The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) was set up in 1973 to promote the interests of working people at European level and to represent them in the EU institutions. The process of European integration, with the euro, the European Constitution, and the growing impact of EU legislation on daily life, has changed the setting in which trade unions operate. To defend and bargain for their members effectively at national level, they must coordinate activities and policies across Europe. To influence the economy and society at large, they need to speak with a single voice and act collectively at European level. This is the challenge that the European Trade Union Confederation has taken up.The ETUC’s objective is an EU with a strong social dimension that safeguards the wellbeing of all its citizens. Committed to building a unified European trade union movement, it already had a large number of new trade union affiliates in Central and Eastern Europe before EU enlargement in May 2004.

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The European Trade Union Confederation was founded in 1973, it now represents 90 trade union organisations in 39 European countries, plus 10 European Trade Union Federations.

The role of the European Union (EU) has gradually increased in the areas of greatest importance to workers. With that in mind, Europe's trade unions decided to unite and speak with a single voice with the aim of influencing the EU decision-making process. The need to work together has been even more pronounced since the economic and financial crisis broke out in 2008.

Speaking with a Single Voice to build a Social Europe

The ETUC aims to make Social Europe a key priority in European policy. The ETUC is working for a Europe with a strong social dimension, which focuses on workers' interests and well-being. It promotes the European social model that enabled Europe to become a prosperous, competitive region.

Prioritising High-Quality jobs and a Stronger European Social Model

The areas in which the ETUC works are crucial for workers in the EU and further afield. The ETUC defends fundamental social values such as solidarity, equality and cohesion.

This includes:

  • the right to high-quality jobs
  • the right to a high level of social protection
  • gender equality
  • equal opportunities for all
  • social cohesion and inclusion
  • the right to health and safety at work
  • the right to freedom of movement for European workers, coupled with equal treatment and social protection
  • the right to public services of general interest that are accessible to all
  • European standards to harmonise national social legislation upwards
  • proactive policies to overcome challenges linked to climate change
  • promotion of the principles of the European social model to other parts of the world

The last ETUC Congress in Athens adopted a manifesto that sets a number of priorities to help Europe emerge from the crisis stronger than ever. In the manifesto, the ETUC expresses its concern about the deteriorating economic and social situation, which has been exacerbated by bailouts of struggling economies and austerity measures. The Athens Manifesto calls on European decision-makers to change their approach without delay to avoid further jeopardising people and countries.

The ETUC has been continued to evolve constantly since its creation in 1973 and now comprises 90 national trade union confederations in 39 countries, plus 10 European trade union federations.

A Democratic Organisation

The ETUC defines its policies completely independently through its Congress and Executive Committee.

The role of the Congress is to determine the organisation's general policy. The Congress convenes every four years and meetings are attended by delegates from national confederations and European trade union federations. It elects the members of the Executive Committee, the President, the General Secretary, the two Deputy General Secretaries and the four Confederal Secretaries. The last Congress took place in Athens in May 2011, against the backdrop of an extremely severe economic and financial crisis. In the manifesto adopted at the Athens Congress, the ETUC restated its opposition to austerity measures, called for an urgent change in approach and put forward a number of proposals.

The Executive Committee is made up of representatives of the ETUC's member organisations, the number of which is proportional to the number of their members. It meets four times a year and can adopt joint positions and agree on actions to take in support of its demands. If necessary, decisions may be taken by a qualified majority of two-thirds of the votes. The Executive Committee also has the power to decide on the mandate and composition of the delegations that negotiate with the European employers' organisations.

The Steering Committee decides on measures for implementing the policies adopted by the Executive Committee. It meets eight times a year.

The Secretariat manages the ETUC's day-to-day activities. It is responsible for relations with the European institutions and employers' organisations. It suggests and plans European trade union actions and is in charge of the ETUC's internal operations.

Rising worker mobility, economic interdependence and climatic and energy developments have radically transformed the context in which trade unions work. The countries of Europe are all facing similar problems and challenges, which is why there is a real need for collective European action. Such joint activities are vital if Europe is to overcome the challenges it faces. The ETUC can take action in a number of ways with a view to influencing discussions and decisions: it can apply political pressure, conduct social dialogue or organise large-scale demonstrations.

Influencing European Decision-making

The ETUC has an impact on EU legislation and policies through its work with the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament.

European Council: since 2001, the ETUC has taken part in the Tripartite Social Summit. This summit brings together the European social partners, Heads of State and Government from the current and two incoming EU Presidencies and the Commission. This is an opportunity for the trade unions to make their voice heard at the highest level of EU decision-making. The ETUC also holds regular meetings with the Council's members.

European Commission: under the EC Treaty, the Commission must consult the European social partners on all proposals regarding employment and social policy in the EU.

European Parliament: the ETUC liaises with MEPs across the political spectrum, specifically through the cross-party Trade Union Intergroup. The Parliament's powers are increasing, so it is crucial that the ETUC makes it aware of the trade unions' point of view and influences the European legislative process.

The ETUC also coordinates trade union involvement in a number of consultative bodies, such as the European Economic and Social Committee.

European Court of Justice: the ETUC is increasingly interested in the judgments handed down by this EU body, particularly when these relate to workers' mobility and respect for workers' fundamental rights.

Representing Workers within the Framework of European Social Dialogue

European social dialogue brings together representatives from the trade unions and the employers' organisations and covers discussions, negotiations and joint actions by the European social partners. European social dialogue is enshrined in the Treaty and is a fundamental component of the European social model.

There is dialogue between the social partners at both sectoral and cross-sectoral level. The participants in cross-sectoral dialogue – that is, the ETUC, BUSINESSEUROPE (private-sector employers), UEAPME (small and medium-sized enterprises) and CEEP (public-sector employers) – have signed a number of Framework Agreements over the years on:

  • Parental leave (1996), revised in 2009
  • Part-time work (1997)
  • Fixed-term work (1999)

These agreements were ratified by the Council of Ministers and are now part of EU legislation. The social partners went on to conclude new-generation, 'autonomous' initiative agreements, which the social partners themselves are responsible for implementing at national, sectoral and company level:

  • Telework (2002)
  • Work-related stress (2004)
  • Harassment and violence at work (2007)
  • Inclusive labour markets (2010)

They have also adopted Frameworks of Action, such as those on lifelong learning (2002) and gender equality (2005). In March 2012, the social partners adopted their fourth Work Programme (2012-2014), which features youth and employment among its top priorities. Social dialogue is also conducted in the various industrial sectors and is coordinated on the trade union side by the European trade union federations. Among others, the sectoral social dialogue committees deal with issues linked to training, working time and conditions, health and safety, and free movement of workers, to name but a few.

Organising Large-scale European Demonstrations

With a view to giving its actions more clout, the ETUC also mobilises its members by organising European demonstrations and campaigns. European demonstrations bring the European trade union movement into the spotlight and help boost its visibility.

  • Telework (2002)
  • Work-related stress (2004)
  • Harassment and violence at work (2007)
  • Inclusive labour markets (2010)