Trade union strategies to recruit new groups of workers – Czech Republic

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Social partners,
  • Industrial relations,
  • Published on: 13 May 2010

Jaroslav Hála

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

Post-communist trade unions were formed after 1989, when, following the collapse of the single Revolutionary Trade Union Movement, more than 70 trade unions began operating, organised mainly according to economic activity. Trade unions are most successful in large companies with over 250 employees. Membership also depends on whether the enterprise is owned by the state, a foreign owner or a Czech entity. There is a low proportion of young members.

1. Trade union membership and density rates: data and research

1.1. Please provide trade union membership and union density rates since 1990 (1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2007).

The evolution of trade union membership in the Czech Republic since the start of the 1990s is characterised by a constant decline, affecting basically all trade union formations. This decline has been registered by sociological research carried out by the Public Opinion Research Centre (Centrum pro výzkum veřejného mínění, CVVM) of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology (Sociologický ústav Akademie věd, SOÚ) since the beginning of the 1990s, and the trade unions themselves corroborate this trend. Based on the available data and estimates provided by trade union representatives, the number of trade union members among employees was about 860,000 at the end of 2004 and union density among employees was around 22% (Mansfeldová and Kroupa, 2005). Neither the trade unions nor employer organisations are obliged to report or document the size of their membership. In 2007 or 2008, the number of trade union members among employees was not more than 800,000, according to an estimate of the Research Institute for Labour and Social Affairs (Výzkumný ústav práce a sociálních věcí, RILSA), and union density among employees in the private sector was 20% at most.

The following table outlines trends in the proportion of trade union members in the population aged over 15 years and among employees in approximately five-year periods since 1990.

Trade union membership in working age population and among employees (%)

Year / Month

Proportion of union members in population aged over 15 years

Proportion of union members among employees

1990 / October



1995 / September



2000 / October



2003 / July



Notes: No data for 2005 or 2007. The survey sample size was 2,238 persons.

Source: CVVM, project MS 5 ‘Methods and effectiveness of mediating interests’, survey of the population, 2003

1.2. Please indicate the presence and content of recent studies (since 2000) on trade union membership of particular groups of workers, such as women, young people, migrants, white-collar workers, service workers, workers with ‘atypical’ contractual arrangements, and/or other groups of workers which are relatively less represented in trade union membership in your country.

The issue is covered chiefly by Mansfeldová and Kroupa (2005); however, the study mainly explores trade union membership in general and does not focus on the membership of particular groups of workers – apart from young workers.

The study highlights the findings of a project examining barriers to trade union membership that restrict the capacity for action of trade union organisations and constrain the capacity for social dialogue (Hála et al, 2005). The study also addresses the issue of trade union membership among young workers. It finds that, besides systemic barriers – chiefly of a legal nature – there are also certain unfavourable aspects in public attitudes towards social dialogue and trade unions, as shown by the findings of surveys on union membership. Trade union activities and objectives are not attractive enough for young people, who are not willing to participate in trade union administration. The project made some recommendations for improving the situation.

2. Trade union membership: national debates

2.1 Please indicate whether in your country there are ongoing national debates on trade union representation and membership and their recent developments. In particular, you should indicate whether existing discussions address the following topics and illustrate the main actors and positions in such debates, reserving special attention for the views of the trade unions which have engaged in specific organising efforts.

a) Declining trade union membership and/or density

Although this is a problem that has been felt for a long time, the question of stabilising membership and recruiting new trade union members became particularly pressing after 2000. At that stage, the question started to be viewed from the perspective of the capacity of social dialogue and collective bargaining and it had become clear that the decline in trade union membership in the Czech Republic was continuing despite the number of statements made and measures taken.

In addition, during this period, economic transformation processes were proceeding in the Czech economy, while at the same time the influx of foreign capital was reaching a peak and new green-field enterprises were being established in large numbers. These developments presented the Czech trade unions with new challenges and opportunities linked to the possibility of succeeding in a multinational environment and addressing potential members. At the same time, the need for a conceptual approach to trade union recruitment became clear.

b) Inclusion of women


c) Inclusion of young people


d) Inclusion of migrants


e) Inclusion of workers in specific professional groups


f) Inclusion of workers with particular contractual arrangements, such as part-time workers, temporary agency workers, self-employed people or freelancers


g) Differences across sectors (manufacturing and services, private sector and public sector, large and small enterprises)


h) Differences across regions


i) Any other dimensions (to be specified) which are relevant in your country

In the Czech Republic, developments in labour legislation have traditionally been very important for the position of the trade unions. In connection with the preparation of an extensive governmental so-called conceptual amendment of the labour code, which has drawn considerable attention – not just among specialist circles – there has been debate on legislative questions concerning the status of employee representatives, the representativeness of trade unions and collective agreements, and trade union powers. One of the reasons for some of the proposed measures is the decline in trade union membership.

In October 2008, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs of the Czech Republic (Ministerstvo práce a sociálních věcí České republiky, MPSV ČR) published material on its website for public discussion; this material was the result of the work of an expert panel comprising labour law specialists. According to the authors of the material, it seeks to liberalise labour law and make employment relations more flexible.

Regarding the representativeness of the trade unions and the conclusion of collective agreements, the authors recommend defining the following rules to cover cases where collective agreements concluded by trade union organisations also cover employees who are not trade union members. Under the present legislation, a trade union organisation concludes a collective agreement for all of the employees at an employer; however, it is proposed that this should be the case only if the members of the trade union organisation that concluded the collective agreement account for more than half of the company’s employees or if more than half of the employees expressed their consent to the collective agreement. Every employee will have the right to opt out of the collective agreement as a whole.

One argument is that the employer and employee are the fundamental entities in industrial relations, whereas trade union organisations are merely employee representatives through which they may express their will; the membership and representativeness of certain trade union organisations is decreasing constantly. Putting the proposal into practice should result in employees being more involved in the work of trade union organisations and employees’ ideas being reflected more in the trade unions’ work. In addition, it is proposed that trade union organisations’ co-deciding empowerment should be downgraded to the right to consultation, which the authors describe as a liberalising move. The trade unions, however, infer that these proposals would weaken the position of trade union organisations.

Another proposal is that an employer would only be obligated in respect of a trade union organisation if the trade union has at least three members. According to the unions, this would lead to a restriction on the freedom of association under the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, which is enshrined in the constitution. The proposed legislation would suppress trade union organisations formed on a regional principle and representing the employees of more than one employer. Even if employees became members of this kind of trade union organisation, it could not represent them towards an employer in labour relations.

The trade unions are prepared to organise public protests against the planned amendment of the labour code and have not ruled out a general strike. On the other hand, the Czech Chamber of Commerce (Hospodářská komora ČR) rejected the trade union’s threat. In its opinion, as all of the prepared changes in the labour code amendment had not yet been finalised and the definitive form of the legislation was not even known, it regarded the trade unions’ reaction as a self-serving political gesture in the run-up to the regional and senate elections.

3. Trade union initiatives to recruit new groups of workers

3.1 Please provide information on any major organising actions and campaigns (at least three) started by trade unions in your countries, since 2000, either aimed at the general workforce or at specific groups of workers (please include at least two examples of this latter type), such as: women; young workers; migrants; workers in particular sectors; workers in specific professional groups; workers with certain contractual arrangements, such as part-time workers, temporary agency workers, self-employed people or freelancers.

For each initiative, please clearly indicate the:

a) trade union organisations involved

b) reasons which have led to these actions and campaigns

c) target groups (all employees, only certain groups, such as those just mentioned above or others to be specified)

d) strategies used (for instance, direct campaigns and contacts with workers at workplaces, widespread public communication and information campaigns, and web campaigns)

e) focus of such strategies (basically either collective bargaining and interest representation or service provision)

f) level at which they take place (national, local, company)

g) evaluations of the relevant trade unions on:

i) the effectiveness of the specific strategies used; and ii) the outcomes in terms of increased membership, cooperation between trade unions, relations across trade unions, and relations with employers, both in the short and in the long term

h) presence and outcomes of official/independent assessments, if present

First initiative

On 24 March 2003, the Council of the Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions (Českomoravská konfederace odborových svazů, ČMKOS) discussed the recruitment of new members at its extraordinary session. The discussion focused on suggestions put forward by ČMKOS and the unions associated in ČMKOS to support the recruitment of new members. Although all of the members of the confederation were meant to contribute ideas and opinions, only nine trade unions out of a total of 34 responded. This was not the first survey focusing on member unions – it followed on from a similar project in 2000 and further research through the trade union press.

The ČMKOS Council stated that the percentage of employees who were trade union members in the Czech Republic was close to the European average. However, as significant transformation processes were taking place in the Czech labour market and leading to declining membership, the trade unions had to focus constantly on recruiting new members and had to provide their members with services that responded to these changes in order to preserve and develop social dialogue at various levels. As part of the discussion, the following key generalisations were formulated and the council highlighted above all the need for detailed sociological research and subsequent analysis of the causes of falling membership.

The need to retain trade union membership when ownership of the employer changed – that is, a transfer of membership – was emphasised, as well as the possibility of preserving membership even during periods of unemployment. According to the ČMKOS leadership, specific measures should be taken to improve the trade unions’ image and authority in society. The trade union movement in the Czech Republic is fragmented; basic organisations are splitting from trade unions and certain member unions are leaving umbrella organisations. Thus, it is necessary to support amalgamation tendencies in trade union formations and strengthen integration tendencies within trade union structures in general.

The ČMKOS Council drew attention to the vital need for a strategic approach, particularly with regard to targeting groups of employees in recruitment processes. It was stated that people seeking to join trade unions increasingly have a secondary and higher education. Furthermore, likely recruits are those starting a family who feel the need for increased protection so that they can proceed with their plans to get housing loans or money to furnish flats, for example.

It was agreed that all of the ČMKOS organisational structures should take part in the recruitment drive and that, depending on their nature, individual activities should be managed at various levels. The ČMKOS leadership should manage legislative issues, strategic relations with employer organisations, measures to improve the member unions’ public image and calling for the creation of a tripartite administration of the Social Insurance Company and Accident Insurance Company. Trade unions or regional organisations should manage the use of their websites, develop specialist training for officials and members, including interunion thematic seminars focusing on experience sharing, and increase the promotion of trade union membership. Basic organisations in the workplace also have an important role to play.

Second initiative

The trade unions are key actors in the stabilisation of membership and recruitment of new members in the Czech Republic. Activities undertaken by the biggest trade union in the Czech Republic – the Metalworkers’ Trade Union (Odborový svaz KOVO, OS KOVO), affiliated to ČMKOS – are a typical example of trade union action in this regard. As part of the so-called OS KOVO Trade Union Offensive – which, according to the union itself, resulted in the most dynamic establishment of new basic organisations since 1993, that is, since systematic monitoring of the union’s membership began – the trade union first analysed the barriers to union membership and sought new recruitment techniques. In this context, OS KOVO states that all basic and local organisations actively took part in the internal enquiry; local organisations do not operate at a particular employer but focus on a particular region.

The trade union also drew on suggestions and ideas of its member organisations, and a Trade Union Offensive Commission was set up to analyse them. According to the trade union leadership, due to this commission, the entire network of methodological workplaces of OS KOVO in the regions was successfully activated and good results were achieved in terms of the growth in the number of basic organisations at companies where OS KOVO had not previously operated.

Third initiative

Another example worth mentioning in this regard is the Czech-Moravian Trade Union of Workers in Education (Českomoravský odborový svaz pracovníků školství, ČMOS PŠ), affiliated to ČMKOS. To recruit new members and stabilise its existing membership, this union also conducted a questionnaire-based survey of its members to analyse the causes for the decline in member numbers and generate suggestions to improve the state of affairs. After evaluating its member organisations’ ideas, the union leadership formulated a recruitment strategy and measures to activate the membership base. The campaign focused mainly on improving internal communication within the trade union, using media publicity and organising other information activities among the teaching public.

These three examples imply that the trade unions have expended considerable effort in a number of practical measures, including making broad use of websites, recruitment leaflets, setting up various support funds, press campaigns and also the planned organisation of targeted recruitment campaigns among employees of newly founded enterprises.

The choice of the best method is based on a trade union’s experience and knowledge, and depends on the given branch, conditions and people involved. In some new companies, employees would be willing to join a trade union but not to hold trade union posts; there are usually not enough resources to provide for full-time officials in any case.

3.2 Please indicate whether organising initiatives in general (i.e. beyond the specific instances illustrated above) are ‘concentrated’ or ‘diffused’, in terms of trade unions involved (only certain trade union organisations are active or there are no significant variations) and of target groups (they focus only on certain groups of workers or they are part of more general approaches to organising).

The nature of the decline in trade union membership, which affects all trade union organisations across the board in the Czech Republic, means that the unions’ drive to tackle this unfavourable tendency applies to the trade union movement as a whole. Nevertheless, the initiative taken by major trade union groupings, which have the best personnel and resources for recruiting purposes, cannot be overlooked in this universal trade union campaign. Regarding the focus of the trade unions’ efforts to recruit new members, this is not limited to particular target groups – with the exception of young people, who are seen as a specific recruitment target group.

3.3 Please indicate the role of ‘new trade unions’ and of ‘grassroots movements’ in organising initiatives in general (i.e. beyond the specific instances illustrated above) compared with the role played by long-established trade unions and, if relevant, whether cooperation or competition emerged between these types of actors.

This differentiation is not relevant to the situation in the Czech Republic. In general, it is fair to say that the trade unions play a key role in planning and undertaking specific recruitment activities. In the case of newly formed companies, the trade union’s initiative – as the case of OS KOVO demonstrates – often tends to be crucial to the formation of a new company-level trade union organisation; a typical example is Panasonic AVC Networks Czech. However, a specific role of new trade unions or the existence of grassroots movements in this field was not identified.

4. Commentary

4.1 Please provide your own comments on the present state and recent trends in trade union representation and membership, as well as on the ongoing debates in your country and on future prospects.

Although the trade unions in the Czech Republic have expended considerable effort in trying to redress the current trend of declining membership, recruiting new members is not really a priority in the trade unions’ work, particularly at this point in time. Comparing the current rate of union membership with the situation in 1990 – when there was 99% membership – is not objective as the trade unions generally agree that the almost total trade union membership in the communist period was unnatural and that some loss of membership is therefore logical and to be expected. In addition, of primary importance for the position of the Czech trade unions is the final outcome of the talks on the amendment of the labour code, which may weaken the unions’ overall position in labour relations, with related consequences for social dialogue.


Hála, J., Kroupa, A. and Vašková, R., ‘Možnosti a bariéry členství v odborech’ [Possibilities of and barriers to trade union membership], in Mansfeldová, Z. and Kroupa, A., Participace a zájmové organizace v České republice [Participation and special-interest organisations in the Czech Republic], Prague, SLON, 2005.

Mansfeldová, Z. and Kroupa, A., Participace a zájmové organizace v České republice [Participation and special-interest organisations in the Czech Republic], Prague, SLON, 2005.

Jaroslav Hála, Research Institute for Labour and Social Affairs (RILSA)

Useful? Interesting? Tell us what you think. Hide comments

Add new comment