotiation school also encourages to see negotiations as a tool to create added value for both parties, rather than seeing them as a zero-sum gain. The rejection by default of negotiation as a tool to overcome differences of perspective is therefore bound to trigger sub-optimal outcomes for everyone.

[1] See OCTOBER 20, 2016 Exclusive: ECB annuls Brussels appointment after complaints of favoritism By Francesco Canepa

[2] Bowles, C. & Dufour, J. (2021). Indépendance institutionnelle, concentration des pouvoirs et changements administratifs à la Banque centrale européenne. Revue française d’administration publique, 180, 1033-1056.

[3] Freeman, Richard B. 1976. “Individual Mobility and Union Voice in the Labor Market.” American Economic Review 66(May):361–8

Anti-trade union tactics: the symptom of a larger societal problem

Coming back to our starting point, for sure an employer might find it rational to target workers´ representatives. At the same time, the employer is not a unique entity: it is composed of a management who run the company and of shareholders who formally own the company but have delegated the managerial power to the company´s management. As revealed by the principal/agent theory, there is not necessarily an alignment between both entities. The stakeholders might find it useful to have internal counterpowers which can put some limits to the power of the management and prevent, for instance, misuse of corporate assets. The company workers are well placed to identify when this happens, because they have access to information that stakeholders might not be aware of. Offering them the capacity to speak up is also in the interest of the stakeholders.

More fundamentally, given the social impact of many big companies, it is also in the interest of society at large that internal mechanisms exist to prevent abuses of power. As we could see in big American companies who do not recognise trade unions, one cannot count on the human resource department to protect employees from harassment practices or even sexual misconduct. This is because HR departments report to management. The independence of staff representatives is more credible because they do report to workers. In a world where most of us spend a substantial time of our existence at work, democratic checks and balances should not stop at the front of our office doors. To the contrary, this is where democracy should start, if we want to ensure a better world.[1]

All in all, it is a rational strategy for Europe to foster workers representation, not to undermine it. The existence of anti-trade union tactics is a symptom that something goes wrong in the functioning of an institution. It is the internal materialisation of an existing democratic deficit that every believer in the European Project should aim at closing. That is why it is reassuring to see that the European Union has recently taken upon itself to call for reinforcing workers participation. The ECB would be well inspired to join that effort and normalise its labour relations framework.

[1] Note that research shows that workplace democracy is also fostering citizens democratic engagement: July 2022 IZA DP No. 15444: Political Spillovers of Workplace Democracy in Germany Uwe Jirjahn, Thi Xuan Thu Le.

Carlos Bowles

About this author

Carlos Bowles joined the ECB as a macro-economic forecaster in 2003. He earned his PhD in Economics at the European University Institute. He is currently chairing the ECB Staff Committee and also serves as IPSO´s Vice-President. This article is written in his trade-union capacity