Study shows mixed reaction to trade unions

A study commissioned by the Estonian Trade Union Confederation sought to explore the general opinion of the population regarding trade unions, along with the attitudes of stakeholders, trade union activists and members towards trade unions and their activities. The study revealed that a large proportion of the population is not well informed about trade union activities and that terms such as ‘weak’ and ‘passive’ are often used to describe trade unions.

In 2009, the Estonian Trade Union Confederation (Eesti Ametiühingute Keskliit, EAKL) commissioned a study by the research agency Faktum & Ariko, in the framework of the European Social Fund programme to raise the administrative capacity of trade unions. It sought to explore the general opinion of the population regarding trade unions, along with the attitudes of stakeholders, trade union activists and members towards trade unions and their activities.

Low awareness among general population

The population survey had a sample size of 1,050 persons. Although trade unions were one of the most frequently mentioned citizen movements, the study revealed that about 30%–40% of respondents had no viewpoint regarding the activities of trade unions. Only 4% of the survey respondents were trade union members, most of them aged 35–54 years. Some 22% of respondents who were not trade union members stated that they did not see the use of joining a union, while 18% said that they had not thought about it. At the same time, 23% could be regarded as potential trade union members – although they declared that they would join, there is no trade union in their company or organisation.

Negative perception of trade unions

The main terms used to describe trade unions included ‘weak’ and ‘protector of employees’ rights’. Just 40% of the population find that trade unions represent employees’ interests in reality. The main reason for this attitude is the perception that employees do not get the help they need from trade unions and that the unions represent the interests of the employer and trade union management rather than the employees.

When respondents were asked to assess the trade union role in issues related to employee interests, the evaluation was largely negative. Informing employees of their legal rights was assessed the most positively – with 27% of respondents assessing trade unions as strong or very strong in this regard. However, 36% of respondents still feel that trade unions are weak in this area (35% did not give any answer). A more negative assessment was given in relation to legal aid granted to discriminated workers, with 43% assessing trade unions as weak or very weak in this area (40% did not answer). In wage negotiations, more than half (52%) of the survey respondents stated that trade unions are weak or very weak (30% did not express an opinion).

Another 45% of respondents feel that trade unions are not strong partners for the state and employers. However, it is important to keep in mind that most of the respondents were not trade union members. Moreover, the difficult labour market situation is likely to have had a significant impact on these results.

Stakeholders show positive attitudes

The attitudes of stakeholders reflect the opinions of politicians and high-level civil servants. The sample size for this group was 55 persons, but not all individuals answered the questionnaire. It was pointed out that while the national trade union confederation is visible for stakeholders, the sectoral trade unions are less visible. In describing EAKL, positive aspects included communication with cooperation partners, constructive negotiations and the quality of legislative proposals; on the other hand, passivity was the main negative aspect highlighted. Stakeholders’ expectations towards trade unions include an increase in the unions’ public visibility and a more proactive approach. In addition, more discussions are expected on different topics.

Members describe trade unions as useful but weak

Also participating in the survey were 21 trade union activists and 118 trade union members. While trade union activists described Estonian trade unions as ‘weak’ and ‘not influential’, claiming that cooperation between trade union organisations is problematic, trade union members were more positive in their assessments. For instance, 83% found trade union membership to be useful as trade unions protect their interests, while 80% were satisfied with their trade union.

Some 53% of trade union members viewed trade unions as strong or very strong partners to the state and employers, while 40% felt the opposite. A further 43% of members considered trade unions as weak in the wage bargaining process. The study also revealed that while trade unions individually were considered to be useful and efficient, members had expected that their role in society would become stronger and more active.

Liina Osila and Kirsti Nurmela, PRAXIS Centre for Policy Studies

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