While European Union (EU) leaders were signing the neoliberal European Treaty last week, the fight over whether the right to make a profit is more fundamental than the rights of workers was continuing in the European courts.
Trade unions may take action to stop a company from moving its business to another EU country if the aim of the union’s action is to protect workers, the EU’s top court said.
During the hearings for the case, the British government had argued that strike action is not a fundamental right.
Britain was the only state to argue that strikes and picketing aren’t rights.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) reviewed the case of trade unions preventing the Finnish shipping company Viking from replacing a local crew on a loss-making ferry with cheaper Estonian workers.
Viking wanted to do so by reflagging the ship, the Rosella, in Estonia.
The court said unions were allowed to take collective action if jobs and work conditions were under threat.
The ECJ decided it was up to the national courts to decide whether jobs were likely to be affected.
But it also said that collective action would be illegal if it restricted the EU’s freedom of establishment, which guarantees a company’s right to carry out economic activity in other member states.
The Viking dispute was a test case on “social dumping” – the transfer of jobs from one country to other EU countries. But the ruling essentially fudges the issue.
David Cockroft, general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, which spearheaded the Viking dispute, said, “We welcome the court’s assertion that the right to take collective action, including the right to strike, is a fundamental right which forms an integral part of the general principles of European community law.” But he added, “The devil’s in the detail.”
The ruling could be used by employers to attempt to impose lower wages across the EU on the basis that any action, “restricts the right of freedom of establishment”.
The court will rule this week on a similar case, in which local unions prevented a Latvian construction firm from fulfilling a contract in Sweden because it would not sign a Swedish wage deal.
Unsurprisingly, the British government has actively taken the side of the Latvian bosses in the case.