Defending and strengthening trade union rights in public services

Over 90 participants from more than 30 countries took part in a major conference on trade union rights on 25-26 May. The event was organised to launch a two-year project: “Trade union rights and implementation of the Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive in public services”. This is a joint initiative of EPSU and the European trade union federations representing police (EuroCOP) and military personnel (EUROMIL).

EPSU general secretary Jan Willem Goudriaan, EUROMIL general secretary Emmanuel Jacob and EuroCOP president Calum Steele opened the conference highlighting the positive nature of their collaboration and the potential for the project to help the three federations in their actions to defend and improve trade union rights across the public services. They were followed by Alexander de Backer of the University of Ghent, the head of a team of researchers that would be working on the project to provide information to the various seminars and draft a main project report.

Alexander’s presentation covered some of the main bans or limitations on the rights of public service trade unions to organise, negotiate or take industrial action, noting the lack of logic in the way rules and regulations vary from country to country.

Adam Pokorny, Head of Unit – Working Conditions, in the employment directorate of the European Commission then explained the background to and the new rights provided by the Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive(TPWCD). Monitoring transposition of the Directive will be an important part of the project and Adam explained what, for public service trade unions, is the main cause for concern, the clause that gives EU member states the possibility to exclude public service workers from parts of the directive.

In an open session on how restrictions or bans on trade union rights affect workers, several trade union representatives explained the challenges they faced in asserting their rights to organise and negotiate. While there as some good news from Lithuania about a successful court case against an employer who was guilty of intimidating workers to leave the union, the picture from the rest of Europe, including Portugal, Greece, Italy, the UK and Slovakia, was more challenging. Nadja Salson, EPSU policy staff for national and European administration, addressed the question as to whether EU sectoral social dialogue can protect trade union rights and achieve new ones.

She acknowledged the potential but also the structural and legal obstacles in the way of more effective EU social dialogue both in terms of binding agreements and extending coverage to cover police and military personnel. While the final outcome of EPSU’s legal case against the European Commission on information and consultation rights in central government was still awaited, trade unions would be seeking to get a clear proposal on procedure from the European Commission in its review of sectoral social dialogue.

Moving on to the right to organise, Carlos Carrion-Crespo, International Labour Organisation specialist on public services and utilities provided some details from a major survey of police services across the world, providing several examples of how rules and regulations vary across Europe. Carlos stressed that, as with civil servants in general, in should not be assumed that police and military personnel are automatically excluded from the rights to organise or negotiate. Carlos then joined a panel discussion along with Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts (Greens/EFA), Karin Brunzell, international secretary of the ST trade union in Sweden and two colleagues from Ireland – Antoinette Cunningham, general secretary of the AGSI police officers’ union and Ger Guinan, general secretary of the PDFORRA military union.

Karin explained the long-term development of trade union rights across the public service in Sweden encompassing also police and military personnel and the importance of co-operation, coordination and solidarity in securing those rights and negotiating collective agreements. Asked about the link between working conditions and service quality, Philippe stressed the importance of securing trade union rights across the public services so that trade unions could negotiate the pay and employment conditions crucial for recruiting and retaining the number and quality of staff needed to guarantee quality public services.

This was a key point for both Antoinette and Ger who are campaigning and lobbying to get their union voices heard in the current review of collective bargaining in the public sector in Ireland from which police and military unions are currently excluded. Carlos also took up this issue explaining that the ILO had taken a clear position on the link between social dialogue and how it is a vital element in sustaining the morale of workers and the delivery of quality public services. Richard Pond from EPSU closed the conference, thanking all the speakers and participants for their contributions which already provide a good basis for the project and the research and debates that will continue over the next 18 months. All affiliates from the three federations will be invited to take part in the next stage – the five regional seminars that will begin in September.

This report has been provided to EuroCOP from our colleagues at EPSU.

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