Freedom of association, a fundamental right repeatedly breached by administrations, has also become a daily challenge for our colleagues in the European Patent Office (EPO). An example of this breach is abundant. Banning on emails has been a common practice in EPO. The previous president of the European Patent Office, Benoit Battistelli was known to openly and systematically mistreated EPO’s staff representatives and endorsed unlawful regulations breaching of workers’ rights. We should not forget how, from 2017 onwards, EPO was hit with a wave of anti-Battistelli letters from union organizations across Europe, as well as strong criticism from within the EPO itself. The depth and breadth of the complaints – and the vehemence with which they are expressed – reflect the fact that despite numerous complaints against EPO management and the president in particular, Battistelli has continued to push unwelcome reforms and sack staff members who resist them.
Interestingly, Battistelli replacement, António Campinos who is the current president of the EPO has not repaired anything that Battistelli did; he has in fact escalated advocacy of software patents in Europe and he is stonewalling on the subject of staff representatives being subjected to union-busting by Battistelli. However the European Patent Office (SUEPO) staff union is relentlessly pursuing their rights.
It took 8 years among which 6 years in lengthy and exhausting internal procedures, to have one of the most fundamental rights of employees – the right to strike – finally be restored in its entirety by the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organization (ILOAT). The unfair EPO regulations imposed by the previous administration and let in place by the present are now declared unlawful and set aside. During all those times, the Administrative Council turned a blind eye to these flawed regulations and failed in its duties and responsibilities as supervising authority. It should be stressed that the EPO – like any other international organisation -, while having a jurisdictional immunity, is “…subject to the obligations inherent in human rights…” as stated in Resolution 1979 (2014) of the Council of Europe.
It is well-known among trade unionists that some European Institutions turned a blind eye to the importance of freedom of association as an integral part of democracy. It is the workers’ rights which should enable workers and employers to join together to protect better, not only their own economic interests but also their civil freedoms such as the right to life, security, integrity, and personal and collective freedom. As an integral part of democracy, this principle is crucial in order to realize all other fundamental principles and rights at work.
Quentin Jouan in his book Défendre les travailleurs par l’intégration de l’Europe ? emphasizes the paradox of the trade union response to European integration. On the one hand, the trade union discourse is permeated with deep rhetoric of necessity. Integrated Europe is considered essential to compensate for the shortcomings of national structures which are less and less able to solve the challenges of their time, whether structural (concentration of capital and development of multinational companies) or cyclical (energy crisis and economic). This rhetoric is accompanied by bitter regret on the part of the unions as to the overly favourable turn in favour of employers and multinationals that Europe has presumably offered. On the other hand, however, European trade union action remains difficult. National unions show very little ownership of European issues and offload heavily on the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). Europe remains a distinct and external object, built on the basis of the impetus of the ETUC or the Commission and experienced with a strong national dimension.
On a smaller scale, Union Syndicale still believes that the core values of the European Union can be achieved by establishing a genuine dialogue with freely chosen workers’ representatives enabling both workers and employers to understand each other’s problems better and find ways to resolve them. Security of representation is a foundation for building trust on both sides. Freedom of association and the exercise of collective bargaining provide opportunities for constructive dialogue and resolution of conflict, and this harnesses energy to focus on solutions that result in benefits to the enterprise and to society at large. ***