Helsinki (23.04.2001 - Juhani Artto) The European trade union movement is generally well disposed towards the European Works Councils established pursuant to the European Union EWC Directive. In future, however, the relation between trade unions and EWCs will not necessarily be a good one, and will demand a well-considered, conscious and active EWC policy from the trade unions.

Problems will arise when EWC agendas gradually expand and begin to include issues such as wages, salaries and working hours that are traditionally dealt with in collective agreements.

"Already now there are discussions going on regarding wages, salaries and working hours in a few EWCs. So far there has been little willingness to encroach on the domain of the trade unions. It is inevitable, however, that these discussions will also lead to other issues. The employers will recognise that they may take advantage of the situation," comments Luc Triangle from the European Metalworkers' Federation (EMF).

Jyrki Raina from the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) observes: "It is probable that the EWCs will gradually expand their negotiation agenda, beginning from the easiest matters. For the trade unions this will mean a two-sided development. The unions must retain their grip on the EWCs or these will begin to lead a life of their own."

Raina urges the trade unions to invest in EWC co-operation and international union networks. At the same time the EWC networks must embark on strategic co-operation.

"In the next five to ten years there will be a struggle over the bargaining roles of the EWCs, on one hand, and of the trade unions, on the other, Raina predicts.

Kent Kärrlander from the European Mine, Chemical and Energy Workers Federation (EMCEF) shares this view: "The situation offers a real challenge to the trade unions. There will be problems between the EWCs and the trade unions. This is the last chance for the unions to begin training their members involved in EWC co-operation."

In spite of these worrisome predictions the three experts are unquestionably of the opinion that EWC co-operation is very useful and inevitable. They merely seek to avoid uncontrolled development.

"Unions and EWCs are not competitors but partners. They must complement one another," Triangle stresses.

"National union leaderships fear that their unions will be undermined if the movement's European level operations are reinforced. This is not true. The unions will lose out if they do not become more European," Triangle argues.

Good and bad experiences of work in EWCs

Jyrki Raina sets out problems of both practice and principle that he identifies in EWC work.

  • In many enterprises the original EWC agreements were so poor that they failed even to satisfy the minimum requirements of the European Union EWC Directive.
  • Host country unions play a too dominant role in EWCs.
  • There are problems with language skills and continuity.
  • The staff or union representatives have not defined their own goals in EWCs, which has ceded the initiative to the employers.
  • Cultural differences loom large, and it is difficult to appreciate the circumstances of other countries.
  • The worst problem may be that the entire EWC co-operation process is regarded as an upper-tier matter which is unknown and uninteresting to the members.

According to the Brussels experts, there are differences in EWC work between both enterprises and industries. Union EWC work in the engineering sector has made good progress. It has clear goals and activities are regular and well planned. The European Metalworkers' Federation has defined minimum standards for EWC agreements. The organisation has the right to reject any EWC agreement that fails to satisfy these requirements.

EWC co-operation in the chemical industry is less advanced.

In Kärrlander's opinion the EWC situation in Finland is better than in Sweden, where it is usual that people do not even know who represents them in the EWC.

There are currently about 630 EWCs. 220 of these are in the engineering sector, 190 in the chemical industry and 40 in the graphical industry. In hundreds of enterprises the obligation imposed by the European Union EWC directive to establish an EWC has been neglected. In the chemical industry alone there are about 200 such enterprises.

*Source: An article by Tuomo Lilja published in edition 3-2001 of Reaktio, the magazine of the Finnish Chemical Workers Union. Lilja's article was based on a recent trade union EWC seminar and drew in particular on the contributions of three trade union experts working in Brussels: Jyrki Raina of ICEM, Kent Kärrlander of EMCEF and Luc Triangle of EMF.