Looking Back, Moving Forward

Looking Back, Moving Forward

Agora #91
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The famous “Méthode salariale”, a very well thought trough concept initiated by USF is still a pillar of the EU Institutions’ social package.

Union Syndicale Fédérale’s 50-Year Journey

Beyond our celebration, Union Syndicale Fédérale’s 50th anniversary is a great opportunity to look back into achievements and into our future challenges, lessons learnt and union skills to develop and use in the future. Let’s start with just a few anectodical but revealing achievements.

The culture of social dialogue at the EU Institutions was coined by the early framework agreements concluded with the EU Commission and the EU Council, back then with just very few unions (mainly Union Syndicale and FFPE). This culture is still the reference for today’s social dialogue at the EU Institutions and a yardstick for the many agencies and other international organisations created in the meantime. Of course, the situation has become increasingly difficult due to the often hostile and / or populistic approach of some member states at the EU Council. The sheer number of unions at the EU Commission adds further complexity. The precariousness of employment in agencies and remoteness from EU central bodies able (or willing) to check the transparency and governance of the many decentralised organs are further sources of weakness of the EU system and the staff supposed to serve it.

Key to the social dialogue’s success was the determination of Union Syndicale and partners to go for hard action whenever necessary, including strikes, see the 2004 or the 2014 “reform” processes. Social peace has been, and still is the main asset USF branches and their local union partners may carry to a negotiation table. Employers regularly need a recall of the added value of social peace.

Robust union determination is not enough to keep up the profile of a fully competent social partner. Our counterparts have taken Union Syndicale branches seriously also considering USF’s consistent respect of shared core values: fighting for a sound, democratic Europe governance that serves all citizens, all member countries including the smallest ones, openness as an employer equally accessible to any citizen who qualifies for the recruitment through fair and transparent procedures, determination to strike the right balance between the EU legislation procedure and the respect of the autonomy of the member states (subsidiarity, a core value USF also respects internally).

The famous “Méthode salariale”, a very well thought through concept initiated by USF is still a pillar of the EU Institutions’ social package. Hostile comments in the media against the “Méthode” run dry of substance at the latest when the financial situation of a particular member state or at a particular period is quoted, while both positive and negative balancing effects have already been enshrined and applied in the salary adaptation process.

Numerous further essentials have been achieved by USF: decades ago the insourcing of EU Institutions’ tasks previously carried out by private offices in Brussels with lousy working conditions, the principle of seniority points accumulation in the career system or the inclusion of the universal EU health and safety legislation into Art.1e (2) of the Staff Regulations.

Ludwig Schubert, the designer of The Method

The famous “Méthode salariale”, a very well thought trough concept initiated by USF is still a pillar of the EU Institutions’ social package.

A unique, remarkable feature of USF as compared to other unions in our institutions is its presence in organisations beyond the EU institutional “family”, its presence in international organisations not created by a legislative act of the EU. These organisations happen again and again to stretch their (sometimes alleged) need for autonomy and independence far into unacceptable action against staff members outside legal redress. The most salient event was the sacking of a SUEPO official in The Hague (2015) who also was an elected staff representative at the European Patent Office. This action came along with harsh limitations to the right to strike at the EPO and other hostile management behaviour. In that situation, which was dramatic for the whole EPO staff, EPSU co-signed a letter raising the fundamental rights issue on Dutch territory with the Dutch public service union AbvaKabo and addressed it to Prime Minister Rutte. This action and other EPSU actions have evidenced the solidarity with USF at the highest level one can think of.

A further, remarkable feature of USF is indeed this affiliation to the ETUC family through our affiliation to EPSU. Beyond the roots provided to USF, the alignment on fundamental political issues to share with all public service employees in Europe, help and support in dire situations, the affiliation to EPSU has also triggered synergies in areas of common interest (Sectoral Social dialogue, digitalisation…).

In a nutshell: USF has been wise defending core values both of all colleagues of all grades and nationalities and the core values of the European Union, with a clear benefit for all member states and citizens. Peace and prosperity in Europe are the result of more than six decades based on EU cooperation and the strive for fair treatment of the staff that serves the EU. By exercising internal and external solidarity and respecting core values and constraints of the EU USF has contributed its share to the historical EU construction.

A picture too positive in the light of the general, contemporary perception of the EU through contemporary media which is sometimes negative?

Perhaps, but the EU fundamentals always deserve to be recalled. Freedom of circulation of workers and citizens, the rule of law, the use of the same currency and mobile phone system, EU wide protection of workers are partly anecdotal but evident testimonies of the merits of this peaceful EU cooperation borne after the 20th century disasters, a cooperation unique in history.

The prosperity issue is indeed debatable, as wealthy persons and corporations probably benefitted more from the increased efficiency than the average EU worker over the last decades. Social issues indeed still lag behind legislation aiming at facilitating the life of private corporations.

The various scandals add to the scepticism against the merits of the EU construction: recently “Qatargate”, revolving doors’ issues in higher management, harassment issues and other scandals call for the determination of both institutions and unions to keep up and develop the European Union project to the benefit of all European citizens. The EU Institutions need to score higher than any national or municipal administration in terms of transparency and good governance. But we also need to acknowledge shortcomings stemming from doubtful human behaviour and distinguish them from the fundamentally beneficial structure of the EU that serves millions of European citizens and workers. Which brings us to consider our future challenges.

The only possible answer to all scandals or shortcomings we are fully aware of is prevention, robust and transparent governance. With the European Movement (of which USF is an affiliate), we call upon all political actors to promote Europe-minded, rule-of-law guided policies for Europe. The role of the European Parliament and the balance with other Institutions is still not entirely matching the level of checks and balances known from matured national governance systems. This needs to evolve further.
Nevertheless, a common legislative system able to elaborate a consensus and then impose, through a Court (the ECJ) the respect of all agreements must be considered as superior to the myriad of necessary bilateral relations which failed dramatically in the first half of the 20th century. We should not forget that each and every legislative act of the EU replaces a consensual result to be elaborated between 26 member states, in other words 26 times 25 divided by 2, as the relations are bilateral, in total 325 successful work relations.

Internally, several challenges await action of USF and other unions. Precariousness and arbitrary career systems with bottlenecks pose a threat to the EU’s ability to recruit and retain the best candidates. Gaps may appear anytime between staff regulations and general EU labour and social legislation. These gaps in the Staff Regulations must be ruled out a priori by the application by default of EU labour and social legislation as a minimum standard. Internal labour cases before the ECJ increasingly reveal a judicial level gap as compared to workers in the national context and call for special ECJ chambers dedicated to labour and social cases. What’s more, the burdening of individuals with the high costs of external law firms who defend the Institutions’ in court is a totally unacceptable practice. USF triggered essential case law by supporting and co-financing important appeals but individuals too need a modern, accessible judicial system. The gaps in legislative and judicial systems of non-EU international organisations also call for substantial upgrading and an effective limitation to unjustified effects of the organisations’ immunities of jurisdiction.

Telework and digitalisation issues are amongst the big challenges of the future. We still do not know exactly, how telework impacts on social and work relations, on health and safety of employees (keywords: toxic sound, social isolation, overburdening, poor work place ergonomy at home and when hot-desking…). Full involvement of unions or staff representations at the appropriate level in this inevitably sectoral work environment is not yet achieved but necessary as the potential benefit of telework largely depends on the nature of the individual tasks. Sustainability is a further serious challenge, as well as the fight against precariousness and the training of new, young generation union activists.

USF is ready to be part of the process. The resolutions of USF’s 2023 Congress in Alicante are a first step. The “Déclaration d’Ispra” at the founding act of USF five decades ago is still valid and our main guidance for the future. Against all odds, the European Union and those who serve these Institutions are still key to peace and prosperity for all citizens and all Member States of the EU.


Peter Kempen

About The Author

Secretary General of USF from SUEPO-Berlin