Former communist trade unions lose clout

By Jean-Luc Testault, Dawn, Tuesday 27 May 2003—24 Rabi-ul-Awwal 1424

PRAGUE: Once-powerful unions of the former Soviet bloc are struggling to find their place in post-communist societies where the market economy dominates and workers are increasingly divided.

“There is a general decline among unions in countries that are set to enter the European Union,” Grigor Gradev, who heads up the EU enlargement dossier for the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). “There are major problems.”

Official unions during the Soviet era acted as emissaries of the Communist Party in the working world. In the heyday of democratic change during the 1990s, they quickly adapted to act as defenders of workers' rights. But as countries across central and eastern Europe prepare for European Union entry, beginning in 2004, they must face stiff competition from cheaper, eastern markets and a set of new rules from western labour markets.

The past decade has seen membership numbers dwindle, competition spread between emerging unions and more savage rules of economic competition destroy critical employee protection and benefits.

In some countries, like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the old state unions have stood strong. In Poland, too, the OPZZ—the offspring of communist unions—is now more popular than Solidarity, the independent union which led the country's democracy movement.

Solidarity-inspired unions cropped up across the region after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, helping to moderate the effects of the “shock therapy” of pro-market reforms and building a tripartite dialogue with government and employers.

“The unions played a major role in the transition,” said Dimitrina Dimitrova, a Budapest-based consultant to the ILO. “They were largely responsible for avoiding an even greater degradation of social policies.” “But the unions had to work in an extremely disadvantageous economic context and a political environment which was hardly friendly,” she added. The 1990s in the former communist bloc saw unprofitable factories slam shut, unemployment skyrocket, rampant deregulation and privatization—matched by an inevitable weakening of union power.

In the Baltic state of Estonia and elsewhere, trade-unionism remains strongly linked with communism. “Some younger people think unions are like dinosaurs—things of the past,” Dimitrova said. And with the rising competition that is native to capitalism, new unions have sprung up, plucking off members from traditional forces. In Hungary, there are at least a dozen unions serving a nation of 10.2 million.

The labour market, too, has adapted to the leaner times, as increasing numbers of companies rely on outsourcing rather than direct employees. They pay no social charges or taxes for the externalized work, and they can “fire” the workers without severance.

In brand-new factories thrown up across the region, unions are nearly non-existent—especially in those run by Asian-based multi-nationals. In Slovakia, where the KOV trade union confederation still counts 600,000 members, “their numbers are dwindling yearly”, says researcher Michal Vasecka of the capital's Institute of Public Affairs. There, as in other EU candidates slated for a May 2004 entry—the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Slovenia—EU-minded reforms and economic hardships are forcing unions to rewrite their mandate.-AFP