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ISSUE 72 page 5

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Trade unions in eastern Europe: still fighting after taking big hits

The ten eastern European states that joined the European Union in 2004 and 2007 had all experienced large slumps in their economies and vastly reduced trade union organisation following the transition from Communism. From the late ‘nineties however low wages and lack of regulation attracted large investments from the West and both salaries and union activity increased until the onset of the financial crash in 2008.  We look at how workers and unions in the East have fared since then.

This article is largely based on an ETUI working paper ‘Beyond the CEE ‘black box’: crisis and industrial relations in the new EU member states’ by Magdalena Bernaciak.
A DECADE OF STEADILY RISING WAGES in central and eastern Europe (CEE) came to an end in 2008 as a fall in demand, a weakening of union power due to fear of sackings, the end of labour shortages and public sector cuts were felt as a consequence of the financial crisis. Romania, Hungary and Latvia had to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as their budgets were stretched by falling tax revenues and increased social security spending on the poor and jobless (see issue 46). On the other hand salaries in Bulgaria and Poland, which, alone among EU Member States, did not enter economic depression, continued to grow. Trade union strength, however, was weakened almost everywhere by cuts in the public sector where they had been particularly strong. Governments, often under pressure from the EU or IMF, tended to bypass consultation and put through reductions by decree, further eroding the position of unions as social partners. There were also extensive reforms to collective bargaining practices and labour laws. In Romania the 1991 labour code was abolished and replaced by a ‘Social Dialogue Act’. This weakened both the right to strike and protection of officials and made it harder for both unions and employers’ associations to be recognised as representative of their members. The result was that two union confederations, CNSRL Fratia and CNS Cartel Alfa, lost around 64-70% of their members and 8 out of 13 employers’ groups were derecognised.. In Estonia, the trade union movement was severely affected: the membership of the blue-collar confederation EAKL decreased by 30% and that of the white-collar TALO by 74%. Overall negotiations moved to the individual company or factory level and collective agreements became fewer and shorter-lived.

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Trade unions did not take this lying down: anti-austerity mass demonstrations together with industrial action  brought down governments in four countries. Campaigning for rises in the minimum wage as well as drawing attention to the threadbare social safety net became prominent. Latvian unions warning about risks to people’s health caused the IMF to admit that the  cuts had been too severe. Labour organisations in many eastern Member States repeatedly pushed for higher minimum wages. The Polish Solidarność union staged protests in the biggest cities and collected 300,000 signatures to support raising the minimum wage to 50% of the national average while in Bulgaria the KNSB demanded a similar measure and succeeded in doubling the rate between 2007 and 2014. Also in Poland, where Razem, a new left party, wants a bigger rôle for unions, they coined the term ‘śmieciówki’ (junk contracts) to draw attention to the growing use of the civil law by employers to avoid social security payments and taxes. These particularly affect young people: ‘I never know how much I earn and how long I will work’ said one restaurant worker. In many eastern states hard times found unions banding together as previous turf wars were forgotten in the fight against government policies. Hungarian confederations MSZOSZ, ASZSZ and SZEF are in the process of merging.
The future for unions in eastern Europe is uncertain. While it seems unlikely that national bargaining structures and proper consultation with government will be reinstated, the involvement in protest and new forms of resistance to neo-liberal governments could augur well for a resurgence.

 

 




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