Strike! European Patent Office staff vote in their thousands for walkout

Is this the final death knell for president Benoît Battistelli?


Staff at the European Patent Office (EPO) have voted overwhelmingly to strike for a third time in a direct challenge to EPO president Benoît Battistelli.

Over 91 per cent of the 4,062 employees who voted on Tuesday were in favor of the strike, which was called in large part to protest continued disciplinary hearings against three leaders of the organization's main union, SUEPO.

The timing is significant. The EPO's Administrative Council – which is made up of 38 country representatives – is due to meet in Munich next week and one of the items on its agenda is the president's handling of a breakdown in communications between his team and the staff union, which represents roughly half of all EPO employees.

Under the rules, SUEPO is obliged to give the president five working days' notice prior to going on strike. The vote was therefore timed to coincide with the quarterly Administrative Council meeting. Representatives are now likely to be met with picketing staff when they arrive.

Battistelli is already on thin ice despite having two years left of his second four-year term. Last month, a report from the Administrative Council's board to the full council was leaked and demonstrated clear frustration with Battistelli.

One part of that report noted: "Unfortunately, we have not been able to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the president." It also highlighted that he had refused to accept the board's "request" that the disciplinary hearings be stopped until an external review had been carried out.

Battistelli reportedly also questioned the board's legal right to even make such a request, which led them to formally propose an edited version to the full council for review. The council has the ability to censure or even fire the EPO president.

Spiral

At the heart of the issue is an effort by Battistelli and his executive team to modernize work practices at the EPO by ending things like fixed wage rises and promotions tied to seniority rather than performance.

When the union resisted such changes, however, things rapidly spiraled out of control. Battistelli's management found itself the target of personal and anonymous attacks, as well as occasional leaks of confidential information, such as an embarrassing sweetheart deal with Microsoft to fast-track its patent applications.

In response, SUEPO complained about intimidation of its representatives through internal probes involving hidden cameras, computer key-loggers and a special "investigative unit." A number of staff suicides, which the union suggested were connected to investigations, further heightened tensions.

When staff threatened to strike, Battistelli restricted their rights to do so, which led to actual strikes that then drew media attention to the problems.

Hard of hearing

The focal point for anger, however, had been Battistelli's decision to run disciplinary proceedings against SUEPO's three main representatives. For many – including the council's board – that was a step too far. But Battistelli has refused to back down, and that may mark the death knell of his tumultuous second term.

Last week, the executive team attempted a last-minute face-saving exercise of signing a memorandum of understanding with the EPO's other staff union as a way of demonstrating progress. But that union represents a fraction of EPO staff and only covers its satellite office, rather than the main Munich headquarters.

It remains to be seen whether Battistelli will be able to persuade the council not to take action against him next week. That already-difficult task is going to be made a whole lot harder, however, by the sight of half the organization's staff walking out the building in protest against his rule. ®

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