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Building a Democratic Workplace

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Agora #92

Union Syndicale is the most representative union at the Council and recently secured a majority in the Staff Committee. However, this is not merely a victory, it carries with it serious duties and responsibilities.

Inside the 2024 Staff Committee Elections at the EU Council

In the recent Staff Committee elections at the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union, democracy at work was vividly demonstrated. Since 2021 the Staff Committee of the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union (Council), has modified the duration of its mandate from two to three years. In March 2024, new elections were held, and the results are now in. Union Syndicale won 17 of the 30 possible seats securing a majority for the current Chair, Frances McFadden and the US Council section. It has been a valuable learning process.

A Returning Board is chosen at a General Meeting of all staff with the responsibility of overseeing the election process, including verifying the list of electors and checking the eligibility of the candidates. At the Council, only active members of staff can be candidates for the Staff Committee. A quorum of two-thirds of staff is needed for the election to be valid. While it is always a challenge to reach the quorum, the process is strongly supported by both the Council hierarchy and staff representatives. With an impressive 70% voter turnout, the staff showed their engagement and dedication to shaping their work environment.

The elections for 2024-2027 presented a new challenge, not just for the Union Syndicale but for the democratic processes within the Council, especially as this was only the second election held entirely through electronic voting, and this time in the new hybrid working environment.

Since the pandemic hit, the question was raised of how to conduct the Staff Committee election for a small institution of approximately 3000 staff. The move to electronic voting became inevitable and, with the increased use of teleworking, electronic voting looks likely to remain the choice for holding elections.

So how do you canvass a dispersed population? We realised we needed to reach out to staff using the electronic media available. We formulated an approach and drafted a roadmap for the elections. Early on, we decided we would only succeed if we could offer staff a diverse team and ambitious programme. We looked for candidates from a wide range of services, nationalities and categories. We involved them in the drafting of our programme, gathering ideas and drawing on their diverse experience and knowledge. From the outset of the election campaign, we involved all candidates from our list in multiple meetings.

As a result, we are delighted to have assembled a highly motivated and dedicated team to form the Staff Committee for the next three years.
Most of the 30 members of the Staff Committee will remain in their current posts and receive a dispensation from their normal duties to attend Staff Committee meetings. Only 3 posts are set aside for secondments to the Staff Committee to manage the files and services. These posts are usually reserved for the Chair and two or three other members of the Bureau to be divided as full-time or half-time secondments. Three detachments are very little for the work of a committee of 30 colleagues, however, by joining our forces we will bring our projects forward and address the most important elements of social dialogue within our institution.

Today, we have the occasion to speak with two prominent figures who have played a crucial role in this victory and will lead the new Staff Committee. Frances McFadden and Kerstin Reinhardt shed light on the challenges and triumphs of fostering democracy at work, the strategies that led to their success, and their vision for the future of the Council’s staff representation.

How do you define democracy at work, and what significance does it hold within the context of the Council and its staff committee?

Democracy at work refers to the implementation of democratic practices within the workplace, ensuring that the staff is informed and consulted, and can actively participate in decision-making processes.

The right of staff to be informed and consulted is anchored in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, EU law and international human rights declarations. At the Council, these principles are structurally implemented. However, this remains without any impact as long as the opinion and the interest are not taken into account in the decision-making process. At the Council, this still remains a challenge.

Concerted efforts are needed to fully implement the recommendation on strengthening social dialogue in the EU, adopted by the Council in June 2023. Therefore, it is important to strengthen the role of the Staff Committee and the trade unions. We need appropriate timeframes to thoroughly discuss staff-related decisions and timely responses from the Administration to staff reps’ suggestions. By joining our efforts, we can work towards a workplace environment where democracy is not just a concept but a reality, with the staff’s views duly acknowledged and integrated in during the decision-making processes.

How do you plan to promote a culture of open dialogue and constructive feedback among staff members to facilitate democratic decision-making?

To promote a culture of open dialogue and constructive feedback among staff, we need to utilise all available communication tools, establish clear communication guidelines and ensure a safe and confidential atmosphere. We also need to bring the different staff groups and categories together to encourage mutual understanding and respect.

  • In our communication with staff, we will make use of all available communication tools, including emails, phone calls, and, most importantly, face-to-face interaction. This multi-channel approach will ensure that everyone has the opportunity to contribute to the dialogue in the manner that suits them best.
  • In addition, we will establish clear rules for our dialogue with staff, emphasizing the importance of listening with empathy, respecting different viewpoints, and preventing polarization and marginalization. This is essential for having respectful and constructive discussions.
  • Our top priority in this process is to cultivate an environment where staff feel safe and confident in expressing their opinions. Confidentiality will be central to our dialogue processes.
  • Last but not least, we will focus on building strong connections between different staff groups and categories to encourage mutual understanding and respect.

Only by combining these aspects can we ensure an open dialogue and constructive feedback between staff in which everybody feels heard and respected.

In what ways do you intend to empower staff members to actively engage in discussions and initiatives related to their working conditions and rights?

Apart from active and regular communication with all staff, we also offer them the opportunity to directly express their agreement or disagreement with certain decisions. This is mainly done through general meetings of staff that are organised by the Staff Committee or the trade unions.

For example, in 2023, the trade unions negotiated new rules on working time and leave with the Administration. Following the negotiations, the trade unions organised a General Meeting of staff, at which they explained the outcome of the negotiations, presented the pros and cons of the future rules, and asked the staff for their agreement. The subsequent direct vote supported the negotiation outcomes, so the trade unions were able to sign the agreement.

This was a very positive example of collaboration between the unions within our institution and the participation of staff in the decision-making process. We would like to continue this way, encouraging good collaboration between the unions, the staff and the institution. This benefits everyone, both the staff and the institution.

What mechanisms do you plan to establish to ensure that the voices of all staff members, including those from diverse backgrounds and departments, are heard and considered in decision-making processes?

To ensure an effective social dialogue, we need to work on two fronts. First, we must hold regular open discussions with all staff groups to enable them to express their opinions. And second, we must make sure that these opinions are taken into account in the decision-making processes, which requires active communication with the Administration.

With the newly elected Staff Committee, we are happy to have an excellent team representing ethnic and national diversity, gender diversity and a good range of departments, grades and categories. Together we will intensify our contacts with the different staff groups, in particular through the service representatives and the different staff-led networks, such as the AST/SC, LGBTI+ and Ethnic Diversity networks. Managers will be encouraged to participate in discussions with both the Staff Committee and the general staff to foster a sense of inclusivity and collaboration.

We will also continue engaging actively in the discussions of the joint committees and at our monthly meetings with the Administration. Clear communication and strong negotiations by the trade unions are necessary to ensure that the voice of the staff is heard, respected and taken into account in the decision-making process.

Good communication with both the staff and the Administration is a permanent commitment.

How will you address any potential barriers or resistance to democratizing the workplace within the Council, and what strategies do you have in place to overcome them?

Studies have shown that democracy at work makes companies more resilient and successful. Staff members whose opinions are respected are far more engaged and better motivated. So, it is in the interest of our institution to support the democratisation of our working procedures.

However, there are still some barriers:

  1. Resistance from leadership: Consulting staff on certain decisions adds an extra step to the decision-making process and, naturally, requires more time. Additionally, the Administration may fear losing control over decision-making. We need to engage management through dialogue, and by highlighting the benefits of democratisation such as increased employee engagement, innovation, and productivity. We also need to remind managers of the Council’s Recommendation on strengthening social dialogue in the EU, adopted in June 2023, and urge them to fully implement the recommended rules.
  2. Hierarchical structures: Hierarchical structures and a traditional organisational culture can hinder democratisation efforts. We need to foster a culture of trust, openness, and respect for diverse viewpoints, encourage bottom-up feedback mechanisms and recognise and reward collaborative efforts. Constructive criticism should be encouraged rather than suppressed.
  1. Employee structure: Our well-qualified staff are the greatest asset of our institution, and it is in the institution’s best interest to use this potential in the decision-making process. However, staff shortages and the growing number of temporary and contract agents complicate active staff participation. Many staff members simply do not have enough time to actively engage in social dialogue. Temporary and contract agents are in a precarious situation, as they might be sceptical and fear a negative impact on their career or even the ending of their contract if they express their opinions too strongly. Therefore, we need to foster a positive culture of trust between the Staff Committee and these staff groups. The Administration should understand constructive criticism as an opportunity for the institution to grow and improve.
  2. We need to continuously address these issues and ask for improvements. Here as well communication is key to solve the problems.

Finally, looking ahead, what are your long-term goals for the trade union, and how do you plan to achieve them?

Union Syndicale is the most representative union at the Council and recently secured a majority in the Staff Committee. However, this is not merely a victory, it carries with it serious duties and responsibilities.

The consolidation of our representativeness is an ongoing challenge. We must keep pace with the times. To stay attractive to our current members and appeal to younger generations, we need to review our policies and adapt our communication methods and services to meet the evolving needs of employees. Last year, we produced a video highlighting the new challenges we face and how unions can address these challenges and so remain indispensable partners for the members we represent. [Link to our video]

Consolidating our representativeness and preparing our union to face the future work environment’s challenges are our main goals for the years ahead.

 

**The views expressed are the author’s and in no way reflect the views of the Council or European Council.**

Kerstin  REINHARDT

About The Author

Vice-Chair of the Staff Committee at the Council of the European Union

Frances MCFADDEN

About The Author

President of the Staff Committee at the Council of the European Union