Anti-union practices increasing in Europe

BRUSSELS (ITUC Online) — The 2009 survey of violations of trade union rights around the world, published last week by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), reports more widespread and serious anti-union practices than in recent years in Europe, despite the fact that this region is still portrayed as being a model on social matters. The trend has been confirmed both in the traditional trade union strongholds of Western Europe and in the transition economies of Eastern Europe. What is more, nearly 50 workers were arrested for their union activities, mainly in Russia and Belarus.

Greece saw the most horrific attack, as a women union leader from a cleaners’ union was attacked with sulphuric acid and was maimed for life. The Bulgarian born trade unionist was undoubtedly targeted for fighting for the rights of her thousands of colleagues, mostly undocumented migrant workers. Physical attacks on trade unionists in Europe have been increasing dangerously year on year. In 2008 there were at least 14 cases, including 6 women. A notable case was in the Russian Federation, where the leader of the ITUA trade union at the 'Ford Motors' production plant was attacked twice, while two other members of that union were beaten up at the factory gate of the TagAZ plant that produces cars for Hyundai. Similar attacks were reported in Moscow, Bulgaria, Serbia and Kosovo.

The ITUC Survey reports intensive cases of police violence and judicial harassment against trade unionists in Europe. These were particularly in Turkey, where the Istanbul police brutally repressed a demonstration marking May Day, with many trade unionists arrested and beaten up. In addition, the head of the Health and Social Services Employees’ Union’s Legal and Women’s Affairs Department, spent eight months in jail for having attended a press conference at which the killing of another female trade union activist was denounced. Seven activists of the national car workers’ union, TÜMTIS, spent over six months in jail without appearing in court while several hundred others were dismissed due to their membership of the union.

Belarus, where violations of democratic rights has been the favorite pastime of the Lukashenko regime, was one of the countries that saw the largest number of arrests of trade unionists. Whilst 32 young members of the CDTU were arrested for no stated reason, eight others were given short prison terms and were reportedly beaten up by the police. It should be noted, that despite the regime’s prowess in terms of anti-union practices, one slight improvement took place with the abandonment of some new anti-union draft laws.

The ITUC Survey stresses a particularly significant trend this year: anti-union sackings. Over 2,400 cases were reported this year, including 2,000 in Turkey. The trend was confirmed in Georgia, Russia, Ukraine as well as Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Very often, legislation undermines workers’ protection against anti-union dismissals. Improvements to be noted include the Georgian government’s agreement finally to undertake an independent assessment of its legislation in the light of international labor standards, and the Swiss government’s launch of a tripartite discussion. In Montenegro, on the other hand, following the adoption of the new Labor Law, workers have been forced to change their open-ended employment contracts into fixed-term ones.

Another trend noted in the ITUC Survey was the undermining of trade unions’ right to collective action in several countries. The most striking example concerned the right to strike, which was undermined in several EU States. In France, a new law made it harder to organise a strike in primary and secondary education, whilst in Belgium many multinational enterprises took legal action aimed at banning certain forms of collective action including strike pickets. Another harmful development was the removal of the preferential collective bargaining rights from the majority trade unions in the Czech Republic. New laws aimed at undermining union rights are being drafted in Croatia, Poland and Macedonia. More positively, it should be noted that legal amendments in Lithuania and Bosnia improved compliance with ILO standards.

The world is facing one of the most serious economic and financial crises ever. The crisis too often serves as a pretext for restricting workers’ rights. In Hungary and Serbia, the governments tried to suspend the national collective agreements on those grounds, though in the end some temporary compromises were reached, putting off the final decision. In other countries, including the Czech Republic, certain employers used the crisis to put pressure on workers to leave trade unions. In France, a new law allows company-level agreements precedence, under certain conditions, over sectoral-level agreements even where the latter are more favorable to workers.

The ITUC Survey stresses the fact that certain European governments have not hesitated to use so-called “unions” with no independence or representativeness to weaken the real workers’ organizations. In Russia, State officials pushed trade unions into the 'Sotsprof' confederation, which clearly enjoys a privileged relationship with the authorities. In Georgia, a 'yellow' trade union for education personnel has been set up and promoted by school principals and the Ministry of Education. In Kyrgyzstan, after the Federation of Trade Unions refused to elect a government protégé as its leader, the Federation’s president was suspended from office on criminal charges that had officially been dropped several years previously.

“The global financial and economic crisis must not be used as a pretext for weakening trade union organizations”, declared Guy Ryder, general secretary of the ITUC. “Workers’ rights must be respected by all and without delay”.

The ITUC represents 170 million workers in 157 countries and territories and has 312 national affiliates. See and .