The development and current situation of trade unions

This feature outlines the development of trade unions in Slovenia from the 19th century to the present, before looking at the situation in 2002. It examines: the current legal framework for trade unions; trade union structure; the main organisations; and union density.

In this feature, we trace the development of trade unions in Slovenia from their origins up until the present day, before examining the current position.

Before the First World War

In Slovenia, trade unions and industrial relations began to develop quite early, at the beginning of the process of industrialisation. The trade union movement in Slovenia has a rich tradition and began to develop earlier than was the case in some of the other parts of the territory of the former Yugoslavia which are now sovereign states. During the second half of the 19th century, the territory of Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Ljubljana was a regional economic and cultural centre. The process of 'deagrarianisation', industrialisation and urbanisation in Slovenia was stronger and began much earlier than elsewhere in the area which made up the former Yugoslavia. However, Slovenia was less developed that many other parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire, as its industrialisation lagged behind their's.

On 7 April 1870, the Austrian parliament abolished those provisions of penal law which prohibited the organisation of trade unions, and workers won the right to organise in order to pursue their interests in relation to employers. Trade unions emerged in Slovenia rapidly after this date (or even before) - practically at the same time as in Austria. At the beginning, workers' organisations had an educational and 'self-help' character, but they quickly took on a proper trade union role by fighting for better wages and working conditions. At this time, the unions organised craft workers. The graphical workers were the first to organise and as early as 1867 formed an educational society, which gradually developed into a trade union organisation. This and other trade unions had contacts with Austrian unions. At the same time educational societies, which sought to organise all workers, began to develop in many cities. In Ljubljana, the first strike was organised 1871 by tailors' assistants, who also established a strike fund. After the economic crisis of the mid-1870s and a period of crisis for the Austrian social democratic movement, the trade union movement in Slovenia stagnated.

At the beginning of the 1890s, the social democratic workers' movement and trade unions in Slovenia regained their strength and became part of the Austrian trade union movement. The strongest unions were those of railway workers and mine workers. Slovenian mine workers' delegates took part in the congress of Austrian mine workers' union in 1890. The first congress of Austrian trade unions in 1893 recommended the organisation of so-called industrial trade unions, whereby workers in each branch of industry are organised in one union, and 17 such unions were set up. In this way, the industrial form of organisation prevailed over the narrower craft type in Slovenia as well. The first conference of Slovene trade unions was held in 1901 in Ljubljana. The first central secretariat was established in 1905 in Trieste and the second in 1908 in Ljubljana.

In the mid-1890s, the christian social and workers' movement began to develop. At first only political and educational societies were organised, which gave their members some social support. A central organisation of these bodies was established in 1897 and began offering job placement and legal advice. In 1900, support societies were set up at a tobacco factory in Ljubljana and in the paper industry. A central union organisation was founded in 1909.

The first liberal trade union organisation was founded 1907 in Trieste. Its core membership was white- and blue-collar railway workers. In 1909, railway civil servants founded their own trade union. In the same year, other railway workers and lower civil servants set up their own union.

Between the First and Second World Wars

After the First World War and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, when Slovenia became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the trade unions regained their position and developed further. Three political tendencies and organisations dominated: social democratic, christian and later communist. As in Austria, a 'workers' chamber' was established too. It was a counterweight to other chambers, such as that of industry and commerce, which represented the interests of employers. The workers' chamber tried to act as as unifying institution for the different trade union tendencies, which often opposed each other. At this time, Slovene trade unions gained substantial experience in organisational matters, collective bargaining, the organisation of strikes etc. This advantage of this experience was partly lost due to growing centralism within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

From the Second World War to the break-up of Yugoslavia

After the Second World War up to the first free elections in 1990 and the introduction of freedom of association, trade unions and industrial relations in a proper sense did not exist in Slovenia, which was part of the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia during this period. The Yugoslav trade union movement, which was not independent from the party, the state and managers and thus not democratic, had its headquarters in Belgrade. It was organised in a completely centralised way, with mandatory membership. In Slovenia (as well as in the other republics of former Yugoslavia), the central Yugoslav trade union had a republic-level organisation with headquarters in Ljubljana.

Employers' organisations did not exist, because in firms and other areas of life workers - in theory at least - decided about everything (leading to a long-standing problem of who should represent employers from such 'socialist' countries in the International Labour Organisation). A particular feature of the former Yugoslavia was the so-called 'social ownership' of means of production: firms were neither state nor privately owned, and all enterprises and craft workers were organised in chambers (parastatal organisations) with obligatory membership.

It should be stressed that the former Yugoslavia, and Slovenia especially, differed considerably in many aspects from other socialist countries. This had important consequences for the development of trade unions and industrial relations after the change of the socio-economic system in the early 1990s. The former Yugoslavia, and thus Slovenia, was never a part of eastern bloc (COMECON, Warsaw Pact etc). Furthermore, Slovenia was relatively independent from Belgrade, especially regarding social questions (social security etc), where only very general rules were laid down centrally. Even before the change of the socio-political system, the Slovene social security system was based on similar principles and provided similar benefits, to those of some western European countries (Austria, Germany and Italy). The system of planning was indicative, rather than planning of production. Firms were much more independent than those in other socialist countries. They were neither state nor privately owned. The system of 'social ownership' prevailed and some authors suggest that Yugoslav firms were ownerless.

From the beginning of the 1960s, Yugoslavia's borders opened which resulted in a considerable migration of workers, and tourism from abroad. Thus Slovenia especially opened up to the world. The Slovene republic trade union organisation had some autonomy and had contacts with trade unions from neighbouring countries - such as the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB), Italian regional union organisations from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and the German Federation of Trade Unions (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB) regional organisation for Bavaria

Slovenia held its first democratic elections in 1990 and officially declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Even before the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, important changes were made to the constitutional framework in 1989, opening the way to modern industrial relations (see 'Tripartism and industrial relations in Slovenia', Z Vodovnik, in Social dialogue in central and eastern Europe, G Casale (ed), International Labour Office Central and Eastern European Team. Budapest, 1999). The old ideological paradigm, under which labour was considered the only important factor in production, and other resources were underestimated, was rejected. This meant the abolition of the Yugoslav self-management model and constitutional and legal devolution of all formal powers within the enterprise to workers and their organisations. Under self-management, where workers had all formal power, trade unions had less importance in representing the collective interests of employees and were more important in protecting workers against unjustified behaviour and decisions by managers.

According to Vodovnik (see reference above) constitutional and legal changes in 1989 fundamentally changed the nature of the employment relationship. The Law on Basic Rights of the Employment Relationship replaced the so-called 'associative' employment relationship (ie the relationship among the workers themselves) with one based on the contract of employment. Contractual relationships were thus established on the individual as well as on the collective level. The 1989 law contained the first legal regulations concerning collective bargaining and collective agreements, which were not at this stage completely based on the voluntary action of the parties. Rather they were the consequence of a compromise between the need to establish a system of collective bargaining and the need to protect social and state property. From the legal viewpoint, this change created a significant problem, because the identity of the employer was not certain. The ownership of public enterprises had not yet been transferred: not to the state, nor to the workers, nor to anybody else. To establish the legal notion of an employer as understood in the modern sense, it was necessary to privatise the means of production. However, since contractual employment is an essential element of industrial relations, we can speak about the beginnings of Slovene industrial relations and trade unions in the real sense from 1989 onwards.

In the first half of the 1980s, ideological discussions began regarding strikes under socialism. In the second half of the decade, some larger-scale strikes occurred and greater tolerance to strikes appeared.

Trade union unity or pluralism?

After the period of trade union 'unitarism' under the socialist regime of the former Yugoslavia, trade union pluralism began to develop in Slovenia in the early 1990s with the recognition of freedom of association and the abolition of obligatory union membership. Because new unions were emerging, a strained debate began between reformed 'old' trade unions and new trade unions as to whether Slovene trade unions should adopt a policy of trade union unity or of pluralism. The reformed trade unions called for unity and cited the German trade unions as an example. The new trade unions were, of course, in favour of pluralism and cited the Italian trade unions as an example. In this context, the most important development was the adoption of the Law on the Representativeness of Trade Unions (LRTU) in 1993. The LRTU determines the manner in which trade unions acquire the status of a legal person and of a representative trade union. At this time, another issue which was very contentious was the restitution of the property of the former centralised trade union organisation.

The legal personality of trade unions

Trade unions are considered to have legal personality with the right to own property, if their statutes or other basic acts (hereinafter referred to statutes) are deposited with the state. The LRTU states that a trade union shall become a legal person on the day that a written order on depositing its statute or other basic act is issued. The statutes of trade unions which organise only in a certain company, other organisation, municipality etc are kept by the administrative body responsible for labour at the local level. The statutes of trade unions organised at the national, branch or activity (sector), occupational etc level are kept by the Ministry for Labour, Family and Social Affairs. An application by a trade union to deposit its statute must be accompanied by the minutes of the union's founding meeting and the statute itself.

The representativeness of trade unions

All trade unions in Slovenia have at least some 'natural' rights, while trade unions which are legally recognised as representative are given a wider range of rights. In order to be recognised as representative, trade unions must prove that they fulfil certain requirements. If they do so, the state, or in some cases (independent company trade unions etc) the employer itself, verifies the trade union's status with a formal decision.

The trade unions which are considered to be representative are those which fulfil the following general requirements. They must:

  • be democratic and exercise freedom of affiliation, freedom of functioning and freedom of execution of the rights and duties of their members;
  • have been operating without interruption for at least the last six months;
  • be independent of state bodies (the state administration) and employers;
  • be financed predominantly from membership fees and other sources of their own; and
  • have a certain number of members, in accordance with the provisions of the LRTU.

Trade unions must prove their number of members on the basis of membership statements (forms) signed by their members.

The rights of representative unions are not specified to a great degree. The LRTU says that the representative trade unions shall conclude 'generally valid' collective agreements, take part in bodies which decide on questions concerning the economic and social security of workers, and propose workers' candidates to participate in management in accordance with special regulations (SI0208103F).

Although the rights of representative trade unions are not specified in detail, employers can use a union's representative status as the basis on which to accept (recognise) it as a collective bargaining partner, sometimes together with other unions. For example, several railway workers' unions have a common bargaining team which takes part in negotiations over the collective agreement for this sector. Only confederations of trade unions are entitled to representatives on the Economic and Social Council of Slovenia (Ekonomsko socialni svet Slovenije, ESSS), which is the country's central body for tripartite cooperation (SI0207103F).

At the national level, the representative organisations are federations or confederations whose members are various branch, activity or occupational trade unions. Their individual member trade unions must have as members at least 10% of all workers in their branch, activity or occupation.

Unions which organise at the level of a branch, activity, occupation, municipality or wider local community, company or other organisation are considered representative if they are members of a representative federation or confederation. In addition, unions which organise at the level of a branch, activity, occupation, municipality or wider local community, which are not members of a representative federation or confederation, are also considered representative if they have at least 15% of all workers in their branch, activity, occupation etc as members. Under the same conditions, trade unions organising at the level of a company or other organisation are considered representative.

The representativeness of a trade union is determined by a written order issued by the minister responsible for labour, on the basis of evidence of the fulfilment of the abovementioned conditions. The exception is an independent trade union organising only in a specific company or other organisation, where it is the employer that takes the decision on representativeness.

Structure and main organisations

After the recognition of freedom of association, a fragmentation of the trade union movement occurred with one central organisation becoming dominant and smaller competitors developing, with slightly different ideological influences.

The basis of trade unionism in Slovenia is the enterprise-level organisation (see Vodovnik, reference cited above) as it was under the old system. These organisations receive the greatest legislative support and so enjoy broader rights than trade union organisations at other levels. In certain firms and factories, two or three different unions coexist.

At the highest national level, trade unions are organised in six central (umbrella) trade union organisations officially recognised as representative federations or confederations. In practice, this means that they are considered most representative and are organised as confederations. Their membership is organised in various affiliated trade unions within various sectors and occupations. Four umbrella organisations have members on the ESSS:

  • the Union of Free Trade Unions of Slovenia (Zveza svobodnih sindikatov Slovenije, ZSSS) - the largest union organisation - has two members on the ESSS. According to a telephone survey conducted in September 1994 ('Public opinion images of trade unions'[in Slovene], M Stanojevič and M Omerzu, in Trade unions and corporativism in Slovenia, Social science discussions No. 17-18/1994, Ljubljana) it represented 48.2% of all trade union members in Slovenia. ZSSS is a reformed organisation, originating in the Slovene section of the former Yugoslav trade union. Following reconstitution, it leans to the left of the political spectrum. The democratisation of ZSSS's functioning has involved changes in organisational structure in terms of decentralisation of decision-making within the umbrella organisation. Branch trade unions, which were formerly only parts of the organisational structure of a unified union, have become more independent as part of a confederal organisation. ZSSS has its headquarters in Ljubljana and a written order confirming its representativeness at the national level was issued on 23 June 1993. Its president is Dušan Semolič;
  • KNSS - Independence, Confederation of New Trade Unions of Slovenia (KNSS - Neodvisnost, Konfederacija novih sindikatov Slovenije, KNSS) has one member on the ESSS. According to the abovementioned 1994 survey, it was the second largest union organisation, representing 10% of all trade union members. KNSS is a new trade union organisation set up since the change of regime, and its founding congress was held in 30 March 1990. It leans to the right of the political spectrum. In the first years of its existence, KNSS's main problem was setting up a firm organisational structure and rules of functioning. Its headquarters are in Ljubljana and its president is Drago Lombar. A written order confirming KNSS's representativeness at the national level was issued on 23 November 1993;
  • the Confederation of Trade Unions of Slovenia Pergam (Konfederacija sindikatov Pergam Slovenije, Pergam) has one member on the ESSS. Its membership is found mainly in the pulp/paper and printing industries. It was created following a split from ZSSS. Its headquarters are in Ljubljana and its president is Dušan Rebolj. A written order confirming its representativeness at the national level was issued on 16 July 1993; and
  • the Confederation of Trade Unions ΄90 of Slovenia (Konfederacija sindikatov '90 Slovenije, Konfederacija '90) has one member on the ESSS. Its membership is mainly in the coastal region (municipalities along the Adriatic coast, such as Koper-Capodistria, Izola, Piran and other parts of this region bordering Italy and Croatia). Its headquarters are in Koper-Capodistria and its president is Boris Mazalin. It was created following a split from ZSSS. A written order confirming its representativeness at the national level was issued on 30 August 1993.

In addition to these four bodies there are two other organisations which were created more recently and which do not have members on the ESSS:

  • the Slovene Union of Trade Unions Alternativa (Slovenska zveza sindikatov Alternativa, Alternativa). A written order confirming its representativeness at the national level was issued on 3 November 1999 and its president is Branko Krznarič; and
  • Union of Workers' Solidarity (Zveza delavcev Solidarnost, Solidarnost). A written order confirming its representativeness at the national level was issued on 22 May 2001 and its president is Albert Pavlič.

In specific sectors and occupations there is a larger group of strong and autonomous, mainly white-collar trade unions, in particular in the public social services sector (healthcare, education etc), transport and banking. Many of these originate in splits from ZSSS. There are also one or two smaller regional trade unions, organising workers within certain former municipalities. At the lowest level - companies and service units - there are some autonomous trade unions organised mainly in companies/units predominantly employing blue-collar workers. They will sooner or later be forced to join a larger trade union, in order at least to provide free legal assistance to their members.

Trade union density

After the change of socio-economic system, the rate of union density in Slovenia decreased, because membership in trade unions became voluntary and due to extensive restructuring of the Slovene economy, particularly traditional sectors with a high union density (textiles, mining, steel and iron production, footwear and leather, and especially the metalworking industry). The abovementioned September 1994 survey found that 59.6% of the total active population were members of trade unions (and 4.6% of the non-active population), and 63.5% of all employed persons (23.3% of unemployed people). Some 54.9% of 'white-collar' workers and 75.9% of 'blue-collar' workers were union members. Union density fell from practically 100% before 1990 to 63.5% in 1994 and (according to another telephone survey) about 42% in 1999.


Regarding the Law on the Representativeness of Trade Unions (LRTU), a key issue which remains to be resolved and regulated appropriately is the renewal of the representative status of certain trade unions. Some unions state that a union should not be granted representative status for an indefinite period, as is now the case. The status should be renewed at certain reasonable intervals. Another unclear issue is the definition of federation and confederation. The LRTU does not determine the minimum number of affiliated branch or occupation trade unions necessary for an umbrella organisation to be considered a federation or confederation. The practice is that two affiliated branch or occupation trade unions are enough. In ILO documents, representative federations or confederations are called the 'most representative' organisations. In the LRTU this term was deliberately not used because at the beginning of the development of trade unions there was a desire to be neutral and not designate certain unions as 'better' than others. (Stefan Skledar, on behalf of the Institute for Labour Law, University of Ljublana)

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