New EU charter toughens 'right to strike'

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The Independent Online

Europe's new charter of citizens rights has been toughened to enshrine the explicit right to strike and union consultation "at all levels", on key decisions affecting workers.

Europe's new charter of citizens rights has been toughened to enshrine the explicit right to strike and union consultation "at all levels", on key decisions affecting workers.

A new draft of the document ahead of next month's summit of EU leaders in Biarritz was causing a bitter row last night between employers and unions.

The latest version of the Charter of Fundamental Rights was welcomed by trade unions, but its emphasis on workers' entitlements flies in the face of opposition from the British Government, which has sought to minimise social and economic rights.

The Confederation of British Industry also said the charter could lead to cross-border strikes between EU states and secondary industrial action. It could also call a halt to the liberalisation of European economies.

The division between employers and unions presents Tony Blair with a stark political dilemma, ahead of the first debate over the document by EU leaders. Mr Blair may even refuse to sign the charter at a later summit in December, angering unions and risking alienating old Labour supporters.

Earlier this year, Mr Blair and other more sceptical EU prime ministers insisted that the charter of fundamental rights should not be legally-binding. However, some believe the document will be referred to in legal judgments from the European Court of Justice, gaining a quasi-legal status, or form the basis of a future European constitution.

The latest draft, produced by a convention of European politicians and government representatives, is expected to be approved next week as the basis of the text which goes to Biarritz.

Far from being watered down, as the Government hoped, the text has been strengthened. Added to the new version is a stipulation that workers or their representatives must "at all levels" be guaranteed information and consultation in good time on matters which concern them".

That is an embarrassment for the Government, which is opposing plans for a European directive which would extend the right of information and consultation throughout the EU.

Earlier drafts had stated that workers should have the right to take "collective action to defend their interests", but the latest document adds the words "including strike action" and that this must apply "at all levels".

British officials point out that both clauses give the Government some form of get-out by adding that entitlements are "in accordance with Community law and national laws and practices". They argue that drafting will continue and that the finished product will not create new rights or be in conflict with the law in any member state.

A spokesman for the European Trade Union Confederation said the draft was "moving in the right direction". Giampiero Alhadeff, secretary general of Solidar, an umbrella group of unions and non-governmental organisations, said the charter had been "pulled back from the brink".

But the CBI's deputy director general, John Cridland, described the latest draft as "even worse" in some areas and claimed it will "create confusion and ambiguity for employers".

In a statement, the CBI said the rights to strike "would raise the possibility of cross-border industrial action when secondary strike action has been illegal in the UK since the 80s".

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