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20th Jan 2019

Trade unions urge legal boost to right to strike in Europe

Europe's trade unions have demanded a legal boost to their right to strike following recent EU court judgements with implications for workers rights across the Union.

They warn that if their fears that free market principles will take priority over Europe's social protection laws are not allayed then ratification of the EU's Lisbon Treaty – currently ongoing across the bloc - may be jeopardised.

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  • EU trade unions are worried about their right to strike (Photo: CGTP-IN)

"We have been told that our right to strike is fundamental but not as fundamental as free movement of services," John Monks, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) chief, told a Brussels meeting on Tuesday (26 February).

Organised by the European Parliament's social affairs committee, the discussion attended by MEPs, legal experts, employers' and trade unions' representatives focused on the implications of two cases involving the Nordic system of collective bargaining where employers and employees agree wages and social security conditions each year.

In the so-called Vaxholm case, the Luxembourg-based court ruled that Swedish unions had breached EU law when they forced a Latvian company to observe local pay deals, while the verdict on the Viking case suggested unions cannot strike against firms moving from one member state to another due to lower wages.

"We think these cases are of massive importance to the trade union movement," said Mr Monks.

He argued that the Vaxholm judgement has effectively restricted the existing unions' right to strike by preventing them from "going beyond a minimum level" in pay and social contribution demands when bargaining with foreign employers.

Social progress clause

The ETUC leader pointed out that while judges had referred to the EU's cherished principles of free movement of services and establishment, their rulings could damage the bloc's social policy achievements by legally introducing what he views as a "licence for social dumping."

He suggested that the EU should introduce a "social progress clause" in its treaties which would legally uplift the right of collective action by workers in the face of the free market principles applied in the 27-member bloc.

Irish Labour MEP Proinsias de Rossa warned that the issue will be seized by eurosceptics ahead of the planned referendum in Ireland on the EU treaty with trade union organisations in Ireland reluctant to endorse the document.

Earlier this month, Danish opposition Social Democrats asked the country's government to seek guarantees on its collective bargaining rights system before the EU's new treaty is ratified.

In Nordic countries, the Luxembourg court's judgements are viewed as undermining the countries' social model, frequently praised as providing a good balance of flexible labour law and security provisions for workers.

"With the Vaxholm case, the EU runs over the union right to place a company in blockade when Eastern workers get too little in their wage bags," Danish centre-left MEP Ole Christensen said in a separate meeting in Brussels on Monday.

Swedish Social democrat MEP Jan Andersson questioned the political role of unelected judges in Luxembourg. "The Court takes decisions which have political consequences, but they [the judges] are never held politically accountable."

Reviving the 'country of origin' controversy?

Some experts argue that the verdict on Vaxholm case has practically reaffirmed the rejected and most controversial element of the hugely controversial EU service law, held partially responsible for the French rejection of the EU constitution. The law was later strongly watered down.

Its core tenet was the country of origin principle under which firms could provide services in other EU member states under the same pay and social rules as in the country where they are based.

According to Jonas Malmberg, Professor of Law at Uppsala university, the EU court has re-introduced the controversial provision through its Vaxholm judgement by referring to a "principle of minimum protection."

"The host state - the state or the social partners - may not require anything more than the nucleus of mandatory rules," he explained.

Swedish MEP Jan Andersson echoed similar concerns. "If it becomes common that a country can go in and compete with much lower salaries, all hell will break loose," he said, pointing out that the next EU enlargements could bring in countries with even lower salaries than the 2004 newcomers.

But the European Commission dismissed such arguments. EU social policy commissioner Vladimir Spidla said that the verdict on Vaxholm case is "a balanced judgment that fully respects the member states' choice of organisation of industrial relations, including the Nordic social model."

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