The development and current situation of trade unions

Since the end of the communist regime in 1989, the Romanian trade union movement has developed through a series of stages, mirroring the country's transition to a free market. This feature examines this process and the situation, as of 2003, with regard to trade union representativeness, membership, density and policies. Five trade union confederations are currently recognised as being representative in legal terms, and their role and activities are still developing, despite a sharp decline in the number of employees and in the unionisation rate.

In this feature, we trace the development of trade unions in Romania since 1989 and examine their current position and the challenges they face.

Historical development

The Romanian trade union movement has long traditions, with its official birth being marked by the foundation of the General Association of Workers in 1872. When the communist regime was installed after the Second World War, trade unions continued to exist. However, they became part of the apparatus of the ruling party and were centralised under the General Union of Trade Unions in Romania (Uniunea Generală a Sindicatelor din România, UGSR) - though there were some unsuccessful attempts to create free trade unions or take independent action.

After the Ceausescu regime was overthrown in 1989, trade unions enter a profound reorganisation process, which developed through several stages as the Romanian economy and civil society matured.

The first stage in the post-communist development of trade unions occurred in 1990-1 and was marked by the end of the UGSR monopoly and a proliferation of new trade unions. A move towards new forms and structures of trade union organisation was driven from the bottom up. A key feature was a high degree of fragmentation and differentiation of trade unions, especially in the large state-owned enterprises. It became common to have several trade unions with diverging orientations represented in the same company, but this was often thought to have negative effects, in that:

  • in order to attract members, unions made promises which were hard to achieve within a fragile economic environment, at the expense of a real and efficient participation in solving enterprises' problems; and
  • negotiations and conflicts were largely oriented towards the government, so the development of dialogue within companies was retarded and the emergence of employers' organisations was hindered.

While arguably naive and confused, these dynamics were regarded by commentators as a natural response to the former political submission of unions and their excessive centralisation. At the same time, developments in the trade union movement responded to a real need for social protection and for defending employees’ rights in a period of economic crisis and changing labour market patterns.

The second stage began with the introduction of the Trade Unions Law in 1991 (Law No. 54/1991), which acted as an incentive to strengthen the process of unifying trade unions into federations and confederations. A stronger participation of trade unions in decision-making process in general also occurred, including on matters of major importance for the future of the economy and society as a whole. Attempts were made to involve trade unions and their leaders in politics, which went as far as creating a political party based on trade union membership

The present stage seems, according to some observers, to be marked by something of a crisis in the trade union movement, especially when compared to its previous patterns. This involves a decline in union membership, and is the result of a number of simultaneous processes:

  • a sharp decline in the number of employees, with over 3.3 million fewer employees today compared with 1989;
  • a greater willingness among workers to give up trade union membership;
  • the fact that legislation makes setting up and expanding trade union organisations difficult, particularly with respect to small and medium-sized enterprises (a minimum of 15 people is required to set up an enterprise-level union). This adds to the strategies of some employers aimed at preventing trade union growth;
  • a certain shortfall in unions' performance, mainly caused by inadequate bargaining structures and some old-fashioned patterns of behaviour; and
  • blockages in feedback between the different levels of trade union organisations (company, federation and confederation levels) which has resulted in suspicion and mistrust towards union leaders and the centralised monitoring of unions' activities.

These tendencies are inevitably exerting strong pressures on trade union confederations to change their strategies The prevailing wage-oriented negotiations have begun to shift towards other issues, and to become better connected to the main economic and social problems – privatisation, restructuring and modernisation. A strong focus is now being placed on: minimising the effects of job losses; achieving stable incomes supported by productivity; improving the quality of working life; and improving social protection for the most vulnerable groups. In this respect, turning union activists into professional staff has became an important part of trade unions' work and programmes addressing their training have been initiated.


Legislation lays down representativeness requirements for trade union organisations at various levels. At the enterprise level, which is particularly important in Romania, in order to be considered as representative, a union's members must make up at least half of all employees. Trade union federations can be set up by two or more trade unions related to the same sector or occupation and should organise 7% of the total number of employees in the sector or occupation in order to be recognised as representative. For trade union confederations, which may be set up by two or more federations operating in different branches of activity, nationally representative status is granted if a confederation covers at least half of all Romanian counties and 25% of economic branches, and its membership represents a minimum of 5% of all employees in the national economy. The current legislation in this area (Law No. 130/1996) stipulates that the criteria under which a trade union organisation is recognised as representative are to be met cumulatively and are mandatory in order for the organisation to participate in the collective bargaining process.

At present, five trade union confederations meet the representativeness criteria at the national level. These are:

  • the National Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Romania 'Brotherhood' (Confederaţia Naţională a Sindicatelor Libere din România Frăţia, CNSLR Frăţia)
  • the National Trade Unions Bloc (Blocul Naţional Sindical, BNS);
  • the Democratic Trade Union Confederation of Romania (Confederaţia Sindicatelor Democratice din România, CSDR)
  • Cartel Alfa; and
  • Meridian.

Apart from these confederations, strong trade union federations are active in a number of branches (for instance, in mining, metalworking, education, commerce, agriculture and healthcare) and there are also some independent unaffiliated trade unions. These meet only partially the required representativeness criteria, but they are allowed to participate in consultations and bargaining or, in some cases, to negotiate with the employer/government bodies in their field of activity.

Membership and density

According to trade union sources, the largest confederation in Romania is CNSLR-Frăţia, with about 800,000 members, covering almost every activity, apart from mining, and present in all Romanian counties. Three other confederations display quite similar characteristics: BNS has about 375,000 members; CSDR 345,000; and Cartel Alfa 325,000. These confederations group union organisations covering almost all economic activities and territorial units. The latest data available indicate that BNS is present in 14 branches and 36 counties (out of a total of 41), CSDR in about half of all economic branches and in 20 counties, and Cartel Alfa in some key heavy and light industry branches, plus mining, agriculture, education, and in 39 counties. Meridian has 170,000 members, mainly in mining, metalworking, the chemicals and rubber industry, light industry, transport, media and communications, and covers 20 counties.

According to the results of a project coordinated by the International Labour Organisation ( ILO), in partnership with four representative union confederations – CNSLR-Frăţia, BNS, Cartel Alfa and CSDR – the Romanian unionisation rate now stands at only 44%, compared with 80% at the beginning of the 1990s (these findings are based on a survey conducted among 1,293 people in December 2001-February 2002). In sectoral terms - see the figure below - the highest density rates are found in mining (85%), heavy industry (83%), oil, gas and chemicals (76%), while in trade, tourism, public services and forestry the decline of union presence has been quite sharp (to below 40%).

Union members as % of total employees, 2002

Union members as % of total employees, 2002

Source: ILO.

Policy orientations

At international level, Romanian trade union confederations are affiliated to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) (CNSLR-Frăţia, BNS, CSDR and Cartel Alfa), the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions ( ICFTU) (CNSLR-Frăţia and BNS) and the World Confederation of Labour (WCL) (Cartel Alfa and CSDR). Some contacts have also been established with international institutions, such as the European Union, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, concerning key issues of economic reform that require union involvement.

The five representative union confederations have different political orientations: CNSLR-Frăţia and BNS have a social democratic orientation; Cartel Alfa and CSDR present themselves as Christian democratic; while Meridian is independent. However, despite their political differences, whenever their members’ interests are at stake they have always succeeded in taking a common position, thus enhancing their voice in social dialogue of all types.


The union confederations have made a considerable input into the process of institutionalising industrial relations in Romania. They have consistently pressed for: the creation of a legislative framework likely to develop social dialogue and concertation; the establishment of labour market and vocational training institutions based on tripartite or 'multipartite' principles; and, overall, for the development of social partnership within an integrated concept.

Compared with the past, the Romanian trade union movement is currently experiencing a lack of new initiatives, suggesting something of a crisis, or at least a moment of reflection over future developments in industrial relations. This is a result of a number of processes within trade unions themselves - mainly the sharp decline in the unionisation rate, the diluted presence of unions in small and medium-sized enterprises and some blockages in the feedback between different levels of trade union organisation - but is also an effect of the country's newly created institutional framework for industrial relations (with numerous tripartite bodies, a new Labour Code etc), which is more dialogue-oriented and aims to prevent violent conflict.

As living standards in Romania are especially low, pay still represents a serious concern for trade unions, but their most prominent activities are currently addressed to the restructuring process which is leading to numerous collective redundancies (RO0307102N). With the privatisation process approaching an end, unions are becoming more and more aware of their role in the private sector, especially in cases of violation of privatisation contracts, insofar as this relates to employment, wages, investments, working conditions and social protection for their members. As the private sector becomes dominant, a steady fall in union density and the stabilisation of the unionisation rate at lower levels have proved to be the rule. This will impose significant qualitative changes on trade union policy, including the collective bargaining process. (Diana Preda, Institul de Economie Nationala)

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