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Unions 21
| Blog post

Collective bargaining: Empowering workers for a just green and digital transition

By Judith Kirton-Darling and Isabelle Barthès Deputy General Secretaries, IndustriALL Europe | 5 min

Supporting and preparing workers for the massive changes that lie ahead as industry decarbonises and goes digital is an obvious and key concern for industriAll Europe, the federation of trade unions in Europe’s mining, energy, manufacturing and textile sectors.

Much of our federation’s work these days is focused on achieving a Just Transition - a transition that is fair for all workers, that does not destroy but preserves and creates good quality jobs, and that is anticipated, managed and negotiated with workers on every aspect that affects them. Nothing about us, without us!

Collective bargaining has a key role to play in achieving this Just Transition. Its importance goes far beyond securing better pay and improving basic working conditions. Countries with robust collective bargaining structures have shown that a well-functioning social dialogue is crucial to driving transitions forward and benefiting all. By facilitating dialogue and negotiation between workers and employers, collective bargaining ensures that workers’ rights are protected while promoting sustainable practices. Just Transition agreements negotiated through collective bargaining can provide support for up skilling and retraining, job-to-job transitions, income security and the development of alternative employment. Such negotiated solutions ensure that workers are not left behind and promote social and economic stability.

Negotiating a Just Transition

IndustriAll Europe’s collective bargaining database contains examples of how collective agreements are addressing the green and digital transition across Europe and sectors.

The ENI Skills and Renewal Agreement is an example of a Just Transition agreement negotiated at company level. The agreement reached by the oil and energy company recognises the changing energy landscape and the resulting need for skills development and renewal. Through bargaining, employees and their representatives have secured commitments from the company to provide training opportunities and support career development, thereby mitigating potential negative impacts of industrial change.

Another good example is the recent agreement reached between unions and management at Sanofi in France, a leading pharmaceutical company. The Sanofi agreement addresses the challenges posed by technological advances and the need for skills development. Workers and their representatives have secured commitments from the company to invest in training programmes and career development opportunities, as well as other measures to support workers whose jobs are destined to disappear. The agreement covers almost 20,000 employees.

Sectoral collective agreements are essential for creating a fair and inclusive framework for transition, as they provide a basis for setting basic minimum labour standards for all. In Germany, the 2022 agreement in the metal and electrical sector provides solutions for safeguarding jobs and ensuring quality employment in the industries undergoing change. To safeguard jobs, companies in crisis can convert the additional transformation pay won by the union in the current agreement into time off. A four-day week with partial wage compensation is also possible. IG Metall has further secured rules for future collective agreements at company level, which provide for negotiations on investment, staffing requirements and qualifications for the work of the future.

The groundbreaking agreements on labour market reform reached in Sweden last year are further evidence of the power of collective bargaining and social partnership in managing change. Negotiated by the social partners at cross-sectoral level, the agreements on education and training support for people in work or in between jobs aim to prepare workers for a rapidly changing labour market, backed by new legislation on the public financing of the new instruments. The agreements became an integral part of the 2022 labour market reform.

Towards a European Framework Agreement on Just Transition in the gas sector.

Collective bargaining is not limited to national contexts; it also plays a crucial role at the European level.

The social partners in the European gas sector, IndustriAll Europe and EPSU representing the workers and Eurogas representing the industry, have recently started negotiations on a collective agreement at European level. The aim of the envisaged European framework agreement is to set common minimum requirements to ensure a Just Transition for workers in the European gas sector and to safeguard the employability of the current workforce in face of looming skills shortages. It will address anticipation and strategic planning of changes in jobs and skills, training and career paths for workers, and the involvement of workers through social dialogue and collective bargaining at company level. It will be the first agreement of its kind to be negotiated at European level and would apply to all workers and companies in the gas sector in the European Union.

Collective bargaining and in particular sectoral collective bargaining are essential to ensure a fair and inclusive transition, both at national and European level. The European trade union community is therefore alarmed that attacks on collective bargaining continue in parts of Europe, despite important shifts in in opinion and policy on the need to revive collective bargaining.

Even countries normally associated with robust and consensual industrial relations and collective bargaining systems are coming under attack. A recent example is Finland, where the new right-wing coalition government is seeking to slash consensual industrial relations, collective bargaining and social policy. The headwinds in many European countries are particularly strong at a time of high inflation and energy prices, with employers refusing to negotiate wages that compensate workers for critical income losses.

At a time when our industries and workers are undergoing massive change, it is a priority for industriAll Europe that collective bargaining systems are strengthened across Europe. The adoption of the European Minimum Wage Directive is an important lever in this context, as it obliges countries with collective bargaining coverage below 80 per cent to propose corrective measures.

We will remain vigilant and, working in close coordination with our affiliates, focus our efforts on defending, strengthening and rebuilding collective bargaining systems across Europe. In doing so, we strive to maintain and strengthen the quality of employment and working conditions and strong trade unions to support a Just Transition.

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