A European Commission report published here on Tuesday showed that structured dialogue between representatives of workers and employers could help the EU face the current economic crisis.
"High quality industrial relations are a key element in managing economic change and reducing its costs, helping workers and companies adapt to change while protecting them from transitory shocks," said the fifth biennial Industrial Relations in Europe Report.
The report provides an overview of relations between management and trade unions at different levels across Europe over the past two years, combining factual information and both quantitative and qualitative analyses of these relations.
"Good industrial relations produce positive economic and social results, both in periods of economic decline and growth," said Vladimir Spidla, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities.
"The EU's recovery plan and our growth and jobs strategy cannot be delivered without the involvement of the social partners," he said.
Working conditions, training, or active labor market policies could not be the sole responsibility of the state, nor be left entirely to market forces, Spidla said, adding that "social partners can play a key role in determining, explaining and implementing such policies."
The Industrial Relations Report shows that collective bargaining retains an important role in Europe, despite a moderate decline in trade union membership from 27.4 percent in 2000 to 25.6 percent in 2005.
In 2006, almost two thirds of European workers were covered by a collective agreement.
Membership of employers' organizations, which largely determines collective bargaining coverage, was stable, said the report.
However, there were marked differences between the 27 member states, it noted.
Membership of trade unions ranges from 8 percent to 80 percent and membership of employers' organizations from 20 to 100 percent.
While bargaining coverage is 68 percent in the 15 "old" EU member states, it is 43 percent in those countries that have joined the bloc since 2004, said the report.
Wage bargaining appeared to have had an impact on the gender pay gap, wage inequality and in-work poverty.
The empirical evidence suggests that, with all other variables constant, where trade union membership is 10 percent higher, wage inequality is around 2 percent lower.
An increase in collective bargaining coverage of 10 percent was associated with a reduction in in-work poverty of 0.5 percent, according to the report.
The Commission considers that social partner organizations themselves need to be strong and must build a relationship based on trust. That is why the EU has substantially increased the support to social partners through the European Social Fund, in particular in the new members that have joined the EU since 2004.
At European level, the report highlighted that social partners throughout Europe had not only demonstrated that their European federations could negotiate autonomous framework agreements at EU-level but that they could also put them into practice.
The European social partners agreed in 2006 on minimum rules for dealing with violence and harassment at work. They have also presented the results of how previous agreements on telework and work-related stress were implemented.
EU-wide social dialogue at sectoral level has been extended to contract catering and professional football.