Yesterday, on February 10 2015, the European Parliament’s plenary met in Strasbourg to discuss, in the presence of and with input from Marianne Thyssen, European Commissioner for employment, social affairs, skills and labour mobility, on the topic ‘Initiatives in the framework of the International Labour Organization debate on the right to strike’.
The debate circled around how to overcome the paralysis of the ILO’s internal supervision system of labour standards – the ‘Conference Committee on the Application of Standards’, a tripartite body consisting of an Employers’ Group, a Workers’ Group, and a Government Group which is to scrutinise the application of the ILO conventions in the ILO Member States – that has been ongoing since summer 2012 when the Employers’ Group announced that it does not consider that aspects relating to the right to strike can be scrutinised because there is in fact no explicit legal basis for it in the ILO’s Conventions (and particularly not in the ILO Convention 87 on ‘Freedom of association and protection of the right to organise’).
Please find a summary of the debate below. Note that this does not constitute a formal record of the proceedings of the meeting. It is dependent on interpretation and acts as an unofficial summary of the debate.
Marianne Thyssen, European Commissioner for employment, social affairs, skills and labour mobility, began her intervention by a general remark about the EU-ILO relations, saying that both parties have “long record of good cooperation”, with the EU always having promoted the ILO’s core conventions and having relied in the ILO’s supervision of labour standards as set out in the ILO’s Convention 87 on ‘Freedom of association and protection of the right to organise’, too. She said that she is in this context “concerned” that, since summer 2012, the ILO’s Conference Committee on the Application of Standards is being paralysed because especially the Employers’ group and the Workers’ Group “disagree on whether the right to strike is provided under the ILO Convention 87”.
She went on to note that the right to collective bargaining and action is a fundamental right in the EU, enshrined in article 28 of the EU’s Charter on Fundamental Rights. However, she added that the EU is only an observer at the ILO and that the European Commission can therefore not intervene on the substance of the discussion at hand, with this being the competence of the ILO full members (member countries). Nevertheless, she said, the European Commission is “ready to support all players” by retrieving information on the right to strike in the EU and by facilitating a dialogue between the EU Member States (which are all full ILO members individually) so that these can speak with a united voice within the ILO. She concluded by saying that she has also already met with the ILO Secretary-General, Guy Ryder, to discuss the problem at hand. She expressed hopes that a solution will be found at an ILO tripartite meeting on February 23-25 but declared that if no agreement can be achieved during that meeting, then the case may need to be brought for resolution to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.
Claude Rolin (EPP, FR) expressed his disappointment that the ILO internal supervision structure of labour standards is now failing to work after having functioned smoothly for 60 years and called on the European Commission “to do all it can” to ensure that the structure can come out of a deadlock and back to an effective social dialogue again – however reminding Ms Thyssen that even though the right to strike is enshrined as a fundamental right in the EU’s Charter on Fundamental Rights it is not a direct competence of the EU. He agreed that the case should be referred to the ICJ if no solution can be found very soon by the tripartite actors within the ILO structure.
Jutta Steinruck (S&D, DE) noted that the right to strike is a fundamental right that is guaranteed by the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights, which has the same legal standing as the EU treaties.
She then said that the right to strike is vital because worker-employer relations can only take place on an equal footing if workers have a weapon to fight with (i.e. the right to stay away from work) and that any dilution of this right is an “attack on a fundamental right”. In this context, she urged the European Commission to stand up for the defence of the right to strike at the ILO.
Helga Stevens (ECR, BE) said that she understands that there is a right to strike and that vulnerable employees should be protected but stressed at the same time that companies should also have the possibility to input their employees all over Europe so that they can compete in the global market.
She recalled that aspects related to the right to strike concern an area in the EU that is primarily the competence of national governments.
Marian Harkin (ALDE, IE) underscored her concerns about the situation, stressing that the right to strike and collective bargaining is not only a fundamental right but also makes decent working conditions possible – which, she said, is beneficial both for worker protection as well as for the production outcomes of companies.
She urged the European Commission to facilitate a solution where possible.
Kostas Chrysogonos (GUE/NGL, EL) referred to the right to strike and collective bargaining as the “strongest weapon” that workers have to defend themselves. He expressed disappointment that even though this right is enshrined in the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights, in the EU “elites” have striven to take it from workers for the sake of their own “capital”.
Jean Lambert (Greens/EFA, UK) also said that she is concerned about the situation. Noting that the ILO Convention 87 is about maintaining a balance of power between workers and employers, she said that any roll-back of the right to strike for workers has profound implications for human rights, decent work and fair competition.
She urged the European Commission to acknowledge the “crucial role it plays” in the subject matter at hand and called on it to help finding a solution to the problem, stressing that “the European Commission must consider the message it is sending into the world.”
Laura Agea (EFDD, IT) said that citizens’ rights should always be a priority over corporate and financial interests and that she regrets that the former have in recent years been increasingly taken over by the latter. She stressed that the right to strike should be “sacrosanct” and that she hopes that “the rights that we have gained and that were left to us by predecessors” will no longer be subject to confrontation.
Sotirios Zarianopoulos (NI, EL) underlined the importance of ensuring that the rights of the “working class” to organise and protect itself and fight for its benefits are no longer dismantled.
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