Defensive agreements, open clauses: integrated strategies of worker involvement and collective bargaining against fragmentation and downgrading

The European Trade Union Confederation has recently addressed with more and more concerns the austerity measures decided on by the European institutions and governments, having a heavy and negative impact on wage trends, on wage formation systems and on collective bargaining. Wage freezes and cuts, opening clause contracts as well as bipartite and tripartite derogation agreements are strongly influencing the collective bargaining activity. This competitive strategy is spreading across the whole of Europe more and more, through imposed decentralization of collective bargaining and the setting of wages according to productivity only.

Over the last 10 years and especially after the crisis, trade unions in several European countries have negotiated tripartite or bipartite defensive agreements at national level, derogation agreement at sectoral level, or opening clauses agreements at company level, aimed at saving employment or supporting competitiveness. These agreements may produce negative dumping consequences if a series of conditions are not respected. One of these main conditions concerns the full involvement of trade unions at the competent level in the process of negotiation, implementation and monitoring of the terms of such an agreement.

Given the current scenario, there is an increasing necessity for trade unions both at national and at European level to reshape and make collective bargaining coordination strategies more effective. Therefore, it is necessary for the ETUC to closely monitor trends which are relevant to collective bargaining and wage development at any level, and to and intervene in a coherent and coordinated way especially in the contexts of derogation agreements, defensive agreements, opening clauses. The abovementioned project and the related sub-contracted research activity aim at deepening the knowledge of practice and functioning of such collective bargaining features, in order to properly manage the flexibility they entail.

Thus, the objective of the project is to analyze the phenomena linked to derogation and defensive agreements and opening clauses in order to better understand and manage their negotiation, implementation and monitoring procedures.

In the context of the project the ETUC asked the trade union research institute IRES Emilia-Romagna, located in Bologna (Italy) to carry out and coordinate case study research in France, Spain, Germany, Italy and a Nordic country. The research activity will be focused on the analysis of the negotiation and implementation of defensive and derogation agreements in the respective countries. Of particular interest will be the investigation of the role of worker involvement and participative structures and practices in place in the national industrial relation systems.