Union merger in electricity sector strengthens confederation position

The major trade union federation in the electricity sector has joined the Democratic League of Independent Trade Unions (LIGA), leaving the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions. This move further strengthens LIGA, which is currently one of the most dynamic trade union confederations in Hungary. Such an affiliation change may encourage confederations to improve their efficiency and provide better services to their members.

Background on Trade Union Federation of Electricity Workers

The Trade Union Federation of Electricity Workers (Villamosenergia-ipari Dolgozók Szakszervezeti Szövetsége, VDSZSZ) represents employees of power plants and electricity distribution companies. The trade union, which until 1990 was part of the Metalworkers’ Union (Vasas Szakszervezeti Szövetség, Vasasszakszervezet), organised employees of the then state-owned Hungarian Electricity Trust (Magyar Villamos Művek Tröszt, MVMT), which provided electricity for the whole country. Following the liberalisation and partial privatisation of the electricity sector, VDSZSZ now represents employees at the 24 privatised power plants, as well as those working in regional distribution companies, central electricity provider stations and electricity companies still in state ownership.

Trade union density currently stands at 60% in the electricity sector, which is a high rate of unionisation in Hungary. VDSZSZ is one of the better organised sectoral unions, with a sizeable staff and an exceptionally stable financial background. The federation is the representative social partner in the sector, winning more than 90% of the votes obtained at the last works council elections at companies belonging to this sector. VDSZSZ is the collective bargaining partner at company as well as at sectoral level, and represents workers in the framework of sectoral social dialogue. On 21 March 2007, VDSZSZ concluded a renewed sectoral agreement on terms and conditions of employment in the sector. The federation is also active at international level and is affiliated to the European Mine, Chemical and Energy Workers’ Federation (EMCEF) and the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU). VDSZSZ is furthermore a partner at the European level social dialogue on electricity issues.

VDSZSZ congress decides to join LIGA

Following long and heated debates in company branches of VDSZSZ nationwide, at its last extraordinary congress on 21 September 2007, the trade union federation decided to leave the Alliance of Autonomous Trade Unions (Autonóm Szakszervezetek Szövetsége, ASZSZ) and to join the Democratic League of Independent Trade Unions (Független Szakszervezetek Demokratikus Ligája, LIGA). The decision of the 10,000-member trade union with its stable position in a key sector of the economy is an important development for LIGA. In recent years, the latter organisation has become one of the most active trade union confederations, attracting an increasing number of individual members from other unions, openly criticising the government and putting efforts into winning over trade unions.

At the VDSZSZ congress, those who supported a new affiliation with LIGA expressed criticism concerning the services of ASZSZ. The overwhelming majority of the congress delegates voted for a change of affiliation: there was only one ‘no’ vote against 128 ‘yes’ votes. VDSZSZ’s affiliation with LIGA officially came into force on 14 December 2007, at an extraordinary congress of the latter organisation.

Strategy of LIGA

A few years ago, LIGA was one of the weakest trade union confederations. Since then, it has embarked on a strategy to strengthen its position, winning over the then independent Trade Union Association of Military and Police Employees (Fegyveres és Rendvédelmi Dolgozók Érdekvédelmi Szövetsége, FRDÉSZ) (HU0511101N) as a result, and now VDSZSZ. With these affiliations, LIGA has consolidated its position as one of the major trade union confederations in Hungary.

LIGA’s strategy to win over sectoral federations unhappy with their position in other confederations is a reflection of the failure of collaboration efforts among confederations in the late 1990s. During those years, several attempts were made to promote closer cooperation among trade union confederations in response to the policies of the then governing right-wing coalition. However, these attempts were unsuccessful due to internal rivalries among confederations.

The LIGA strategy, however, is not welcomed everywhere. According to press reports, the President of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), Wanja Lundby-Wedin, voiced concerns during her recent visit to Hungary. Ms Lundby-Wedin argued that trade union confederations should concentrate their efforts on organising new members, as winning over unions from each other does not increase overall trade union density.

Nonetheless, building on its increasing membership, LIGA has developed new services for its member organisations. It has recently set up a county-based legal advisory system for trade union members and launched a comprehensive trade union activist training programme.

Commentary

Inter-union relations in Hungary can be characterised by muted rivalry. Trade unions cooperate reasonably well with each other in the framework of the tripartite interest representation mechanism, apart from occasional policy differences. Policy differences among the unions concerning their position with the government have grown recently due to the austerity measures introduced by the government in 2006 (HU0611029I). LIGA has adopted an aggressive political line in this regard and has also striven to win over other trade union federations.

In a competitive and fragmented environment, this instance of affiliation change may also force trade union confederations to improve their efficiency and care more about their members by providing meaningful services. The real challenge for all trade unions, however, remains increasing their membership among non-unionised employees.

András Tóth, Institute for Political Science, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

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