Want to see trade union innovation in practice? Look to central and eastern Europe

Trade unions in central and eastern Europe (CEE) have traditionally been dubbed powerless, passive, bureaucratic and ‘creatures of the past’.

Recent developments in 11 EU member states (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia) suggest, however, that this conclusion might be premature and overly deterministic.

Since the outbreak of the economic crisis in the late 2000s, the CEE region has seen increased worker mobilisation and has been home to some highly innovative trade union practices.

This follows a period, right after the fall of the communist system, that saw a decline in union membership. This was mainly due to structural factors, such as large-scale economic restructuring, union-busting practices of new foreign investors and the growth of weakly unionised service sectors.

Trade unions themselves were also to blame for these negative developments. Old ‘reformed’ organisations found it difficult to shake off their communist legacy and adopt their repertoires of actions to the new market reality. New unions set up in opposition to the communist system, for their part, got involved in politics during the early transition period. As a result, they were often regarded as co-managers of painful economic reforms, which made them lose most of their initial societal appeal.

In these circumstances, one could expect that the economic crisis of the late 2000s would represent yet another nail in the CEE labour movement coffin.

Somewhat paradoxically, however, the economic downturn served as a catalyst for increased union mobilisation in the post-communist region, provoking workers’ discontent and making some labour organisations “go the extra mile”.

Faced with growing labour-market pressures, on one hand, and the reluctance of governments to consult policy proposals with social partners on the other, CEE trade unions sought alternative ways to defend employee rights and make their voices heard in the public space. In effect, they launched a variety of innovative tools and non-standard practices.

Examples of union innovation

What does ‘innovation’ mean in the context of trade union action?

Distinguished from business initiatives by the absence of profit orientation, innovative union practices address a newly emerging challenge or tackle an existing problem more effectively. In the CEE, they took a variety of forms, including the broadening of services offered by union and the extensive use of digital technologies.

For example, in Bulgaria and Romania, trade union confederations created interactive web-based platforms, which substantially increased their visibility and improved communication with current and potential members.

An anonymous membership scheme, launched by Lithuanian and Czech trade unions, stands out as a particularly interesting initiative for the organisational structure of unions. As the fear of repression or a job loss would often prevent workers in the two countries from joining company-level labour organisations, unions encouraged them to join their ranks without revealing their identity to employers. A professional external negotiator subsequently led collective bargaining on behalf of the unionised – but anonymous – employees.

Polish unions, on the other hand, brought together workers regardless of their employment status in the form of peer-support groups, and made an increased use of campaigns and communication tools to fight for the rights of precarious workers. They also coined and popularised the label ‘junk contracts’ to signify civil-law contracts and other labour-law-circumventing accords, prompting a change in media rhetoric and pushing for legal changes that addressed the concerns of this rapidly growing category of employees.

An inspiration for other parts of the world

An important feature of crisis-time union innovation in CEE was a high degree of mobilisation and a focus on activities in the public sphere. Labour organisations in all new EU member states engaged in demonstrations and campaigns, and made use of direct democracy tools as ways of reaching and mobilising the wider public.

Heightened mobilisation and a broader consideration for societal issues have granted CEE labour organisations increased visibility. However, their innovative agenda also has some limitations, such as the pursuit of ‘best practice’ on the margins of the established labour movement, excessive budget dependence on specific projects and the risk of not yielding automatic gains, such as membership increases or higher collective bargaining coverage.

Despite these shortcomings, it seems that the innovative practices launched by CEE unions could serve as an inspiration for labour organisations from other parts of Europe and the world.

In the post-crisis reality marked by austerity and increasing precariousness, experiences from the region in which the defence of basic employee rights constituted a daunting challenge could be particularly instructive.