On career unionism and the fallacy of irreplaceability (long read)

To start with, lets clear the air and get this out in the open: the discussions between the administration and the staff (‘social dialogue (SD)’) via the elected representatives (‘staff representation (SR)’)  and the trade unions and professional staff associations (OSPs), are necessary. As DG Human Resources and Security (DG HR) puts it on the Staff Matters website, the social dialogue:

ensur[es] the permanence, the independence, and the competence of the European civil service. This dialogue impacts on the staff policy and plays an important role in the human resources management in the Commission.

Despite the dysfunctional way this dialogue has been conducted for many years, Generation 2004 still believes in it and, since its foundation, has been actively and proactively engaging in discussions to reform and improve its functioning.

There is, however, one thing we really are strongly against and must speak up about. This is the way many of those who spend almost their whole career seconded to the social dialogue, the ‘career unionists’ have been abusing the secondments to the SR and the OSPs.

But you may rightly ask, what are these secondments exactly?

To allow the SR and the OSPs to conduct their work in the interest of the institution, the Commission grants the SR and the OSPs 41 full-time equivalent (FTE) secondments across the Commission, these can be used as a 25%, 50% or 100% dedication of working time to the social dialogue. These are granted in two separate buckets:

  • a larger bucket is assigned to the SR – the so-called statutory secondments (See Article 5 Paragraph 5 and Subparagraph 5.1), which are reserved for members of staff elected to the Staff Committee, and
  • a smaller bucket reserved for the so-called union secondments (FR, See Article 30). These allow OSPs to offer a secondment to any member of staff that any given OSP considers could help them with their work, even if not elected to the Staff Committee.

These secondments are distributed proportionally according to the result of the vote obtained by each OSP at the Staff Committee elections (not by the number of seats obtained as the election rules vary per site: some sites are less representative than others).

For many, many years there was no regulation on how long the statutory secondments could last. This in turn led to a situation of extreme cases where someone could (and was) seconded for over 30 years! Yes, you read well: THIRTY years (30)!!! As you can easily deduct such a person almost never did any work in the Commission services. This is more the exception, but several cases do exist where someone was seconded to the SR and/or the OSPs for over TWENTY years (20). Twenty years of distance from the reality of Commission work and colleagues’ real challenges. To add insult to injury, most of these persons are at the top of their administrator (AD) function group careers and have already benefited from several career extensions to enable them to continue working beyond their mandatory age of retirement! (For colleagues recruited pre-2004 this is 65, for those recruited post 2014 it is 66 years.) This is a situation of pure abuse with the full knowledge and participation of the administration. To this, Generation 2004 can only react by re-asking: how could we ever come to this?

But let us rewind to about 10 years ago when Kristalina Georgieva, the then Member of the European Commission in charge of the administration, spotted this abuse and decided to act on it. At the time a rule was introduced to limit the length of statutory secondments to 6 years. In our view the rule was welcome but is not perfect; it was introduced in parallel, and independently from the pre-existing rule limiting union secondment, and each of the two rules stipulates that no one can be seconded more than 6 years within a 10-year rolling period. The flaw in this system of limitation is that it allows anyone ending a union or statutory secondment to switch to the other type.

But it is not that simple. If a given OSP (for example our dearest Jurassic Trade Union) has already distributed all its union secondments and its T-Rex leader is nearing the 6 year limit for a statutory secondment then that T-Rex will have to kick out one of his Jurassic trade union buddies with a union secondment to be able to switch from statutory secondment to a union secondment and so continue with an eternally seconded career, even if T-Rex has no other elected member of staff to take up the just-freed-up statutory secondment. For smaller OSPs though, there is still yet another issue: since there are fewer union secondments than statutory secondments available, it may even be that the Jurassic Trade Union may not even have a full-time (100%) union secondment available to offer the T-Rex leader, leaving a very awkward situation: does this big OSP remove a secondment from someone less ‘valuable’ or haggle/pressure another (smaller) OSP to give up the goods?

In late 2017, and just a few months before the end of the first 6-year period under this rule, DG HR announced its intention to enforce this new rule on 16 May 2018. Upon the announcement, hell broke loose in the realm of the clearly unprepared OSPs. T-Rex and buddies were up in arms. They claimed this would be the end of the staff representation! Unfortunately, Günther Oettinger, the then Member of the Commission in charge of administrative affairs, agreed to suspend the rule for six months (until 15 November 2018) (FR, see Page 4 Point 4), but in exchange demanded a reform of the functioning of the social dialogue.

By January 2018, Generation 2004 – the only OSP that would not be immediately affected by the enforcement of the 6-year rule – was the first OSP to produce a concrete proposal on how to go about this reform.

The organisation of the work of the social dialogue on the reform of the social dialogue itself, was, as usual, organised by DG HR. But there was no rush to change the status quo and, by the end of the 6-month suspension there was nothing to show and a second 6-month suspension was gracefully granted, until 15 May 2019 (FR, See Page 3 Point 5). By the end of the second 6-month suspension there was again little progress to show. At this point, with the excuse of the end of the Juncker Commission and the uncertainty of a new Commission settling in, yet another decision to extend the suspension of the enforcement of the 6-year rule was taken (FR, See Page 3 Point 6). This time this was done for a staggering period of 2 more years (until 15 May 2021). In parallel, DG HR stopped organizing the social dialogue reform meetings and the reform plans seems to have been canned.

As you may have wisely noticed, the date of the end of the third suspension: 15 May 2021, is in the past and all career unionists should be either switching to union secondments or going back to their services. Indeed, it was with pleasure that – on 19 May 2021 – we received a note from Ms Ingestad, the Director General for Human Resources, informing the president of the Central Staff Committee and all the Chairs of the OSPs that the suspension was not renewed.

Instead of accepting that the limit for the abuse has been reached and quietly sticking their tails between their legs and leaving the room, some OSPs are yet again in turmoil and an urgent written procedure on the matter was launched by the Central Staff Committee (CSC) (FR). Without the support of Generation 2004, on 7 June 2021 this procedure approved a note to be sent to DG HR with a request for the Commission to help the career unionists in their “ordeal” of going back to their DGs and work for their services. The procedure was approved by a vast majority (25 votes for, 8 against (all from Generation 2004) and 3 abstentions). After such an extended period of secondment, the prospect  of returning to services might indeed feel daunting, and serious support should indeed be offered to the colleagues concerned. After all, the work of a staff representative can sometimes be quite confrontational towards the administration, and extra care must be placed in the post-secondment careers of staff seconded to the OSPs and the Staff Committee.

However, the reasoning and argumentation offered in that note leads Generation 2004 to believe that the request for a social dialogue meeting to discuss the matter is just a veiled attempt to, behind closed doors, beg for yet another suspension to grant career unionists ‘more time’ to prepare their return to the Commission services; another delayed return that, at its end, would surely bring another show of utter surprise and indignation by these OSPs … A never-ending story!

The range of arguments in the text of the note are diverse. Here they are with our view inside brackets on how the sentences should be completed:

  1. this major change wasn’t discussed (er … except for the last 9 years),
  2. no social dialogue on the matter was organised (that we could be bothered about),
  3. the decision goes against the principle of legitimate trust (that we have ourselves been breaking for decades),
  4. the decision was taken in an abrupt way (… albeit expected since 2011),
  5. it was taken without prior agreement (… that we didn’t bring up either, in the hope that it would go unnoticed),
  6. there are no rules to help colleagues reintegrate in Commission services (… that we are or want to be aware of),
  7. the decision does not value the job of the staff representatives that is so specific (and that makes those of us with experience irreplaceable…).

The Commission OSPs had nearly a decade to prepare for the first six points and have failed miserably at it. Should anyone be bothered about it? We think not!

The seventh point, however, is the one that matters most. It matters because it underlines the popular belief that some people are personally irreplaceable. This is a false premise that is easily dismantled with a close example:

Since its creation in 2012, Generation 2004 has had several chairs. In almost a decade we only had one case where a seconded colleague reached the 6-year limit of a, for the most of it, part-time (!) union secondment, and, for that reason, went back fully to the Commission services. We also have not yet had a single case where someone reached the limit on a statutory secondment. This is so because we have deeply embedded in our organisation’s culture and genes the need to respect the  6-year limit on secondments. This is so, irrespective of the type of secondment or of any Commission decisions to suspend the rule. At the end of this year, though, a couple of our seconded team members (including our current chair) will be reaching the six-year limit in their statutory secondments and, months in advance, they are already openly talking about the matter and preparing their return to the work of the Commission for the benefit of the European project.

All these changes and renewals have, however, not stopped us from becoming one of the major professional staff organisations in the Commission: we have been growing both in size and influence at each Local Staff Committee election that we have contested since our creation.

Every new person joining Generation 2004 at the staff representation brings in innovative ideas, new experiences, and, most importantly, an incredible amount of fresh energy into our organisation.

In short, at Generation 2004, we are firm believers that the only place full of irreplaceable people is the graveyard!

Against this backdrop, Generation 2004 calls on the Commission to finally stop the decades-long abuse and stick to its decision to end the practice of perpetual secondments to the staff representation.

As ever, please contact us if you have any questions or comments.

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