The development and current situation of trade unions

Estonia has two trade union confederations, EAKL and TALO, which between them represent about 14% of the labour force. This article outlines the development of unions since the beginning of the 1990s and examines the situation in 2003, looking at their organisation, structure, activity, membership and density, as well as the legislative framework.

In this feature, we trace the development of trade unions in Estonia since the end of the Soviet era and examine their current organisation, structure, activity, membership and density, as well as the legislative framework.


The process of reorganisation of Estonian trade unions began in the last years of the Soviet system (Estonia was part of the Soviet Union until the latter was dissolved, becoming independent in 1991). The trade unions gave up their previous role of acting as an 'executive organ' and supporter of the Soviet state, and of playing a role in the state system of social insurance and distribution of benefits. In 1990, the main principles for future trade union activities were drawn up, and the principles of social partnership were developed and efforts made to instil these principles into public consciousness. The main emphasis was placed on influencing employees’ pay and employment conditions through bipartite and tripartite agreements.

At this stage, the first steps were taken towards separation of the trade unions from the Soviet All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions and the creation of a new, independent central organisation. The Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions (Eesti Ametiühingute Keskliit, EAKL) was formed in April 1990 on the basis of an association of independent trade union organisations. Since this reorganisation, EAKL has mainly been active in three spheres: participation in the drafting of laws; negotiations with the government and employers, and consulting and training union members. EAKL signed a first national agreement on 'social guarantees' with the government in February 1991.

The first central organisation of employers, the Estonian Confederation of Industry (Eesti Tööstuse Keskliit, ETKEL), was founded in November 1991 and a first tripartite agreement between ETKEL, EAKL and the government was concluded in February 1992. In May 1995, ETKEL was reorganised into the Estonian Confederation of Industry and Employers (Eesti Tööstuse ja Tööandjate Keskliit, ETTK). In November 1995, employers' associations in the service sphere formed a second employers' confederation, the Estonian Confederation of Employers' Organisations (Eesti Tööandjate Ühenduste Keskliit, ETÜKL). ETTK and ETÜKL acknowledged each other as independent employers' associations, engaged in constructive cooperation and participated together in negotiations with the unions and government. In November 1997, the two organisations merged to form the Estonian Employers’ Confederation (Eesti Tööandjate Keskliit, ETTK), which has been member of the International Organisation of Employers (IOE) since March 1998 and an associate member of the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) since January 2003.

In September 1992, the trade union federations representing science, cultural, educational and public health workers split from EAKL, forming a separate central organisation, the Estonian Employees’ Unions’ Confederation (Teenistujate Ametiliitude Keskorganisatsioon, TALO). TALO has been taking part in bipartite and tripartite negotiations since 1993 and has concluded various agreements with the government, associations of local authorities, employers and non-governmental organisations, mainly on wage and employment issues.

Tripartite consultation, information exchange and negotiation occur between the government and representatives of employers and employees. The EAKL and TALO trade union confederations conduct some tripartite and bipartite negotiations at national level together and some separately. As EAKL is the larger organisation it has more weight in such national bargaining. ETTK represents the employers’ side in the negotiations. In total, by August 2003, 16 national agreements had been signed. Tripartite agreements concluded at national level cover the entire labour force, and in some cases the whole population. Tripartite and bipartite negotiations are held between various parties at the central level on employment and social issues, focusing mainly on reaching wage agreements.

Legislative context

According to the Constitution of Estonia, employees can freely join trade unions and enjoy the right to form trade union organisations in their enterprises. The Trade Unions Act was adopted on 14 June 2000 (until which time a 1989 law on trade unions was still valid). The purpose of the Act is to guarantee workers' rights to establish and join unions in full freedom without previous authorisation and freely choose trade union representatives. The Act guarantees trade unions a number of rights including information and consultation, training of members, inspecting labour conditions at the workplace and priority in concluding collective agreements. The Act also lays down rules on trade unions' relations with central and local government bodies and employers, as well as provisions concerning the setting up, activities and termination of trade unions (which operate as non-profit organisations). Since December 2000, there also exist administrative sanctions (fines) for breaches of trade unions rights.

The main basis for the tripartite and bipartite negotiations is the Collective Agreements Act of 14 April 1993. A tripartite collective agreement may be entered into between central federations of unions of employees, central federations of employers and the government, or between local federations of unions of employees, federations of employers and local government bodies. Tripartite collective agreements may deal with: the minimum wage and the procedure for amending it based on rises in the cost of living; additional measures to ensure occupational safety and health; additional employment guarantees; other additional guarantees pertaining to employment which are considered necessary; and procedures for monitoring the application of the collective agreement and providing necessary information.

Structure and main organisations

At national level, as noted above, the various sector-based trade union organisations are grouped into two central trade union confederations, which are internationally and nationally recognised as social partners, as follows.

  • EAKL is a voluntary grouping of national trade unions and is the largest trade union organisation in Estonia. EAKL was established on 12 April 1990 and is the successor of former Soviet-era Estonian trade unions. It has 19 affiliates/member organisations and a total membership of around 47,500 (in 2002), employed mainly in the private sector (industry, transport and services), state and local authorities and healthcare, usually in blue-collar jobs. EAKL is acknowledged by politicians, employers and TALO as the most representative workers’ organisation in Estonia and is the most active partner in social dialogue, mainly in tripartite consultations and negotiations. The subjects dealt with in tripartite negotiations to which EAKL has been a party include: the minimum wage; tax exemptions; employee participation; unemployment allowances; and 'employment councils'. EAKL has made contributions to drawing up legislation in areas such as national old-age pension insurance, health insurance and 'social taxes'. Since 1994, EAKL has been a member of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and since 2002 a full member of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).
  • TALO is the second voluntary grouping of national trade unions, and was established on 28 September 1992 as a split from EAKL. TALO has 12 major affiliated organisations and its members work in the fields of education, culture, media, agriculture, sports, science, technology and healthcare. In 2002, TALO had approximately 37,000 members, mainly white-collar workers. Its main activities are aimed at addressing its members' problems in the areas of work, pay, holidays and social guarantees, and at ensuring social justice. TALO has taken an active part in consultations on medical insurance and pension reform. Since 2002, TALO has been a member of ETUC.

Unlike TALO, EAKL has regional branches in the five regions of Estonia. Their aim is to advise existing unions and promote the creation new ones. One regional employment pact has been concluded by EAKL, in the Ida-Viru region, aimed at promoting employment and fighting unemployment through measures drawn up through social partnership.

Trade unions in Estonia are organised around the sectoral principle, ie they organise employees in a specific industry. The majority of trade union organisations represent an entire sector, although there are exceptions. Some industries, such as construction and banking, have very little union presence. The largest and most influential sectoral trade unions are: the Estonian Transport and Road Workers' Trade Union (Transpordi ja Teetöötajate Ametiühing); the Estonian Light Industry Workers' Union (Kergetööstustöötajate Ametiühingute Liit); and the Association of Estonian Energy Workers’ Trade Unions (Energeetikatöötajate Ametiühingute Liit).

There are some trade unions that do not belong to any association or central body and act autonomously. Their role outside their own organisation is practically invisible and their political influence not-existent. Nevertheless, at various times some of them have drawn public attention in connection with strike threats and similar activities. The membership of these unions is unknown, but the secretary of EAKL, Harri Taliga, estimates the number at 8,000-10,000.

Membership and density

The overall trade union membership level is low. Union density was around 14% of the labour force in 2002 and has declined sharply over the period of Estonia's political and economic transition - see the table below.

Trade union membership and union density in Estonia, 1992-2002
. 1992 1994 1996 1998 2000 2002
Labour force (aged 15-69 years) 790,500 730,900 687,700 668,600 658,200 649,500
EAKL members 609,900 200,000 119,300 65,100 57,900 47,500
TALO members 60,000 50,000 45,000 40,000 40,000 35,000
Total union members * 669,900 250,200 164,300 105,100 97,900 82,500
Union density 88.0% 37.0% 26.5% 17.4% 17.2% 14.2%

* The actual number of union members in 2000 and 2002 is somewhat higher than stated in table, as the latter does not include members of unions outside EAKL and TALO, estimated at 8,000-10,000 (see main text above).

Sources: EAKL, TALO, Statistical Office of Estonia.

As in other central and eastern European countries, there are many reasons for the decline of union density in Estonia. The most important factors appear to have been privatisation and a shift in the balance of the economy from manufacturing (where unions were relatively strong) to services (where they are relatively weak). There are also difficulties in gaining recognition in small and foreign-owned firms, and in the services and banking sector. Factors such as employers’ attitudes and technological change have mostly had a negative influence on union membership.

The low level of membership is accompanied by a low level of collective bargaining coverage (TN0207104F), which is roughly equal to trade union membership. There is no binding collective bargaining at a higher level than the enterprise, and agreements thus cannot be extended further, leaving the coverage rate low.

It should be mentioned that there are no other forms of workers representation, such as works councils, in Estonia. Thus industrial relations are mainly regulated through minimum standards set at national level, partially through social dialogue on national level, and through individual contracts at enterprise level.


Social partnership is not very well developed in Estonia. This is reflected in the country's development process and the implementation of employment policies. Social dialogue is better developed at national level than at other levels, where it is virtually missing. The weak development of social partnership is, primarily, the result of poorly developed social partner organisations, evident in their low level of representation and institutional and financial shortcomings.

An overall decrease in the active labour force and increase in unemployment have contributed to the decrease in trade union membership. Furthermore, the lack of propensity for workers to take part in trade unions has several other causes. One of the main reasons is the shortcomings of a legal framework that gives little support to industrial democracy. Estonia has no legislation on co-determination but, as industrial relations are often employer-dominated, strict legislative rules on employee participation are necessary to improve the situation in this area. The low level of activity of trade union organisations is also the result of their relatively bad financial state. Trade unions largely lack the experience and skills that would allow them to be successful in bargaining with employers, and their overall negotiating power is thus not very high, while society is often not sufficiently informed about trade union activities. Despite these problems, unions have gained some positive results. Mainly due to trade unions, there is a functioning social dialogue, constantly rising minimum wages and unemployment benefits. Over the years, increasing attention has been paid to employment-related issues at national level. Future prospects for the development of trade unions and social dialogue in Estonia are good, as there are ever closer links and cooperation with trade union organisations at European level as well as with unions in other Baltic and Scandinavian countries. (Kaia Philips, Raul Eamets, University of Tartu)

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