Is the right to strike at risk under new EU laws?

Is the right to strike at risk under new EU laws?
The lack of social agreement was the main cause of strikes. Credit: Belga / Olivier Vin

As Belgium today faces its third general strike of the year over the spiralling cost of living crisis, a new EU regulation proposed by the European Commission could see the right to strike lose its legal protection in times of emergencies or crises.

The regulation is based on the grounds that a strike may obstruct the free movement of goods in the EU internal market. The right to strike is currently protected as a fundamental right that takes precedence over the movement of goods.

However, the Single Market Emergency Instrument (SMEI), published on Monday, removes the legal protection for the right to strike. In concrete terms, this means that a strike could soon be seen as a hindrance to the functioning of the single market in certain emergency situations.

European Trade Unions have reacted, calling for stronger safeguards of these fundamental rights. In a comment to The Brussels Times, Regional Secretary of UNI Europa Oliver Roethig pointed to examples of essential workers during the pandemic who secured protective equipment and safety protocols by striking or threatening to do so.

"Only when they threatened strike action were supermarket workers in the Netherlands guaranteed maximum quotas for how many clients can be in the shop at any one time. In Poland, nursing home workers relied on their right to strike to get their employer to implement safe staffing levels."

There are numerous examples of the right to strike being leveraged to direct emergency funding for safety measures on the pandemic’s frontline, Roethig made clear.

A strike action of Medecine pour le Peuple - Geneeskunde voor het Volk entitled 'For long-term patients: respect, no sanctions' to protest plans to sanction sick workers. Credit: Belga/Hatim Kaghat

The SMEI is designed to help the internal market withstand crises and external shocks which may impact market revenue, such as a pandemic or war. Yet it appears that the Commission has done away with the legal protection of the right to strike, moving it into territory where it could be seen as an "external shock."

According to the Commission’s new SMEI proposal, workers and trade unions would struggle to defend their economic and social interests.

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which is leading on this case at the EU level, wrote to the Commission earlier this month asking for clarification on the right to strike.

Legally-binding measures needed

UNI Europa supports the ETUC's call for legally-binding language on the right to strike: "As the trade union for many essential workers, we are alarmed by the Commission’s move. It is essential that the tools workers have to hold employers accountable are guaranteed during emergencies."

Thierry Breton, the Commissioner for the Internal Market, denied in a press conference on Monday that this is an attempt to take away the right to strike: “The right to strike is a fundamental right and this instrument does not interfere whatsoever with that right.”

However, the ETUC stresses that if this is the case, it must be made clear in the legislation. The union umbrella association calls for the text to be amended.

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“It was good to hear the Commission clarify today that it is not their intention to undermine the right to strike. But if this is the case, the Commission should have no hesitation in inserting a clause safeguarding the right to strike in the legislation,” stated the ETUC Confederal Secretary, Isabelle Schömann, in a press statement.

“Trade unions work on the basis of law, not political promises. We will not accept safeguards for the right to strike being weakened in EU law. We fully appreciate the need to ensure the single market continues to function during emergencies, but this must not come at the expense of fundamental rights.”

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