Trade unions challenge multinational corporations with their own arm.
European Works Councils, consultative bodies for multinational corporations, increase in numbers.
Trade union representatives at Alcoa have put the spotlight on the European Works Councils, a body for informing and consulting the workers of transnational companies, established by the European Commission to inform the workforce about its progress and any decisions that may affect them. This trade union body has denounced the American multinational corporation before the Dutch courts, where the committee is based, for failing to inform its intentions to close the Spanish plants in La Coruña and Avilés, with around 700 workers in total.
Alcoa’s workforce representatives have used this body to sue the company.
Their aim was “to stop the closure of the plants by any means necessary; to gain time and force the company to look for alternatives for their future”, says José Manuel Gómez de la Uz, president of the Alcoa works council in Avilés and also a member of the European works council. Not that de la Uz expects the appeal to the courts to be a panacea, but it could paralyse the termination proceedings against the two Alcoa plants. In the meantime, meetings and demonstrations will continue in Spain. The CCOO representative knows that the European Works Councils are not binding. But some actions and others add up, he argues.
The frequency with which these transnational committees are being set up is increasing, according to David Díaz, a partner in charge of the labour department at Baker & McKenzie, and this is because the trade union centres are aware that the decisions taken in one country affect many more and are pushing to set them up. It is also because the shareholders of multinationals are becoming more demanding, he says.
The last one to be created within a Spanish corporation is that of Inditex, last September. “And it has been very difficult to get it off the ground because in the retail sector it is not very natural to have these mechanisms because there are many differences between the salaries and working conditions of workers in different countries and Inditex has not favoured it”, explains Juan Blanco, head of the International Secretariat of the CCOO Federation of Industry. Companies delay their incorporation, he adds. Just look at the case of the multinational General Electric, which has just completed the process of creating its European committee, which began in 2017.
- Pioneer. The first European Works Council was created at Saint Gobain in 1983, a decade before these bodies were regulated.
- Legislation. The first European directive regulating transnational works councils dates back to 1994. It was amended in 2009.
- Monitoring. Before the directive came into force in 1996, more than 400 European committees had been set up. By 2009 they had doubled, according to data from the European Trade Union Institute (Etui). In 2018, there are almost 900 active committees.
- Activities. Metal, services and chemicals are the sectors where trade unions have most established these bodies, representing more than 17 million workers.
- Countries. Germany (256), France (123), United Kingdom (101), Sweden (73), Netherlands (59) are the countries with the most committees. Spain ranks 13th in Europe, with less than 20.
Companies such as Repsol, BBVA, Amadeus, Coca-Cola Iberian Partners, Santander, Gestamp or CIE have these bodies representing their continental workers. However, Spanish transnational companies have hardly any such bodies. According to the European Trade Union Institute (Etui), there are 16 out of 896 in the whole region.
In the opinion of Ignacio García-Perrote, partner at Uría Menéndez, the European Works Councils have not met the expectations of the European Commission, which expected them to be more widespread when it regulated them through the 1994 directive for companies with more than 1,000 workers in the region or with two workplaces with more than 150 employees each in two European countries. In his view, neither companies nor trade unions have been too keen to promote them, the former because of the costs and bureaucracy involved and the latter because they do not want to limit their national role, which has a greater impact. Moreover, they have no executive capacity; they cannot negotiate collective agreements. And this is shown in the very low level of judicial litigation, García-Perrote continues.
However, for UGT Trade Union Policy Secretary Gonzalo Pino, “the European works councils are an important step towards having information on Spain’s multinational companies’ future. Before the directive, it was difficult for them to provide data on their movements, possible redundancies or restructuring”. The downside, he adds, is that the members of these bodies are appointed according to the number of workers in each country, so Germany, the UK and France have the upper hand.
Their functions are informative and their usefulness limited, but they achieve transparency.
In the end, the role of these committees is complicated. They are most prevalent in the industry, especially in the car industry, where each plant of a brand in one country fights with other plants of the same brand in other states to win the production of a model, a so-called auction system. Trade union representatives have to maintain solidarity in the European committee where they are present while at the same time pushing to take the model in their countries of reference. “In this process, there is schizophrenia between defending and competing. The tension is always present,” Blanco admits. However, according to Pino, it was the European committees that prevented production from being diverted to plants in Eastern Europe or China.
The EWCs have two very important elements for dealing with restructuring, according to Blanco: the figure of the expert or consultant who analyses the information provided by the company to the workers (and who is paid by the organisation itself) and that of the European trade union coordinator, who is appointed by the members of the EWC from the different countries and greatly facilitates the relationship with the company in the moments before restructuring.
The most notable action of these bodies in Spain, Blanco continues, took place at Thyssenkrupp Galmed’s Sagunto plant, “where something incredible was achieved, such as negotiating a two-year plan to train more than 50 people in Germany and subsequently relocate them in other factories. So the impact of the closure was less”.
The UGT’s Secretary for Trade Union Policy affirms that they are getting stronger every day, but they need more power and more possibilities for action. Above all, acknowledges Pino, “the constitution of the European works councils depends on the strength of the trade unions”.