Czech unions look West

By Bart VanHercke, ICFTU ONLINE..., 114/980511/ND, 11 May 1998

Most Czech trade unions are in favour of their country joining the European Union, but have a lot of questions to ask about its socio-economic impact.

Brussels, May 11, 1998 (ICFTU OnLine): The Czech Republic has been, since the early 1990s, «the» school example of economists of how market economy should be introduced into the Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs). However, from 1996 onwards economic growth slowed markedly and a series of economic mini-crisis finally produced a full-blown currency-crisis. Although the country still has single digit unemployment, this number has doubled over the last three years. In spite of these problems, the Czech Republic will be among the first group of countries starting negotiations for accession to the European Union, since it is considered to meet most of the Copenhagen Criteria [See Flash 2000/1:4]. Because of these peculiar economic developments, combined with important political changes (Prime Minister Vacláv Klaus resigned in December 97, early elections will take place this June), we will in this issue report on an interview with Hana Málková, co-ordinator of the European Integration team of the Czech-Moravian Chamber of Trade Unions (CMKOS), the country's leading trade Union Confederation affiliating 31 trade unions and 1.3 million members (1997).

Coming back to Europe

According to our correspondent the issue of adhesion to the European Union is generally taken as a positive and “natural” process, it is seen as a certain “homecoming to the society from which we were isolated for so long”. “For people coming from a country the history of which was by force discontinued for fifty years, getting back to the European “mainstream” is naturally very important”. On the political level, this historical experience constitutes one of the most profound reasons for accession; it is hoped that EU membership can help to overcome the undesirable consequences of cold war. Even during the revolution in ‘89, the “Coming back to Europe” theme represented one of the hottest issues.

The impact of adhesion : ignorance rules

The existence, according to opinion-polls, of a general positive attitude towards accession in the Czech Republic, does not mean that a real public debate on concrete issues of the integration is going on. Untill now the general public has not paid much thoughts to other than the political side of the process : the only question being asked is “do we want to join yes or no”. Since many Czechs see themselves as Europeans the answer is affirmative, but very few people know what this answer implies for their daily life, for social policy, production, agriculture etc. : “our governments have tackled the European integration to a large extent as a technical issue, concentrating mainly on harmonisation of legislation and neglecting especially any information and explaining campaigns on the European Union itself and on the concrete social and economic impacts of the adhesion. It sometimes seemed as if it was only the Government who would once join the EU, not the whole country”. Since publishing the Commission's Opinions on the applicant countries and decisions of the Luxembourg summit more attention has been paid to publishing not only the current news on what is going on in the EU but concentrating also on what the EU is. It seems though that this and other information attempts have not yet succeeded in launching a serious public debate.

Czech trade unions' position towards enlargement : lots in favour …

The CMKOS has welcomed the decision of the EU Luxembourg summit to start the negotiations on accession also with the Czech Republic—even if work needs to be done to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria—but the organisation supports the opening of these negotiations to all ten applicant CEECs. Besides the issues of economic and social impacts (EMU included) it is at present especially the issue of harmonisation of labour legislation which receives particular attention from trade union organisations in the discussions around enlargement. Attention is also given to the impacts of restructuring, issues of unemployment, migration as well as health and safety. As a whole the enlargement process is considered to be crucial “for bringing more security and stability to our continent, for securing continuous performance of the European model and through it better protection of the employed against negative sides of the globalization process. It will bring about better mutual understanding of eachothers cultures, lives and habits. Believing that the practice of social dialogue and the efforts to seek participation in civil society/public affairs should be universal we hope that the EU membership will facilitate that this practice becomes a daily life of the actors concerned in our country. We also believe that the adoption of the acquis communautaire and establishing of functioning institutions will deepen democracy and concepts of civil society in our country”.

… little against

There seem to be much less negative aspects in relation with adhesion to the EU, although “there are of course issues raising question marks—especially in economic sphere. How shall our companies cope with the European competition, what would it do with our level of unemployment, with our social insurance system etc”. On the other hand it is stressed that the adoption of the acquis communautaire will turn out to be a very difficult task, since it consists of a complex set of legislative measures, which has been gradually created during several decades. Also, problems may arise as the people in the EU will have to cope with an even more multi-facetted Europe than it is the case now, which induces the risk of strenghtening the idea of a bi-polar or divided Europe, a conception which seems to be very much alive in the minds of European citizens.

Influencing the decision-making process

In general, there seems to have been very little or no structured dialogue on the issues of European integration between the social partners and the government. The CMKOS has been asking for years to organise the dialogue on enlargement at the tripartite level, within the Council for Economic and Social Accord, which should take up the accession issue as a separate theme for discussion and negotiation. We consider the involvement of social partners into the preparations of the accession process of our country to the EU as a matter of utmost importance as it influences the whole country, lives of all its citizens including our members. Therefore we have always strived for these preparations to be dealt with at the tripartite body, we wanted to be involved in the integration process as a whole. It may be said however that apart from occasional ad hoc cases quite large efforts of the CMKOS as well as employers' associations in this respect have not for the time being brought much success as concerns the direct institutionalised involvement of social partners into the process of the European integration of the Czech Republic. Until now it was more or less reserved for the constitutional actors only”.


POLLERT, A. (1997), “The Transformation of Trade Unionism in the Capitalistic and Democratic Restructuring of the Czech Republic”, European Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 3, N°2, July.

FISERA, I. (1996), Handbook of Trade Unions in EuropeThe Czech Republic, European Trade Union Institute, Brussels.

ETUI (1995), Labour relations and Trade Unions in the CEECs, European Trade Union Institute, Transfer, Vol.1, N°3, pp. 355-479.

BCE (1997), The Annual 1997/98, Business Central Europe, 66 p.

Eurobarometer (47) 1997 : B20-B21; (Key Data Business Central Europe); (Basic information on the Czech Republic); (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions) EIROnline.

Industrial relations: historical background

In the aftermath of the second World War, the Czechoslovak system of labour relations was modelled on the Soviet example, implying very little autonomy for individual unions and discouragement of workplace democracy; trade unions were to concentrate on production rather than on representation.

Following the revolution in 1989, a new structure of various autonomous unions came into force; membership, which had been as high as 99,5% of the active workforce, declined to around 50% overall in 1991.

After the 1993 split of Czechoslovakia, a new industrial relations system was created which involved a three-level structure : a tripartite annual general agreement; industry bargaining; and workplace representation (the company supervisory boards are said to have very little actual power …).

In the early 1990s, industrial relations and the dialogue between trade unions and the government was characterised by a high degree of quiescence, which can partly be attributed to the fact that the country had one of the most prosperous economies in central and eastern Europe; the «voucher privatisation» programme created the image of a public stakeholder system, thus generating large public support. Even more crucial was the fact that unemployment did not increase dramatically in the first years of free market reform.

By 1994, trade unions became increasingly disenchanted with the neo-liberal policies of the Klaus government and that same year they refused to sign the general agreement; the more campaigning role cumulated in the national demonstrations in the capital in 1994 and 1995.

(Source : eiroline, August 1997, URL :