Trade union strategies to recruit new groups of workers – Greece

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Social partners,
  • Industrial relations,
  • Published on: 16 May 2010

Sofia Lampousaki

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.

The growth in female employment, migration, flexible forms of employment and the shrinking of the public sector pose a challenge to trade unionism, which is mainly oriented towards the traditional model of the male, public sector employee. The issue of organising flexible workers is gaining more attention, after a series of fatal accidents of workers employed by subcontractors and due to the economic crisis, with trade unions undertaking various initiatives in this regard.

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).

In Greece, there are three categories of trade union members, whose numbers vary widely: registered members, paid-up members and members entitled to vote in the elections of the trade union organisations. Union density is calculated on the basis of the third category. The following table has been derived from the relevant data.

Trade union density, 1992–2007 (%)

Union density











Notes: This is ‘net’ union density, which is calculated on the basis of all paid employees, not counting unemployed people. The calculations have been made on the basis of data from the respective conferences of the Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE) and the Confederation of Public Servants (ADEDY) regarding the number of members who voted in the elections, as well as data from the Labour Force Survey of the National Statistical Service of Greece (Εθνική Στατιστική Υπηρεσία της Ελλάδος, ESYE) regarding the extent of paid employment.

Source: Palaiologos, 2006; Kouzis, 2007; Triantafillou, 2008

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.

  • Women: The data available on female trade union membership in Greece examine their attendance at conferences and their membership in the executives of trade union bodies. The figures indicate that since 1993 in the Greek General Confederation of Labour (Γενική Συνομοσπονδία Εργατών Ελλάδας, GSEE) the number of female members of union executives has varied between one and five out of a total of 45 members, and women’s rate of participation in conferences ranges between 4% and 6%. In the Confederation of Public Servants (Ανώτατη Διοίκηση Ενώσεων Δημοσίων Υπαλλήλων, ADEDY) for the same time period, the number of women who are members of the executive ranges between five and 13 out of a total of 85 members (Kouzis, 2007).
  • Young people: No data are available on the age of trade union members. Nevertheless, it is estimated that union membership among people aged under 29 years in the private sector is particularly low (Kouzis, 2007).
  • Migrants: A sectoral study carried out in 2007 in the construction industry showed that 36.1% of people employed in this sector in the east-central region of Attica were foreigners and 38.71% of members of the construction workers’ union in the capital city of Athens were from other countries. A total of 20 foreign workers are elected members of the executives of union branches, out of about 180 representatives in the region of Attica; this constitutes a proportion of 11.11%. No foreigners are members of the executive of the construction workers’ federation (Kapsalis, 2004).
  • Workers with atypical contractual agreements: Trade union membership among workers in employment relationships that differ from the traditional model of full-time work of indefinite duration is mainly concentrated among workers in state-owned enterprises. This is unsurprising, considering that trade unionism has traditionally been more developed in the public sector (Kouzis, 2007).

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

Union density has shown a constant downward trend during the last 15 years, following the more general trend internationally since the mid 1980s. Among the causes of the decrease in union density are the following:

  • a rise in unemployment to high levels, increasing workers’ sense of insecurity. Fear of unemployment prevents people from joining trade unions. In recent years, GSEE has provided advisory services for unemployed people wishing to enter the labour market, through the Information Centre for Workers and the Unemployed (Κέντρο Πληροφόρησης Εργαζομένων και Ανέργων, KEPEA);
  • a lower employment rate in industry. In the mid 1980s, industry represented 26% of employment; however, the figure had declined to 13% by 2005. In the manufacturing sector, employment fell by 18,621 persons in the 1993–2005 period, and half of these people lost their jobs in two years, 2004 and 2005;
  • more widespread flexible forms of employment. In Greece, trade union membership among workers in forms of employment varying from the traditional model of full-time work of indefinite duration is low in the private sector, and is present mainly in the broader public sector encompassing public utilities and services (Δημόσιες Επιχειρήσεις Κοινής Ωφέλειας, DEKO). Here, workers with fixed-term employment contracts (so-called contract or temporary workers) have set up employee organisations;
  • an increase in women’s employment. Women’s participation in trade unions does not usually keep pace with the rates of increase in female employment (Kouzis, 2007).

b) Inclusion of women

The issue of women’s relatively low presence in the trade union movement has been raised mainly by women’s organisations, women’s secretariats in the trade union organisations – primarily, the Women’s Secretariat of GSEE and the Secretariat for Equality of the Greek Federation of Bank Employee Unions (Ομοσπονδια Τραπεζουπαλληλικων Οργανωσεων Ελλαδασ, OTOE) – as well as female trade unionists. There have not been many studies on the question of women’s presence in trade unions, and articles and books contain few references. According to Arvanitaki (2004), the reasons that women do not join trade unions can be summarised as follows.

  • Women continue to bear most of the responsibility for family commitments. The relations of power within the family have not changed.
  • Women constitute the vast majority of people in precarious forms of employment, where trade union organisation is not particularly well developed.
  • Trade unions are dominated by men. The model of a union member has become identified with the male gender. The few women who manage to get elected adapt to the model of the male trade unionist. A large proportion of male trade unionists continue to believe that women’s place is in the private rather than the public sphere (Arvanitaki, 2004).

c) Differences across private sector and public sector

The representation of paid employees in Greek trade unions is not uniformly distributed between the private and public sectors of the economy. According to 2004 data, union density in the private sector is very low, at around 18%. By contrast, union density in the public and broader public sector is about 60% (Kouzis, 2007).

The workers’ side believes that this situation is due to the:

  • predominance of small enterprises in the private sector. The law stipulates that 21 members are needed to set up a trade union. Companies with more than 21 employees constitute only 2% of the private sector in Greece;
  • absence of the statutory framework necessary to have a trade union representative in companies where there is no trade union, and in small enterprises with fewer than 21 employees in particular;
  • particularly negative attitude of a large proportion of employers in the private sector towards trade unions;
  • greater sense of job security among employees in the public sector than in the private sector;
  • relatively low use of flexible forms of employment in the public sector compared with the situation in the private sector (Kouzis, 2007).

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.

a) Actions aimed at general workforce

In 2000, GSEE set up KEPEA for the purpose of providing information to employed and unemployed Greek and foreign workers. There was increased need for an organised support network for employed and unemployed people, and for greater contacts between employed and unemployed persons and the Greek trade unions.

Within KEPEA, an Industrial Relations Office and an Insurance Affairs Office provide information services to workers on the application of labour legislation and social insurance legislation respectively. For migrants in particular, there is an Economic Migrants Office. A Job Finding Office is also available. The Guidance Office is directed at unemployed people, with the main aim of assisting and supporting them in their vocational development, taking an individualised approach, including helping them to find the right job. It is also directed at broader groups such as employed people or economic migrants, who may obtain multifaceted guidance and support in their work-related problems and difficulties. The Support Office gathers, analyses and processes the qualitative characteristics of unemployed people who visit KEPEA, the questions that workers ask and the problems of concern to economic migrants at any given time. The Legal Office backs up the work of the various departments of KEPEA/GSEE, providing expert opinion and making available all the labour and insurance legislation and case law, so that all workers are aware of their employment and insurance rights. It helps to resolve disputes, intercedes with the competent agencies as it sees fit, and in general provides legal support to workers and trade union organisations at advisory level through its legal consultants.

This initiative focuses on the provision of services. It is carried out at national level. KEPEA’s head offices are in Athens and it also has regional centres. No studies have evaluated the service, but empirically its contribution could be evaluated as important.

b) Inclusion of women

The Secretariat for Equality of OTOE was instituted at OTOE’s 22nd Conference in October 1993, continuing the activity of OTOE’s Women’s Committee that began in the 1980s. There was an awareness of the need for a separate body to represent women’s views in the framework of the trade union, for the more effective advancement of the demands of female workers.

Through its activity, OTOE’s Secretariat for Equality has sought to reinforce social dialogue at sectoral level by setting up a Bipartite Sectoral Committee for Equal Opportunities, which includes representatives from OTOE and the Hellenic Bank Association (Ελληνική Ένωση Τραπεζών). The secretariat has also sought to reinforce the dialogue at company level by setting up Joint Committees for Equal Opportunities in each bank. In practice, however, despite the fact that they have been stipulated by law, these committees have either not come into operation or are only partially operational. In the six-year period of 2000–2006, OTOE’s Secretariat for Equality held three national conferences, all of which concluded with proposals regarding the action programme for the next three years.

During the collective bargaining stage leading to the conclusion of a sectoral collective agreement, the OTOE Secretariat for Equality submits proposals to the OTOE executive. With the consent of the executive, these proposals are included in OTOE’s framework of demands for the conclusion of each collective agreement.

The secretariat has intervened in workplaces where illegal dismissals and violations of labour legislation have occurred. It has also published studies and surveys.

Actions of the OTOE Secretariat for Equality mainly aim to promote women’s demands and claims in the framework of collective bargaining, their objective being to include these issues in the sectoral collective agreement, to document them through surveys and studies, or to mobilise women and raise public awareness through conferences and events. Initiatives can be at sectoral level through the submission of proposals to the OTOE executive in order to have them included in the framework of demands leading to the conclusion of the sectoral collective agreement, or through the Joint Sectoral Committee for Equal Opportunities. In addition, actions can take place at company level through interventions in workplaces and the Joint Committees for Equal Opportunities in each bank.

After each initiative or action, interest in joining a trade union increases; however, there are no quantitative data on the percentage of female union members or the change in that percentage over the last few years.

c) Inclusion of migrants

The trade unions support and promote the equal standing of migrants in exercising their employment and social insurance rights, by developing a range of actions and cooperation with migrant representatives and organisations, and by promoting the active involvement and representation of migrants in the trade unions. These efforts include the creation of an Observatory and Institutions Network for the Empowerment of Economic Migrants and Refugees in the Labour Market in the context of the European Commission’s EQUAL Initiative.

The project was implemented by the development partnership ‘Empowerment of economic migrants and refugees in the labour market’ from May 2005 to December 2007. The development partnership is a broad scheme for cooperation among 12 agencies. It was coordinated by the Vocational Training Centre of the GSEE Labour Institute (Ινστιτούτο Εργασίας, INE). From the workers’ side, the Athens Labour Centre and the Piraeus Labour Centre also took part.

The initiative aimed to create an organised support network for migrants and to develop contacts between the Greek trade unions and working migrants, their communities and more generally the organisations that represent them. The main actions that were developed included the:

  • creation and operation of a website with articles and studies on migration in Greece and the current statutory framework;
  • implementation of a training programme for staff in the network’s institutions;
  • creation and operation of seven support offices for migrants and refugees on issues of labour relations and social insurance rights. These offices operate in Athens, the eastcentral cities of Piraeus and Volos, the northern city of Thessaloniki and the city of Patra in northern Peloponnese;
  • organisation of workshops, training seminars and cultural events.

The main purpose of the initiative was to provide services. Most actions were carried out at local level. There have been no studies to evaluate the action, but empirically its contribution could be evaluated as important.

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).

Most direct initiatives to attract new members are carried out at the level of primary or second-level unions. Trade union organisations in Greece are divided into primary, second-level and third-level organisations. Primary unions operate at local level, second-level unions are federations and third-level unions are national confederations. No campaigns have been held at the third level for the direct purpose of attracting new members. Nevertheless, the attention of potential new members has been drawn to actions such as collective bargaining leading up to the conclusion of the National General Collective Labour Agreement (Εθνική Γενική Συλλογική Σύμβαση Εργασίας, EGSSE), participation in public dialogue, interventions and strikes, the provision of services and awareness raising.

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.

Since 2000 in particular, more workers in forms of employment that differ from the traditional model of full-time work of indefinite duration have been seeking to set up trade unions to represent their interests.

After Directive 1999/70/EC concerning the framework agreement on fixed-term work concluded by the European social partners was issued, associations of contract or temporary workers began to appear in the broader public sector – that is, in DEKO – aiming to apply pressure to have the directive incorporated in Greek law. These associations were set up and operate alongside the already existing trade unions of workers employed for an indefinite duration, since in most cases the latter failed to amend their statutes to include non-permanent employees. Relations among such unions are not competitive, since they target different categories of workers.

Over the last two to three years in particular, trade unions have begun to be established for other categories of people in flexible forms of employment, or initiatives have been taken to set up such unions – mainly at sectoral level. Examples include the Seasonal Firefighters Union, the Panhellenic Union of Employees Providing Labour to Third Parties (Πανελλήνιος Σύλλογος Υπαλλήλων με Παραχώρηση Εργασίας σε Τρίτους, PASYPET) and the initiative to set up a trade union for lawyers working as employees and for employees in the media.

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.

As is the case in most European countries, the spread of female employment, migration, flexible forms of employment and the shrinking of the public sector pose a challenge to trade unionism, which is mainly oriented towards the traditional model of the male, public sector employee on a full-time contract of indefinite duration. The issue of organising flexible workers is gaining more attention, after a series of fatal accidents concerning workers employed by subcontractors. It is also gaining prominence in relation to the current economic crisis, which has augmented such forms of employment and has led to a high level of redundancies among flexible workers in particular. The Greek trade unions have taken a series of initiatives to organise such workers as it is obvious that – as these new forms of employment expand – the question of adapting trade unionism to the needs of a new flexible labour market will be a crucial issue for the future of trade unions.


Arvanitaki, K., Women in union decision-making centres – A chronicle of absence, Athens, Research Centre for Gender Equality (Kέντρο Ερευνών για Θέματα Ισότητας, KETHI), 2004.

Kouzis, G., The characteristics of the Greek trade union movement – Deviations from and convergences with the European space, Athens, Gutenberg, 2007.

Palaiologos, N., Labour and unions in the 21st century, INE/GSEE-ADEDY, Studies series, No. 24, Athens, 2006.

Sofia Lampousaki, Labour Institute of Greek General Confederation of Labour (INE/GSEE)

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