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European Patent Office extends olive branch to furious trade unions

Determined efforts underway to defuse ticking timebomb

In an effort to defuse increasing tensions at the European Patent Office (EPO), trade unions will for the first time be given legal status at the organization.

The move is an olive branch after years of infighting at the intergovernmental organization, and comes after a letter from the Board of the EPO's Administrative Council to the full council of 38 country delegates was leaked.

"Unfortunately, we have not been able to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the president," the Board noted before attaching a draft "request" that effectively censured EPO president Benoît Battistelli for his staff's aggressive actions against trade union representatives.

That request lambasted the executive team for failing to reach agreement on a "memorandum of understanding" (MoU) with the organization's two work unions. The EPO has suffered a number of recent strikes and an escalating situation where embarrassing documents have been leaked, senior executives anonymously attacked, and union leaders subjected to internal investigations and disciplinary proceedings.

According to the EPO, an MoU has almost been finalized and a representative from the Staff Union of the European Patent Office (SUEPO), the main union, is prepared to sign it. The MoU contains approximately 20 articles that cover both the union and the management's rights and duties and, critically, does not include pre-conditions or a limit on what issues can be discussed. One key aspect will be the SUEPO's right to strike and under what conditions.

Trust

The goal is to rebuild trust between the two groups, who have been at loggerheads for several years following Battistelli's efforts to modernize the organization.

His team has made changes unpopular with the union, such as removing fixed wage rises and promotions tied to seniority rather than performance. Those changes were implicitly approved by the Administrative Council, however, when they extended Battistelli's term in 2014.

The aggressive manner in which the changes were introduced resulted in a strong pushback, which then led to union leaders being investigated using hidden cameras, computer key-loggers and a special "investigative unit."

As such, the issue of disciplinary proceedings against union leaders has become a lightning rod and the Board of the Administrative Council has argued that they be halted and an external review carried out. Agreement had yet to be reached on that aspect of the dispute and the EPO's management team hopes that the MoUs will diffuse some of the anger around the situation. Ultimately, the decision on how to proceed – and likely Battistelli's future – will fall to the Administrative Council at its meeting next month.

In the meantime, it is understood that the draft request has been toned down following intervention from the council's 38 delegates and a response from the EPO's management. The most recent draft reportedly no longer includes direct criticism of the executive team or Battistelli.

Asked about the persistent rumors that Battistelli will resign or is negotiating a settlement to leave, the EPO assured us that the president intends to stay on until his term ends in 2018. The negotiation of the new MoUs has led to a "very positive atmosphere" in recent days, the organization said. ®

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