Trade Union’s challenge in guarding The EU core values

Trade Union’s challenge in guarding The EU core values

Agora #89

The history of the trade union movement is a constant struggle between two different visions of what the European project should be.

When the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957 and became the foundation of the European Economic Community, the essential purpose was that of ‘constantly improving the living and working conditions of their peoples’.  The original political project to achieve European integration which evolve into the European Union today based on the idea of a Union that strives to improve the well-being of its people, within a framework of stability, unity and harmonious development. It is the core idea of constantly improving the living and working conditions of workers that the trade unions continue to support but have more and more difficulties guarding since many of those who work within the EU institution tend to forget. The core values of The European Union, which need to be reminded of again and again, are: ‘Human Dignity, Freedom, Democracy, Equality, Rule of Law, and Human Rights’.

After more than 60 years, the original idea seems to fade away and some top management tends to be moving towards a capitalist spirit that drives the European Union values in the opposite direction from its intended purpose. The challenge is even greater when the management within the institution starts to deny the idea that workers have their own rights. The problematic relationship between the original idea of the EU and the direction it took calls fundamentally into question the whole nature of the relationship between the world of labour and the Europe that is being created.

Recent developments show that there is a fundamental threat to the visions of the European project. It should be highlighted that as part of European Union values, each institution within the European Union has adopted several declarations and treaties, including The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).  But to respect what has been adopted is entirely another story. Many of researchers on European Union history have agreed that the history of the trade union movement is a constant struggle between two different, and sometimes incompatible, visions of what the European project should be.

Our colleagues in different EU institutions have been through a challenging work environment when it comes to their activities for claiming their rights. As Arty Kyramarios from Union Syndicale Fédérale Luxembourg said, sometimes the management tried to breach their union activities with lame excuses just to let the union activists know that they were spotted, and they were spied. “Last minute phoney service urgencies, our chief or superior coming to pick us up or call us in the midst of a Union/Statutory meeting. They were dedicated slots. Sometimes they were loading us with work so that we must cancel our mission or reduce its length.” Arty who is working in the European Commission also observed that the people from the administration where he works are always present, and surround the unionist, even when fully seconded, with logistical hurdles to distract them from their union activities.

Arty prudently expresses that the pressure might also be implemented in a more elaborate way, typically one that can not be proven or that can be diverted to other reasons: Your administrative requests seem to have an almost systematic failure in the first instance (you always need to ask at least twice); They are often rejected/refused last minute; you have to spend time to make formal complains.

Another example pertains to your work tool: your work laptop has significantly more issues, bizarre behaviors and very clearly not the same attention towards a solution. As a result, you are forced to reboot more often, your laptop is reinstalled every now and then. The number of ‘IT tickets’ opened for you is a multiple of the average. The ratio of your IT tickets against the effective solutions is very much higher than the colleague’s average. When you escalate with factual elements, another laptop change is proposed. The problem is the administration used all the possible means of distraction without leaving a trace.

Limiting union movement is very common in almost any institution within the EU. In the European Parliament for example, as our colleague, Urszula Mojkowska observed, trade union secondments are, in practice, next to impossible to obtain. This makes dedicated trade union work very difficult for the following reasons: trade union activists do not have enough time to devote to trade union work (they are working full time on a normal post) and their independence is in jeopardy all the time, as they can be pressured by their hierarchy. We have noticed that the demand for trade union assistance is constantly growing. Trade unionists work during their free time to provide advice to staff members, and they bear a high level of responsibility for their trade union work. This situation, in which there are no dedicated trade union secondments, can easily translate into burnout and lower general trade union membership.

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. ***

Arty Kyramarios

About The Author

Belgian-Greek; born, raised and educated in Brussels. Currently working at the European Commission (Eurostat) in Luxembourg. Active since 2001 in various USF member organisations. Currently active in the member organisation USFL (Vice-President) and in the Local Staff Committee of the Commission in Luxembourg (President).

Urszula Mojkowska

About The Author

Liaison Officer at European Parliament and The President of US-PE