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Social dialogue and worker representation in EU2020: underappreciated and underplayed

Worker involvement, through institutionalised social dialogue and worker representation at company level, serves two intertwined purposes: implementing social rights so as to strengthen democracy in the working environment; and supporting companies, States and the European Union in their efforts to combine economic competitiveness with social progress. The second of these two purposes, i.e. the instrumentalist vision of social dialogue and worker representation, was central to the realisation of the Lisbon Strategy which stated: ’The European social dialogue (ESD) could constitute a tool for the modernisation announced at the Lisbon European Council for all key issues on the European agenda’ (European Commission 2002b). This ‘tool’ was so prominent in the achievement of the growth and employment strategy that it led the European Commission to stress, on several occasions, that ESD should be considered ‘a force for innovation and change’ (European Commission 2002b) in the guise of ‘a partnership for change in an enlarged Europe’ (European Commission 2004). Despite the recognition of ESD and its clear positive contribution to EU policy during the 2000-2010 period, social dialogue and worker representation are a resource that the new Europe 2020 (EU2020) strategy appears to ignore. The aim of this chapter is therefore to boost the image of the missing dimension in EU2020 by demonstrating the fruitful outcomes so far achieved at European level by the institutions and practices of social dialogue and worker representation, as well as the need for these forms of action to enjoy recognition by the EU institutions and inclusion in the implementation and purposes of the EU2020 strategy.

The place of social dialogue and worker representation within EU strategies

Channels for worker voice are a strategic goal per se

‘An important reason for employee involve- ment was the democratic deficit within the corporate world. Employee involvement gave corporate decision-making more democratic legitimacy’ (Bruun 2010: 3). This democratic deficit was (and to some extent still is) an issue of such importance that it required workers’ rights to informa- tion, consultation and collective bargain- ing to be officially recognised as European fundamental rights (see Figure 8.1).

Therefore, social dialogue and worker representation  have  to  be  seen  as fully-fledged  components  of  one  of the core EU objectives, namely, ‘social progress’ as contained in the EU defini- tion of ‘sustainable development’ (art. 3 TEU). However, while the EU Treaty and trade  union  actors  insist  on  the  fact that the   economic,   social   and environmental aspects are the three mutually reinforc-  ing dimensions of sustainability (ETUC 2010), the EU2020 policy limits its con- ception of ‘sustainable growth’ (‘promot- ing a more resource-efficient, greener and more competitive economy’, European Commission 2010b) to the economic and ecological dimensions alone.

Given the fact that the ‘social’ cannot be simply restricted to the fight against poverty, there is considerable room for improvement within EU2020. Not only should social dialogue and worker rep- resentation be acknowledged as strategic contributors to the European strategy but their improvement must  be  envisaged  as a vitally important goal per se. Sustain- able development is an overarching goal in EU2020 and this must include a social dimension   alongside   the   economic  and ecological dimensions which cannot be solely restricted to the fight against pov- erty. Indisputably, fair wages, good work- ing conditions and workers’ rights to information, consultation, participation and negotiation have to be seen as fully- fledged components of this social dimen- sion, and their improvement as a vitally important goal.

The place of social dialogue and worker representation within EU strategies

Crucial to the Lisbon Strategy: ESD, collective bargaining and EWCs

From an instrumentalist  standpoint,  the European social dialogue proved its relevance during the past decade in line with the Lisbon Strategy (ETUC and ETUI 2009). The innovative approach characterised by the conclusion of social     partners’    multi-annual    work programmes fostered the autonomous cross-sectoral social dialogue at Euro- pean level. Major cross-sectoral autono- mous agreements have been signed (on telework in 2002, on work-related stress in 2004, on harassment and violence at work on 2007 and on inclusive labour markets in 2010) and several framework texts for action have been drawn up (on the lifelong development of competencies  and  qualifications  and  on  gender equality in 2002 and 2005 respectively). The scope of sectoral social dialogue has been extended, as can be judged from the growing number of established sec- toral social dialogue committees (from 27 committees in 2002 to 40 nowadays) that are promoted and supported by the European Commission. As for worker representation at company level, last year’s issue of Benchmarking Working Europe (ETUC and ETUI 2010) demon- strated the strategic output of collective bargaining and worker  representation  in European Works Councils in tackling the consequences of the crisis by avoid- ing, as far as possible, the worst, i.e. mass redundancies and company closures.

Weak trade union and worker contributions to the EU2020 battle plan

Figures 8.2a and 8.2b aim to compare the extent to which social dialogue and worker representation were considered relevant EU policy instruments within the framework of the Lisbon Strategy on the one hand, and their role according to the  new  EU2020  strategy  on the other hand. Whereas it was envisaged that European social dialogue should contrib- ute to five out of the six Lisbon objectives and actions, it is called upon in only three of the seven EU2020 flagship initiatives. Given that the flagship initiative ‘Innova- tion Union’ could be excluded, for it con- tains no more than a very vague reference to the European social dialogue, there remain only two flagships in respect of which ESD appears to be genuinely recognised  as  a  relevant  contributor:  ‘An agenda for new skills and jobs’ and ‘An industrial policy for the globalisation era’. This observation confirms a trend already initiated during the 2005 mid- term review of the Lisbon Strategy and its subsequent relaunch whereby social partners began to be perceived as merely one unspecific EU policy stakeholder among many others. The formulations found in recent official documents only serve to support this conclusion regard- ing their definition of stakeholders: ‘Stakeholders – business, local authori- ties, social partners, foundations, NGOs’ (European Commission 2010f). This downplaying of the social partners’ role was the reason for the European Parliament’s reaction to the flagship initiative‘An  industrial  policy  for  the  globalisation era’, in relation to which it stressed that ‘the sustainable development of European industry requires intensive dialogue with employees and workers’ (European Parliament 2010).

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