As my children have grown and traveled and lived in other countries, I’ve come to realize how truly unfortunate American hubris is–how our belief in “American exceptionalism” and assumed superiority prevents us from learning from the experiences and experiments of other nations.
In several previous posts, I have mentioned that my “techie” son currently lives and works in Amsterdam. Thanks to contemporary technologies like FaceTime, which have replaced those expensive “long distance” phone calls, we talk often. And because we’re a pretty political (okay, nerdy) family, those talks often turn to matters of political philosophy or public policy. I don’t recall what triggered our recent particular discussion of workers’ rights, but my son shared with me information about Netherlands’ work councils.
Any company that employs at least 50 workers is required to establish a Worker Council.
Companies employing between ten and fifty individuals must do so if a majority of employees request it. (If those employees don’t request establishment of such a council, there are requirements for holding staff meetings at which employees are entitled to “prior consultation” about proposed changes.) Companies with fewer than ten employees aren’t subject to these requirements.
Work Councils aren’t unions. They are a legal requirement for businesses in the country, charged with promoting and protecting employee interests. Such councils must be consulted before the owners or managers of a company can implement major decisions affecting workers. Councils are empowered to consent–or withhold consent–to changes that affect workers’ “terms of employment.”
Company managers must meet with their Works Council at least twice a year, and there are requirements for worker representation on those councils.
Evidently, work councils aren’t simply a feature of Netherlands’ governance– multinational enterprises operating in at least 2 countries in the European Economic Area (EEA) come under the jurisdiction of something called “the European Works Council Directive (EWC).”
Companies required to establish these councils are further required to give members of those councils time off to do work required by that membership, and are legally required to provide those individuals with leave for the necessary training. Employers are also required to pay all the costs of such training.
The law requires that works councils be informed and consulted about economic issues, but gives the councils the right to approve or disapprove changes on social issues. I’m not clear on how “social issues” are defined. And I’m definitely not clear on the relationship of the councils to labor unions: in the regulations my son shared with me, it says:
Works councils are not directly trade union bodies although most have a majority of trade union members. It is, however, very common to find that some of the works council members are not in a union and in some cases trade unionists are in a minority, or even not present at all.
I asked for links to the information because–during our conversation–my son had explained that his company had proposed some fairly significant changes to vacation time and other elements of employment, but the Worker Council had required changes to the changes. Evidently, after some back and forth, agreement was reached–and presumably, all parties were satisfied.
I was fascinated.
Here in the U.S., diminished union membership has translated into much diminished worker power. Rather than labor and management bargaining from roughly equivalent positions, economic change and loss of worker power has given management a highly disproportionate ability to “call the shots.” The existence of these Worker Councils suggests that, in the Netherlands and in the European Union, there is genuine concern for the well-being of employees, and for the maintenance of a reasonable balance of power between labor and management.
I certainly don’t know enough about Europe’s experience with these councils to have an informed opinion about their performance, but I wouldn’t even have known of their existence but for a conversation with someone–in this case, my son–who benefited from their operation.
I wonder how many other potentially good ideas we Americans miss because we are so convinced that “we’re number one,” and others have nothing to teach us….