Trade union independence from state intervention

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In early March 1998, a working group from the Institute of Labour of the Greek General Confederation of Labour (INE-GSEE) submitted to the GSEE a report containing proposals on the independence of trade unions from state intervention. The GSEE executive will examine the report, which is of a purely advisory nature, and decide whether or not to adopt any of its proposals.

State intervention in unions

Historically, the Greek state has intervened to a great extent in matters concerning the establishment, organisation and running of trade unions. As a result, it has put restrictions on the free exercise of union action, especially in that the state imposes rules for the functioning of the union movement through a legal regime governing union organisation. The main source of such regulations is Law 1264/1982 "on democratisation of the trade union movement for safeguarding workers' trade union freedoms". This legislation provides for trade unions to be organised on three levels:

  • primary organisations are the local organisations of unions with a broader coverage, or formal enterprise unions, or more informal employees' associations in small enterprises;
  • secondary organisations consist of at least two primary organisations. They may be Labour Centres, which are local in nature, or union federations, which are mostly sectoral, though may be occupational; and
  • tertiary organisations are made up of at least two secondary organisations. The two such organisations are the Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE), which represents the private and broader public sector, and the Confederation of Public Servants (ADEDY) which represents the public administration.

Any change in this structure would necessitate a change in the law.

Furthermore, the law requires the existence of at least 20 members for a trade union to be set up, thus not permitting the establishment of company-level unions in small enterprises. However, under Law 1264/1982 an exception is made for the "association of persons" or employees' association. These associations may be formed in enterprises with 10-40 workers, and are of a temporary nature (six months), with the aim that a genuine trade union should have been established after that time has elapsed. The association of persons is flexible in content and structure, and is not governed by the stringency of the law on trade unions.

The above rules are seen as restrictive factors in the free expression of the will of union members, as expressed in the statutes of their organisations, with repercussions for the further development of collective expression at work. It should, however, be noted that at the time it was adopted Law 1264/1982 constituted a watershed in industrial relations in Greece

A second problem area concerns the autonomy of the trade unions and their dependence on state policy through management of the resources of the Workers' Welfare Foundation (OEE), which is their basic source of funds. The OEE is a state body established in 1931 with the purpose of strengthening workers in economic, spiritual and intellectual terms. The literal meaning of the name is Workers' Hearth. It has been used predominantly in order to fund trade unions, on the basis of criteria regarded as neither impartial nor objective. The fund is financed mainly from compulsory contributions paid by all employers and by employees, both unionised and non-unionised. Since 1990, it has been technically unlawful to use these funds to finance unions. A committee set up under the 1991/2 National General Collective Agreement, with employer and employee representation, has formulated proposals for the amendment and extension of the purposes of this body's activities, with the aim of rendering it independent of the state and bringing it under the control of the employers' organisations and trade unions.

Both of these issues are examined in an advisory report on the independence of unions from state intervention submitted to the GSEE in early March 1998 by a working group from the GSEE's Institute of Labour (INE-GSEE). The GSEE executive is to examine the report and decide whether or not to adopt any of its proposals.

The proposals

With regard to the questions of unions' organisation and functioning, the INE-GSEE report points out that the current 20-member minimum for setting up a union in effect precludes the establishment of trade union organisations (company unions) in 99.5% of private enterprises in Greece, which do not meet this workforce-size threshold. As a result, no legal representation is possible for wage-earners in the overwhelming majority of enterprises in Greece. Acknowledging the need for the representation of all workers, greater union density, and halting the phenomenon of fragmentation, the report proposes that new conditions should apply:

  • either abolition of the current distinctions between the three levels of union organisation and the introduction at company level - for enterprises employing over 10 workers - of representation of the sectoral trade union with full rights (regarding protection, facilities, collective bargaining and strike action); or
  • retention of the present organisational status, on the condition that it gives increased competencies to associations of persons established under Law 1264/1982 in enterprises employing over 10 workers.

According to the report, the regulations contained in Law 1264/1982 form a suffocating framework, in that they put restrictions on autonomous, statute-based union action. Often this prevents trade union organisation and function from adapting to developing social structures. In particular, the report says that restrictions on the field of implementation of Law 1264/1982 (Article 1) place special categories of workers - such as workers in atypical forms of employment, unemployed people and pensioners - outside the trade unions, deprive certain trade unions (such as those for seafarers and journalists) of its protection, deprive primary union organisations of the right of full recognition, or impose a specific form of organisation.

To upgrade the institution of associations of persons (which require 10 members in enterprises employing fewer than 40 workers), the report puts forward the following proposals:

  • the permanent presence of associations should be recognised, as their current limited six-month existence has rendered them fundamentally inactive;
  • special protection and facilities for their representatives should be assured;
  • their right to sign collective labour agreements should be recognised; and
  • their right to join secondary trade union organisations should be recognised.

On enhancing the role of local union branches, which currently have the right only to join a secondary organisation, the report proposes recognition that they can exercise various union rights, including the right to strike over issues of a local character.

The report also notes that the restriction on joining trade unions laid down in Article 7 of Law 1264/1982, whereby members must have been employed for two months in their organisation or sector, calls into question the concept of independence through free will as stated in union statutes. In particular, Article 7 excludes unemployed people, pensioners, workers on fixed-term contracts and workers in atypical and flexible forms of employment from joining unions.

As to the economic questions, the report proposes adoption of a policy of gradual independence of the trade unions from state intervention in union resources administered by the OEE. This policy should be combined with a necessary and fundamental strengthening of the institution of trade union membership dues, aimed at making the unions' treasuries robust. This is also in accordance with international experience.

Commentary

Although the INE-GSEE report is purely of an advisory nature, it broaches for the first time fundamental questions on the establishment, organisation and functioning of the trade unions, and at the same time attempts to submit proposals with the objective of reducing state intervention in the unions' internal affairs. It is also timely on all points, given the reduced participation by workers in the unions. This can be seen in the organisational make-up reported at the March 1998 29th congress of the GSEE (GR9803161F), with the number of workers represented by the confederation hitting an all-time low. Furthermore, the results of all relevant studies have recorded a constant fall in the number of registered members of professional bodies and unions, and have cited the current forms of organisation, composition and representation of the unions as some of the basic factors responsible for the decrease in membership. (Giannis Kouzis, INE-GSEE)

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