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  • Photo du rédacteurJean-Pol Roulleau

In Europe, are the workers representatives elected or appointed?

Election by employees or nomination by the union? The implementation of employee representation in the enterprises shows a very large diversity from country to country in Europe. Each country responds differently and no trend is dominant.

[Traduction FR]

What is the real source of legitimacy for a certain type of representation to be recognized in an enterprise? Is it the election by the wage-earners of an “enterprise committee” or the designation of a delegate by the union? Each country has its own response and no trend prevails. This is another difficulty of the European social relations. Especially that another problem underlies this question: what is the role of the representation: to contribute to the smooth functioning of the enterprise by helping to resolve difficulties that may occur, or to play the role of a critic, a challenger, and denounce the errors of management? Is the wage-earners representation recognized as a partner with true rights, or does it play the role of critical opposition?

Single or double channel

There are two situations in Europe:

- The single channel. The union is the only authorized representative of the wage-earners. This is the case of Estonia, Ireland, Lettonia, Lituania, Malta, Poland, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and Sweden.

- The double channel with the coexistence within the enterprise of a union representation and a form of representation elected by the wage-earners. It is the case in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

However, in both cases, the situation is evolving.

On one hand, in the “single channel” countries, elected committees appear. It is the case in Great Britain, but only on a voluntary basis. On the contrary, in Hungary, a law adopted in 1992 theoretically requires the establishment of such committees, but the law is not being quickly enforced. In the Czech Republic, if there is no union in the enterprise, these committees may be formed. They have a right of information, consultation, and eventually negotiation.

On the other hand, in the “double channel” countries, the role and functions given to the union in the enterprise can differ greatly, from simple tolerance in Germany to the exclusive recognition of the right to conclude agreements in France.

Finally, the transposition of the guidance for the information vs. consultation risks also modifying the picture.

Closely related logic: Great Britain and Sweden

- Great Britain remains faithful to its liberal tradition [in the European, 19th century sense]. The unions are the only representatives of the wage-earners interests. It is up to them, by their weight, to impose themselves to the employer as interlocutors. Tony Blair’s government has recently defined the procedures for the recognition of a union in an enterprise. The members of the union elect their representatives, the “shop stewards” usually at the level of the workshop or of a department. Together the shop stewards may constitute a committee which has the right to negotiate once the union is recognized.

In other respects, in some enterprises, management has sometimes instituted committees which bring to mind our [French] enterprises committees. From one enterprise to another, their composition, their form, their role varies since they are, up to now, voluntary initiatives.

- Sweden, due to its particularly unionization,, chose to recognize the exclusive representation of the wage-earners through their unions, under various forms: union representatives, delegates for security and working conditions. Since the law of January 1st 1977, complemented by the April 1982, the employer, before any important decision, must consult the union representatives and negotiate with them the modalities of his project. Few enterprises have conserved an enterprise council where questions of common interest are discussed. These steps conform to the negotiation decentralization, previously realized at the branch level and from now on returning to the enterprise level, but always through the union channel.

The German system

Germany‘s system is the opposite. It follows very precise rules, defined by various laws, updated in 1972 and 1976. These regulations are perfectly accepted and integrated by all parties involved: by the enterprise, the employees, and the unions.

The enterprise council (Betriebsrat) has a monopoly for the employees’ representation. This council, where the directors are excluded, elects its own president amongst its members, and represents an essential gear of the industrial democracy. It is part of the congestion. It is the partner recognized by management as the unique voice of the wage-earners. These councils should exist in all enterprises with more than 5 persons. Elected for 4 years, they are totally independent. They don’t receive any imperative mandate from the employees or from the union. They cannot be dissolved; their elected members are permanent with a number dependent on the size of the enterprise.

Two complementary and specialized structures complete the council:.

“The delegation of young workers and apprentices” composed of young workers, elected by wage-earners younger than 24, to represent the interests of this age group within the enterprise council. One of these delegates may attend the regular meetings. All the “young delegates” attend when the council discusses a question that concerns them.

“The economic council” for enterprises of more than 100 persons. It includes members that are non-elected but nominated by the council. In contrast with the enterprise council, the employer may participate in these meetings.

There are also what is called “men of trust”. Designated by the union, they have no representation role with the employer. They are in fact relays between union and wage-earners.

- The German system has inspired the system implemented in Hungary. However, the enterprise committee’s rights introduced by the 1912 “Code du Travail” are much less important than those of the German Betriebsrat.

- Austria’s system of representation is almost similar. The law of 1974 defines the functions of the enterprise council, with two distinct entities: a blue-collar council and a white-collar one. These two groups may elect a common council if 2/3 of the members want it.

Primacy of the Union

The mixed representation recognizes a certain primacy of the union structure, except in Germany. In almost all these countries (Belgium, Luxemburg, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal), it is the unions who establish the lists of candidates for the enterprise councils. France created a two-round process. For the first round, only the recognized unions may establish and present lists. If these lists don’t receive a quorum, the wage-earners may then form “free lists” for a second round. In spite of these dissuasive steps, the non-union lists are now getting almost one third of the enterprise council positions. Italy, since 1993, has also established an original system of representation. It tries to reconcile both sources of legitimacy. Two third of the positions are elected by the wage-earners on union lists, and the last third is filled equally by the three unions.


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