The EPSU is taking the European Commission to court to defend the rights of public sector workers

You would think that in this renewed era of social dialogue, ushered in by the New Start for Social Dialogue and the recent proclamation of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR), we would not have to take legal action against the Commission over its failure to respect fundamental workers’ rights to information, consultation and social dialogue.

Yet this is what the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) decided to do on 15 May. This unheard-of step comes in response to the Commission’s unprecedented, untransparent and rather poorly-argued decision to refuse the opportunity to implement a social partner agreement by legislation. With this decision, it is our strong view that the Commission is undermining both the social dialogue and principle of equal treatment between all workers which just six months ago were loudly reaffirmed in the EPSR – and co-signed by the Commission itself.

The Commission has reneged on its commitment to the social partner agreement, concluded by EPSU and the European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CESI) together with the European Public Administration Employers’ organisation (EUPAE), which affirmed the extension of EU information and consultation rights to almost 10 million people working in central government administrations.

The social partner agreement was signed in December 2015. It fills a fundamental gap in EU legislation on information and consultation rights that currently excludes these 10 million workers from its scope.

The agreement closes this outdated loophole by granting them similar EU legal rights as workers in the private sector. It provides trade union and workers’ representatives with information and consultation rights on issues such as restructuring, collective redundancies, working time and health and safety. The agreement deems it essential that a 21st century public administration must hear and take due account of what employees have to say on any changes affecting their workplace. For the agreement to become effective (i.e. legally binding across all EU member states) after a request from the social partners, the Commission has to bring forward the agreement as a proposal to council for it to take a decision. The Commission has refused to do this. Their refusal has led EPSU to take legal action.

Here’s what happens without social dialogue

What difference would our agreement make? Here are some concrete examples.

In 2016, the Italian government decided to transfer forest guards (Corpo forestale dello Stato), whose main job is fire prevention, from the Ministry of Forestry, Agriculture and Food Policies to the Carabinieri, the armed police linked to the Ministry of Defence. The transfer was made very quickly by decree, without consulting the 7000 or so affected workers and their trade union representatives.

Yet the militarisation of forest workers has dramatic consequences in terms of work content and organisation, as well as access to promotion and trade union rights since the armed forces have no right to join a trade union. It has dramatic consequences for citizens, too. According to our Italian affiliate as well as regional authorities who are on the front line, the reduction of human and material resources resulted in an increase of fires especially in Italy’s poorer regions such as Sicily. Had our agreement been put in force, it would have obliged the Italian government to engage collectively with the forest guards’ representatives, giving them a right to be informed and consulted on the consequences and implementation of the decision of the transfer.

In 2013 the Greek government decided overnight to close its public broadcaster, ERT. The 2500 public ERT workers, employed by the Ministry of Communications and Information, were sacked without prior notice. They occupied their workplace for months and EPSU sent a solidarity delegation. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC)drew a parallel with the Renault Vilvoorde case that led to the adoption of the 2002 directive that set out a general framework on information and consultation rights on company restructuring. Our agreement seeks to prevent other ERT-like shutdowns by putting in place a culture of trust where all workers in the public sector – whether in tax, labour inspection, migration services, cleaning or transport – have a right to be told what’s going on and a right to be heard. By proposing to the Council that our agreement be turned into legislation, the Commission would have given austerity-stricken public sector workers in Greece the right to enjoy the additional legal protection that they needed.

That the Commission has supported, and in some cases initiated, austerity measures in Greece but is failing to support democracy in the workplace is mindboggling. Ahead of the elections for the European Parliament in May 2019, it is certainly a very harmful decision to take.

These are two examples of restructuring in central governments where there have been little or ineffective information and consultation rights for those who deliver essential services to citizens. By the time the agreement was signed, many central government workers had been subject to imposed cuts in jobs, wages and benefits as well as seeing attacks on trade union rights. It is in that context that we negotiated this agreement with the employers who agreed that it was about time to rebuild trust and social dialogue, and that imposed changes risk leading to chaos and poor-quality administration.

No workplace democracy without information and consultation rights

We stand for workplace democracy, of which information and consultation rights are an integral part. It is shocking that the Commission appears to support and argue that workers in central government administrations do not need legal minimum standards on information and consultation rights in EU law.

The Commission has effectively launched an unprecedented two-pronged attack on workers’ rights by both denying the equal treatment of workers in central government and the private sector, and by undermining the function of social dialogue.

When this landmark agreement was reached, the Commission not only participated in the signing of the agreement but also welcomed it in a press release. Indeed, the Commission itself had previously launched a consultation asking social partners whether they would want to tackle the exclusion of public administrations from EU law. Back then, in 2015, the successful social partners’ initiative was seen as evidence that Commission President Jean Claude Junker’s commitment to renewed social dialogue was already bearing fruit.

Today we can say that its presence at the moment of signing was as an act of political cynicism.

Together with the employers and CESI, we asked the Commission to transform this agreement into EU legislation following the procedure set up in the Treaty. With its negative decision, the Commission has given itself the right to interpret the law. In our view, it is in breach of the autonomy of social partners to negotiate agreements.

It is the first time that the European Commission has broken the rules on the social dialogue in the Treaty, therefore, we had no other option but to bring the matter to court. We expect the Commission to respect the European treaties. We respected the rules and we expect the European Commission to do the same. Failure to do so means the end of real social dialogue. This is what is at stake.