Strike! EPO staff to walk out this Thursday

Patent office employees not happy with dictatorial president

Staff at the European Patent Office (EPO) will strike this Thursday in protest at how the organization's management continues to treat its union officials.

All employees at the EPO's offices in Munich, The Hague, Berlin and Vienna will stage a one-day strike in protest of the patent office's targeting of staff that opposed reform efforts.

A vote to hold a strike was won overwhelmingly last month. But it was decided to delay the walkout in an effort to persuade the EPO's administrative council to rein in president Benoît Battistelli, and in particular disciplinary hearings he started against the three main leaders of the staff's union, SUEPO.

At the end of the council meeting, a proposal to demand Battistelli suspend the hearings until an independent review was carried out was watered down to "requests" that he "ensure that disciplinary sanctions and proceedings are not only fair but also seen to be so" and that he "consider" involvement of a third-party arbitrator.

Battistelli has done neither, and in a formal letter to him announcing the strike, the staff noted that "no essential progress has been made."

The president's reputation has taken a severe battering in the last year. He has reportedly stormed out of a number of meetings with high-ranking officials when they raised the "social situation" at the organization.

On top of the 91 per cent strike vote, Battistelli also received an extraordinary zero per cent confidence rating in a recent staff survey in which 40 per cent of EPO staff took part.

Battistelli did remove what was seen as the worst abuse of the president's unusually broad powers by cancelling a 20 per cent reduction that he imposed on the pension of one of the SUEPO representatives under review. But the disciplinary proceedings themselves continue and no third party has been brought in to arbitrate. SUEPO represents roughly 50 per cent of the EPO's workforce.

MoU? More like FU

Last month, the administrative council also pushed on management to sign an agreement with SUEPO that would acknowledge its legitimacy "with no pre-conditions," and create a framework for discussions to resolve a number of outstanding issues.

SUEPO remains unhappy with the memorandum of understanding (MoU) that the EPO management has put forward, however. Among their concerns is an effort by the EPO to cement its extra-judicial status by obliging SUEPO to be "bound by the legal framework applicable to the EPO."

Due to its unusual nature, the EPO is not obliged to follow the laws of the countries in which it resides, and Battistelli has used that fact to introduce rules that would be illegal otherwise, including restrictive strike conditions, rules around elections for staff representatives, and policies around sick leave, among other things.

If SUEPO signs the agreement as currently written, it would effectively sign up to the very rules that it is protesting and which led to EPO's management aggressively targeting the union leaders when they opposed the changes.

The agreement would also oblige EPO staff to follow rules that can be changed at any point by the EPO's management without requiring union approval – something that SUEPO says "amounts to signing a blank check."

Among other concerns, the MoU also does not deal with what would happen if it was not possible for the union and management to reach agreement. Typically in such contracts there is an agreement to use an independent arbitrator to resolve disputes.

SUEPO also claims that the EPO's management disregarded its counter proposal, which it says was built on European best practice guidelines, "without any further discussion."

It concludes: "With additionally three SUEPO officials sanctioned in Munich and three more expecting the same in The Hague, it is not clear how union recognition talks can be taken up again. Under the circumstances agreement seems a long way away."

Battistelli is obliged to provide an update to his administrative council at its next meeting in June. If he is unable to show progress, it is expected that the council will take a firmer hand. ®

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