The social partners in the steel sector played an advisory role for many years under the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). But it took them quite some time and a good deal of effort to establish a fully-fledged, autonomous social dialogue at European level. Today that dialogue brings together the European Metalworkers’ Federation (EMF) for the workers, and the European Confederation of Iron and Steel Industries (EUROFER) for the employers.

Historically, dialogue between employers and workers in the iron and steel industry began under the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC, 1951). The ECSC Treaty establishing a framework for the mining, iron and steel industries in fact instituted a Consultative Committee which involved employers’ organisations and trade unions. The ECSC Treaty expired in 2002, when the work of the Consultative Committee was transferred to a working group of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). Not until 2006 was a Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee (SSDC) set up in the steel sector.

Whereas the social partners in this sector have long played an advisory role, it took them quite some time and a good deal of effort to establish a fully-fledged, autonomous social dialogue at European level. This may seem surprising in that the metalworking sector in the Member States is among those – along with chemicals and the public sector – with the most well-established tradition of social dialogue and pay bargaining (cf. for example IG-Metall in Germany). Various explanations have been put forward: reluctance or hostility on the part of the European employers’ federations to engage in European social dialogue, fear of the European trade unions becoming too powerful, risk of a snowball effect leading to Europe-wide collective bargaining, etc. But one might also wonder whether the national trade unions themselves really wanted European-level social dialogue.

Significantly, the creation of a SSDC in 2006 corresponded with the year when Mittal launched its takeover bid for Arcelor, which caused workers in that company to fear a lowering of social standards (Isabelle Barthès, special advisor to the EMF pointed out at an emergency EMF meeting on 1 February 2006 that “the social model applied at Arcelor clearly has nothing in common with the model of development or strategic vision of Mittal Steel”). So one could take the view that the establishment of European-level social dialogue was prompted by, among other things, this increasingly intense process of mergers and acquisitions, which was jeopardising national traditions of social dialogue. On top of that came the European integration of commodity markets and growing international competition, but also the common environmental constraints (action to combat global warming) within which the European industry now had to operate. Thus the very first joint opinion issued by the SSDC, on 14 April 2008, related to the EU Emissions Trading System. The joint opinion of September 2008 on competitiveness in the sector likewise dwells at length on environmental and energy-related issues.

To see the work of the SSDC as relating solely to climate concerns would however be to take an overly narrow view. It has also set itself the task of examining issues such as health and safety, lifelong learning, structural change and sectoral industrial policy. For instance, a major seminar on vocational training and anticipating skill requirements, especially in the context of the current crisis, was held in early 2009 with a view to drawing up a joint opinion.

Specific features of social dialogue in the steel sector include the emergence of distinct trade union strategies (the steel sector encompasses iron and steel as such, but also the automotive industry, aerospace, garages, shipbuilding, machine tools, etc.), as well as the coordination of pay bargaining. Indeed, steel is without doubt the most advanced sector with respect to European coordination of pay bargaining. The EMF has devised a coordination formula specifying that each union must achieve a minimum wage rise equivalent to the sum of inflation and a “fair share” of productivity gains. The initial goal of this strategy, initiated by IG Metall, was to prevent wage and social dumping in the European Union (see on this point the contribution by Anne Dufresne in “The European Sectoral Social Dialogue, Actors, Developments and Challenges”, Dufresne, Degryse, Pochet (eds.), PIE-Peter Lang, Brussels, 2006).

The EMF set up a collective bargaining committee when was first established, in 1971. Although it has always been in favour of strengthening European social dialogue, the EMF has always distinguished between that and pay bargaining per se.

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Sectoral Social Dialogue Factsheets