Trade union federations announce merger plans

Three of Hungary’s six trade union federations announced plans to merge on 1 May 2013. They say the plans will better protect the interests of employees, arguing that the current set up provides very little effective labour protection. This merger will create the largest trade union federation in Hungary, representing more than 300,000 employees. The European Trade Union Confederation supports the plan but some Hungarian unions are not convinced it will be effective.

Background

Before 1990, Hungary had just one trade union federation, the National Council of Trade Unions (SZOT). In 1990, political change brought the country’s first democratically elected government, and allowed more trade unions to be formed. Not only were sectoral trade unions established, but also a number of federations. Six of these have survived and they eventually became members of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

Twenty-three years after Hungary’s political upheavals, three of the six existing trade union federations have decided to form a new organisation. The full merger is planned to go ahead soon as possible, at the latest by the end of the year.

Reasons for the merger

The general elections of 2010 saw the Hungarian Civic Union Party (FIDESZ) take control in coalition with the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP). Since then, there have been a number of amendments to legislation affecting workers in Hungary, and fundamental acts (constitution labour law) have been modified.

By holding two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, the government has been given a mandate to pass the new constitution and a new Labour Code. It has also halted the work of the highest collective bargaining forum, the National Interest Reconciliation Council (OÉT). The OÉT was the national forum for tripartite cooperation between workers’ and employers’ representatives and the government.

The government also introduced obligatory chambers for employees in some public service professions (such as teachers), and employees have to pay for membership of these chambers. Therefore, some of them decide to leave the union as it seems a double cost alongside voluntary membership in unions. The idea was to increase competition between organisations claiming to protect employees’ interests.

The result has actually been to weaken the bargaining power of unions, which are already suffering from a decline in membership. It has been estimated that between 10% and 16% of Hungarian employees – between 450,000 and 550,000 people – are currently members of a trade union. A decade ago, the figure stood at more than a million.

Several unions were prompted to discuss possible solutions to the problems, and try to come up with initiatives to rebuild their strength. Initially, sectoral trade unions made the decision to cooperate more closely.

The National Association of Transport Workers’ Unions (KSZOSZ) was one of the earliest mergers apart from some other smaller unifications between different transport unions. Later, the Federation of Road Transport Workers’ Unions (KKSZ) joined the Trade Union of Hungarian Railway Workers (VSZ). The Association of Railway Workers (VASZ) was established on 31 January 2013 with the closer cooperation of three railway unions.

But there have been other sectoral union mergers. The Metalworkers’ Union (Vasasszakszervezet) and the Federation of Trade Unions of the Chemical, Energy and Allied Workers (VDSZ) have announced that they are to hold talks on the possibility of closer cooperation. The President of the Metalworkers’ Union, Béla Balogh, said diverse sectoral trade unions had already merged in several European countries, and on a European and global level with the establishment of IndustriAll Europe in 2012. He said that was why negotiations between the organisations had begun.

He added the that the two trade organisations hoped to be able to create a stronger and more effective trade union structure.

Labour Day announcement

On 1 May 2013, three union presidents announced the establishment of an integrated trade union federation.

Tamás Székely, President of the Autonomous Trade Union Confederation ASZSZ, emphasised that the trade union structure that had been created at the end of 1980s and in the early 1990s was no longer able to provide effective protection of employees’ interests. He added that the new association would unite about two-thirds of organised workers, representing 300,000 employees.

László Varga, the President of the Forum for the Co-operation of Trade Unions (SZEF), said that the aim of the merger was to establish an integrated federation capable of working for all employees in both the public and the private sectors. He added that since the elections of 2010, the social dialogue system had changed dramatically, and the merger was a reaction to these changes.

The details of the unification and the principles of the new union have yet to be decided, and will be discussed at meetings and congresses by the members’ internal boards.

Péter Pataky, President of the National Confederation of Hungarian Trade Unions (MSZOSZ), said he envisaged an association fighting for more security for members, and decent working and living conditions for them. He said the government had taken advantage of the fragmentation of the unions, and it was time for the unions to react.

He added that an integration council and four working groups had been set up to look into the detail of the unification. The working groups, he said, would prepare the joint objectives and principles, discuss the structure of the new organisation and its operations, and decide what would happen to the assets of the unions, as well as tackling property-related issues. Each working group is composed of two people with additional participants from the affiliates being invited to some of the discussions. The working groups are working to a tight schedule, carrying out fact-finding missions as well as preparing detailed proposals for the unification process.

Reaction to the initiative

Patrick Itschert, Deputy General Secretary of ETUC, welcomed the merger plan. He said the affiliates of ETUC were losing members, and the global financial and economic crisis had hit the European trade union movement very hard. He emphasised the need for strong and independent trade union federations.

He underlined the importance of this type of merger in order to strengthen the European trade union movement. He hoped the new organisation would prove to be strong, representative and independent from political parties.

Istvan Gasko, the President of the Democratic Confederation of Free Trade Unions (LIGA) sent its congratulations to the new association. He said LIGA had not been invited to join the merger.

He said his organisation had tried to establish a loose cooperation among the federations at least twice in the previous 10 to 15 years, but these attempts had failed. LIGA’s idea was that federations should give up a smaller part of their autonomy – but its plans had never been accepted. He said integration was a much more difficult task to establish.

Some of the 70 trade unions affiliated to the three federations have hinted that they might object to the merger. However, only the Hungarian Engine Drivers’ Union (MOSZ), a member of ASZSZ, has officially aired its concerns. Leaders of MOSZ announced in a statement that it would suspend its membership of ASZSZ if the merger process went ahead. MOSZ said it would only be able to make a decision on membership of the new federation once the new association’s aims, principles and the new constitution was known.

Commentary

The trade union movement in Hungary has gone through some turbulent times over the past 23 years. A number of trade union organisations were broken up, but joint decisions were also being taken on closer cooperation between organisations.

In general there had been a deep consensus that the fragmentation of the union movement was counter-productive to its aim of successfully representing its members. However, objections to unification turned out to be stronger than the calls for closer cooperation.

Employees, meanwhile, seem to have become tired of having so many different unions. Organised and non-organised employees have questioned the need for six trade union federations, especially as major successes were rarely achieved in negotiations. Public opinion generally seems to be that trade union activities have been difficult to understand for years.

A recent public opinion poll has shown that Hungarians are largely in favour of the proposed union merger with 77 % of respondents supporting the initiative.

In the past, Hungarian economist László Andor, the EC Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, has talked of the need for effective social dialogue in Europe. Trade unions and federations are key players in social dialogue, and working more effectively together seems to be the way forward. This merger might be an important step to the achievement of this goal, at least in Hungary.

Máté Komiljovics, Solution4.org

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