Worker involvement undeniably mirrors the Lisbon goals at the micro-level constituted by the workplace, making workers into citizens at their workplaces. Worker involvement serves, at the same time, two major objectives: to make social rights effective in order to strengthen democracy and social understanding, and to support companies in achieving economic competitiveness. More than 14,000 members of European Works Councils or works councils in European Companies (SE), supported by their trade unions, have adopted a pro-active role in this regard, particularly in relation to the need to resist and tackle economic crisis without excessive social damage.

The social right to information and consultation – at the very least – for workers in their workplaces can be seen to wind like a red thread through the history of the European Union. Article 27 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, assuming it becomes enshrined in the new EU Treaty, will make this right binding and subject to recourse in law. It links up with provisions on information, consultation and also participation in management decision-making at board level that currently exist in many EU member states. At the very least, the three directives concerned with European Works Councils (EWC), worker involvement in the European Company (SE) / European Cooperative Society, and information and consultation standards (I+C), express the political will to implement these fundamental rights appropriately and in full throughout Europe.

Although, in general terms, the Lisbon Strategy sets out to take effective measures to balance economic performance, social aspects, and sustainability in order to withstand global competition, it is surprising that no explicit consideration is given to proactive worker involvement as one of the drivers for achieving the much emphasised Lisbon Strategy objectives of making Europe an attractive place to invest and to work. For it is precisely the priority accorded to well qualified and committed workforces in the framework of stable social security systems as a vehicle of competitiveness that makes Europe different from other economic areas in the world.

A look at the Communication from the EU Commission on the Lisbon Strategy on the occasion of the 2008 Spring Council (European Commission 2007) serves to highlight this connection. The Communication once again stresses the importance of the workforce by focussing on the adaptability of workers and enterprises, or the capacity to introduce modern forms of work organisation or a workplace environment that will facilitate innovation. And yet no reference is found to the self-enforcing power to realize these demanding goals at the micro level of companies and workplaces.

Could it be that this aspect has been simply forgotten by the policymakers? More than a decade ago the so-called Davignon report provided arguments for the usefulness of worker participation by stressing its importance for the achievement of economic goals: ‘The type of labour needed by European companies – skilled, mobile, committed, responsible, and capable of using technical innovations and of identifying with the objective of increasing competitiveness and quality – cannot be expected simply to obey the employers’ instructions. Workers must be closely and permanently involved in decision-making at all levels of the company’ (European Commission 1997).

Sometimes it seems that these findings are no longer regarded as valid or relevant, that, on the contrary, they are increasingly perceived as mere remnants of times past and never to return. However, the failure of the liberal model of organising economies, as it is apparent today, restores purpose to the appeal for mechanisms able to achieve social cohesion and integration of economy into society.

One of the lessons from the current crisis relates to a significant loss of trust in the relationships between economic actors like banks, financial institutions, managers, and also certain governmental institutions. Approaching the end of the ten-year period for which the Lisbon Strategy was constructed, many of the political promises have not yet been realised.

It is therefore high time to revitalise the forces for effective and collective self-activation in order to seek perspectives for the time beyond crisis. Worker participation represents a ‘forgotten resource’ in this regard as constituted by worker involvement in a broader sense and based on institutional settings provided by European legislation.

Institutions for worker involvement have long represented a valuable contribution to the stability of labour relations in circumstances of fundamental industrial change. Furthermore, involving employees has had a positive effect on much-needed innovative developments at the workplaces. It is disappointing, in this regard, to see that not much use has been made of the opportunities created by the European legal framework in this field:

  • Surprising as this might seem, in none of the EU member states was there any use made of the opportunity created by the EU Information and Consultation Directive to improve its domestic legislation on worker representation, in particular by means of strengthening interest representation in small and medium-sized companies below 50 employees, considered to be the drivers of a successfully working economy in Europe.
  • Although EWCs seem to be a beneficial complement of labour relations at transnational level, the recast of the EWC Directive falls short of expectations in terms of the provision of tools for evolution towards more efficient additional instruments introduced by agreement between management and labour.
  • Although worker involvement in the SE has actually developed into a relative success story by adding participation at board level as an important dimension for workers’ voice in company decision-making, we are currently witnessing a political debate on a statute for a ‘European Private Company’, in which, under the pretext of adapting to ‘specific needs of SMEs’, an attempt is being made to de facto lower legal standards of worker involvement.

What Europe needs today is legislation to support improvements to the institutions that legitimise company decisions, creating trust within the company but also between company and society, since companies do not stand outside the society. There are strong arguments in favour of a change of direction: as the European Participation Index (EPI) shows, some EU member states – regarded as having in place stronger worker participation systems than others – have gained a lot from such mechanisms, particularly, in relation to the effort to achieve the Lisbon objectives. In this perspective, EU directives providing for workers’ involvement on the transnational level complement national provisions, and, altogether, represent a legally guaranteed space for worker involvement that can be used, in practice, to build up a European social model from the bottom to the top – and not the other way round.