TALO organises Estonia's first strike
On 4 December 2003, the Estonian Employees’ Unions’ Confederation (TALO) held a one-day strike to support its demands for pay increases for education and culture workers and protest at the government’s public sector wage policy. This was the first real strike since Estonia gained its independence in the early 1990s, with only a limited number of warning strikes and other protest actions having previously been held
On 4 December 2003, the Estonian Employees’ Unions’ Confederation (Eesti Teenistujate Ametiliitude Keskorganisatsioon, TALO) - Estonia's second largest central trade union organisation (EE0308101F) - held a one-day strike to support its demands for pay increases for employees in educational and cultural activities. The main purpose of the strike was to demand wage increases for employees with a higher education working full time in a position demanding higher education and financed from the state budget (EE0311103F). TALO represents employees working in the fields of education, culture, media, agriculture, sports, science, technology and healthcare. Of 80,000 public sector workers with a higher education who receive their wages from the state or local government budgets, 35,000 are members of TALO. Only a small share of TALO’s members work in the private sector.
In 2003, the minimum wage rate for teachers and employees in cultural activities with a higher education is EEK 5,400 per month in organisations financed from the state budget. In organisations financed through local government budgets, workers doing the same job might receive a third to a half of this amount, despite the fact that the qualifications required and the demands of the work are similar. According to forecasts by the Ministry of Finance, the national average monthly wage in 2004 will be around EEK 7,362, and TALO is demanding that the minimum wage rate for employees with a higher education doing a full-time job should be similar. According to the chair of TALO, Toivo Roosimaa, a commonly acceptable and fair wage policy is lacking in Estonia and TALO hopes that, as a result of its strike, society will pay more attention to the issue and general understanding will improve.
In their wage agreements for 2001 and 2002, the government and TALO agreed that the minimum wage rate for TALO’s members with a higher education and doing a full-time job that requires such an education, should be at least at the level of the average national monthly wage. However, the government has not fulfilled its commitments so far, and proposed an 8% wage increase for 2004, which would leave the wages of education workers still behind the national average.
In October 2003, TALO and government delegations held several rounds of intensive negotiations, but no agreements were reached. In November 2003, the public conciliator gave TALO the right to organise a strike, judging that all legal possibilities of resolving conflict peacefully had been exhausted.
On 1 December 2003, the Minister of Social Affairs, Marko Pomerants, sent a letter to the public conciliator and TALO, calling for the strike to be cancelled as the government had found additional resources and was able to promise a 12% wage increase for 2004. He also pointed that the tax-free amount of income will increase from EEK 1,200 to EEK 1,400 in 2004. Mr Pomerants added that the increase in real wages in 2004 for TALO members with a higher education could be around 15%. On the same day, the Minister of Education and Research, Toivo Maimets, also declared that he was not supporting the strike - having previously declared in public his support for TALO’s action - as the government had found additional resources for wage increases. He stated that the Ministry now had to ensure that the use of this money would be as effective as possible.
On 3 December, representatives of TALO met Prime Minister Juhan Parts, who declared his willingness to sign an agreement on the wage increase for educational workers for 2004. Mr Parts also made a proposal to continue negotiations and discuss how to guarantee that local governments will use the additional money provided to them for increasing teachers’ wages. According to the Prime Minister, the solution to the problem lay not in a strike but in a reorganisation of the financing system in education. He invited the union representatives to participate in this process. After this meeting, the chair of TALO said that social peace would come after the signing of an agreement that meets the unions' demands. The strike was duly held on 4 December.
According to the board of TALO, 18,670 of its members took part in the strike, plus 1,522 employees belonging to the member organisations of the Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions (Eesti Ametiühingute Keskliit, EAKL). The total number of participants in the strike was 20,181, but this number may change when all organisations present their final lists of participants.
Support strikes were organised by the Locomotive Workers’ Trade Union (Vedurimeeste Ametiühing), which stopped rail traffic for one hour, while the Federation of Estonian Railwaymen’s Trade Unions (Eesti Raudteelaste Ametiühing) held a half-hour support strike. Various support actions were carried out by the Estonian Transport and Road Workers' Trade Union (Eesti Transpordi- ja Teetöötajate Ametiühing, ETTA),the Association of Estonian Light Industry Workers’ Trade Unions (Eesti Kergetööstustöötajate Ametiühingute Liit), the Federation of Estonian Healthcare Professionals' Unions (Tervishoiutöötajate Ametiühingute Liit) and the Trade Union Association of Health Officers of Estonia (Keskastme Tervishoiutöötajate Kutseliit). Support for the strike was also announced by numerous organisations and individuals who do not belong to any trade union organisation.
At noon on 4 December, there was a protest meeting in the front of the parliament building, involving around 2,500 people from various regions of Estonia. At this meeting, a declaration to government and the parliament (Riigikogu) was approved. Participants at the meeting stated the hope that in the future the people and institutions that are responsible for the development of society will understand the necessity of social dialogue and collective industrial relations. A meeting was also organised in Viljandi.
The Trade Union of Tartu University (Tartu Ülikooli Ametiühing) offered a possibility to send via the internet a letter to the Prime Minister in support of the strikers’ demands. In total, more than 500 letters were sent over three days. The fourth congress of EAKL, held in November 2003, adopted a declaration asking the government to behave as a responsible employer. The wage system in the public sector should thus be transparent and fair, and social dialogue in the public sector should act as a good example for all employers.
TALO expects to continue the wage negotiations and has called for the government, together with other employers, to work out an effective wage policy. Both parties have shown an interest in continuing the negotiations and finding solutions to this problem.
Previous labour disputes
The TALO strike was first real strike since Estonia gained its independence. There has previously been only rare cases of warning strikes and relatively few cases of other protest actions - pickets, meetings etc - over the period from 1992 to 2002. In total there have been 10 warning strikes over 11 years, and the first warning strikes were held only in 1996. The number of participants in these warning strikes has been relatively small. As the duration of warning strikes is only one hour, the number of working hours lost due to then has also been small and there have been no notable economic losses. The main reason for warning strikes has been demands for pay increase in enterprises.
There has also been one support strike for demands made by EAKL, which took place in December 2002. The participants in this action were supporting EAKL demands that: the government should meet obligations under the tripartite agreements; tax-free income and unemployment benefits should be increased; options for retraining and new jobs should be created; and the government should take steps to reduce unemployment. There were no direct results of this support strike.
Public sector wages and working conditions have received public attention in Estonia for several years, as the employees in these sectors are not satisfied with their relatively low wages, negotiations between the social partners have often ended in failure, and the financing of these sectors have been subject to public debate. According to the Statistical Office of Estonia, wages in the healthcare sector are 81% of the national average and those in education 87% of the average. In the public sector, only wages in the public administration (at 128%) are above the national average. During recent years, the wage increases in the education and healthcare sectors have been higher than the increase in the average wage, but the wage level is still not acceptable, as workers in these sectors have a relatively higher education level, their jobs demand continuous training and renewal of skills, and they have to accept more flexible working time arrangements and working conditions. Comparing the wage level in these sectors with the national average in Estonia and the EU Member States, there are notable differences, as healthcare and education in the current Member States are usually higher-paid sectors. Therefore, there is a fear in Estonia that when it joins the EU, employees in these sectors are highly likely to migrate from Estonia, creating a shortage of specialist workers. (Kaia Philips and Raul Eamets, University of Tartu)