Across Europe

Each country has a different experience and different characteristics. This section summarises some of the key features of the way that industrial relations are organised across Europe.

Trade Unions

Levels of union density vary widely across the 28 EU states plus Norway, from around 70% in Finland, Sweden and Denmark to 8% in France. However, density is not the only indication of unions’ capacity to mobilise workers. In most countries union membership has been falling in recent years, and, even where it is growing, it has not generally kept pace with the rise in the numbers employed. Most European states have several competing union confederations, often divided on political grounds, although ideological differences may now be less important than in the past. Union mergers continue to remake the trade union landscape, although generally within rather than between confederations.

Collective Bargaining

The proportion of employees covered by collective bargaining in the 28 EU states plus Norway varies from well over 90% to 15%. The countries at the top of the table either have high levels of union membership, as in the Nordic countries, or have legal structures which ensure that collective agreements have a wide coverage. In the countries at the bottom of the table, company level bargaining dominates. In some countries, such as Belgium, Italy or Sweden, there are links between different levels of bargaining but in others, like Luxembourg or Cyprus, various levels simply coexist. Overall the trend seems to be towards greater decentralisation and the crisis has accelerated this.

Workplace Representation

Employee representation varies across Europe, combining both representation through local union bodies and works councils – or similar structures elected by all employees. In the 28 EU states plus Norway, there are four states where the main representation is through works councils with no statutory provision for unions at the workplace; eight where representation is essentially through the unions; another 12 where it is a mixture of the two, although sometimes unions dominate; and a further five where unions have been the sole channel, but legislation now offers additional options. In many countries, national legislation implementing the EU’s information and consultation directive has complicated the picture. One common feature of most states is that unions play a central role.

Board-level Representation

Arrangements for employee representation at board level in the 28 EU countries plus Norway can be divided into three groups. There is a group of ten countries where there is no board level representation and a further group of five, where board level representation is limited to state-owned or privatised companies. However, the biggest group of 14 states provides for employees to be represented on the boards of private companies, once they have reached a certain size. These thresholds vary greatly as do other elements of the national arrangements.

European-level Representation

National representatives on bodies linked to European Works Councils and the European Company are generally chosen in a way which reflects the existing structures of the country concerned – either by the union, or by the works council. However, in seven countries they are elected by all employees.

Health and Safety

EU legislation means that in all EU states there are structures providing employee representation in the area of health and safety. However, there are differences in how this representation is organised. A combination of employee health and safety representatives with their own powers and a joint employee/employer committee is the structure used most frequently, but other states only have joint committees, some only have employee representatives, while in others the existing works council plays the key role. The way employee health and safety representatives are chosen also varies: in around half of the countries they are elected directly by the workforce, while in the others existing bodies, such as unions or works councils, choose them. There are also variations in the thresholds for choosing representatives and setting up committees as well as in their powers.

Financial Participation

The distribution and significance of employee financial participation in Europe are at first glance no more uniform and structured than in the case of workplace representation. Analysis shows examples and cases of good practice concerning financial participation in all European countries, even if the political and economic preconditions vary between strong legal foundations for the active promotion of financial participation (as in France and the UK) on the one hand, and rather poor recognition of such practices at enterprise level by the social partners, on the other.

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