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Yours or mine

by Chiara Benassi, David Krebs

Many large companies are established right across Europe. Works councils, by contrast, lack cross-border solidarity. What are the reasons behind this imbalance, and where have European unions started to redress it?

When it became known in January 2008 that Nokia was closing its facilities in the German city of Bochum, the employees there received widespread support – in Germany that is. However instead of proclaiming solidarity with their German colleagues and calling for protest across Europe, Mika Paukkeri, the head of the Nokia works council in Finland, spoke out in favour of the closure.

Photo: AP

Cross-border cooperation still presents a major challenge for Europe's workers. If the unions want to keep pace with the economic integration of enterprises in the Single Market, they must expand their cooperation with European colleagues. Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons the unions have so far been unable to progress from the nation state of the 19th century into the European arena. Often the language barrier is an obstacle to cooperation. In contrast to English speaking management, the workers at large European companies frequently lack a lingua franca.

Strike cultures north and south

But the lack of understanding can also be explained on the cultural level. The union landscape in Europe varies greatly between north and south. While Italian and Spanish trade unionists are quick to strike when disagreements arise with the management, Germans tend to shy away from conflict. In Germany, extensive rights of co-determination have led to a culture of dialogue in which strikes tend to be seen as a last resort. For this reason it is no wonder that according to a study by the Hans-Böckler-Stiftung between 1996 and 2005 the average number of strike days per year per 1,000 employees in Germany was 2.4, while this figure stood at 86.8 days in Italy and 144.9 in Spain. One German union official with experience in international cooperation explains: "Southern European unions tend to view talks with the employers' side with mistrust, or even condemn them as a betrayal of the class struggle."

Conflict or consensus

This gap between models of conflict and consensus must be overcome when – as for example in the case of the German Nokia facilities – a European company announces the closure of a location and it becomes necessary to coordinate the reaction of the workforce as quickly as possible right across Europe. The "lacking solidarity" of the head of the Finnish works council may be best explained with a reference to the Finnish trade union philosophy, which – at least in the eyes of many colleagues abroad – runs approximately along the following lines: what is good for the company is good for the workers.

Is striking a fundamental right?

The problem of cultural differences is posed at least as urgently in the unions' formulation of common policy demands. Sabrina Petrucci, responsible for international issues at the biggest Italian metalworkers' union FIOM, comments: "We need a European right to strike that is protected as a fundamental right". Many German unionists, by contrast, consider it more important to establish a European framework for the rights of employees at their workplace, one which brings as many German standards of employee participation as possible to the European context. One easily gets the impression that the national unions are more interested in exporting their own model to the rest of Europe. Patrizia Pitronaci of the Italian metalworkers' union UILM confirms: "Unfortunately many unionists think: my model is better than yours."

Legal differences

The major divergences in national labour laws, for example in the area of collective action, also complicate cross-border cooperation. Yet standardised European legislation will be long in coming. The legal foundation in the European Union is still primarily comprised of fundamental freedoms, for example of capital flows and the freedom of establishment, which allow enterprises to easily relocate production facilities within the Single Market, for example from Bochum in Germany to Jucu in Romania.

European Court of Justice benefits employers

Seen against this legal backdrop it is not surprising that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) tends to favour businesses over unions. Just last year it decided in the Viking and Laval judgements that the unions' right to strike may not grossly impair the basic rights of employers. In its most recent decision against the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg on June 2008, the ECJ further curtails the unions' room to manoeuvre and the scope of national social policy. The court ruled that the Grand Duchy had passed too many protective regulations concerning foreign workers in Luxembourg, and thus excessively impeded the free rendering of services.

European Metalworkers' Federation

Despite contrasting ideas and adverse political conditions, the unions are once more attempting to give a European voice to workers by forging European institutions. One such institution is the European Metalworkers' Federation (EMF), which is to coordinate the reactions of the national unions, for example in the case of cross-border restructuring. For roughly ten years the EMF has also been seeking to establish European standards to coordinate the national collective bargaining policy of the member unions. In 2002 IG Metall and the EMF announced in a joint declaration written in English: "There is no national collective bargaining any longer since the launch of the Euro!"

Chiara Benassi
Chiara Benassi, born in Bologna in 1985, studies international relations in Berlin and Potsdam.
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David Krebs
David Krebs, born in Hanover in 1982, studies law in Berlin.
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Original in German

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