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ISSUE 49 page 6

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Poland to tighten union recognition rules in divided workplaces

The Polish government intends to amend the rules on trade union representation in the workplace. They feel that employers are handicapped in negotiations where there are many unions and none takes precedence. The main national confederations of labour are generally in favour of some change but are wary of the specific proposals.

After the fall of Communism in eastern Europe the demise of centralised, government-controlled trade unions led to a precipitant fall in membership. Since then there has been some recovery as workers in multinationals, new to the country, have got organised. This has often resulted in companies with a large number of unions, each representing a small percentage of the workforce. Strikes at Tesco in Poland in 2008 displayed this kind of fragmentation among union members. Now the government wants to change the rules to improve collective bargaining as they believe employers find it difficult to negotiate where unions are disunited and unable to take decisions. At present there is a threshold of 10% membership to obtain recognition and some firms with as many as ten competing trade union branches. Polish ministers, influenced by laws in the USA which allow bargaining only with unions having signed up 50% of the workforce, are proposing that 33% be the limit, although if no organisation reached that threshold the largest union would still be able to bargain.
The government claims that its aim is not to diminish trade union influence but to make them more representative; however it also wants to address reps.’ protection against dismissal which it regards as applying too widely where there are numerous unions in a company. While there is support for raising the threshold in the national confederations, trade unions think that 33% would be excessive in a country where only 15% of employees are members of unions. The fate of the proposed reform may rest in the hands of Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, who must approve it and has shown support for trade union positions in the past.

    This feature is largely based on an article in European Employment Review


Recent rulings from the European Court of Justice
German dentists must retire at 68, new firefighters be under 30

We have covered in previous issues various court decisions on the vexed question of compulsory retirement ages. The UK government seems to have got around the EU directive on equal treatment in employment by allowing employers to compel workers to retire at 65 if requests to carry on past this age are considered (see issue 44). Now Germany has also found some loopholes.A Ms. Petersen had protested the decision to retire her at 68, as demanded by the country’s NHS, as age discrimination, outlawed by the directive. The German government argued that this rule was to protect public health and thus an exemption in the EU law. Although the ECJ rejected this it pointed to two more grounds for legitimate discrimination: the need to maintain financial stability in the public health system and to share out jobs among the generations. A related case from the same country concerned the fire service in Frankfurt. A Mr Wolf objected to being turned down for a job there on the grounds that he was over 30. The authorities submitted that the physical nature of a firefighter’s work meant that employees older than 45 had to be assigned less demanding duties. If too many older workers were recruited the capacity of the service to carry out its activities would be reduced. The court decided that it was an ‘occupational requirement’ to have ‘especially high physical capacities’ and that the under-30 rule was ‘proportionate’ in trying to meet that requirement. This again was an alllowable discrimination under the directive.


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