Editorial: what’s lacking in Estonian trade unions?

Peep Peterson

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Does it matter who gets elected president of Estonian Trade Union Confederation (EAKL)at today’s elections? Well, a large part of our tax money is directed by Health Insurance Fund and unemployment insurance fund (Töötukassa). EAKL’s president sits in the council of both. He is an important person in all matters that come down to three-party talks between contactors, employers, and government.

Looking back at recent history of three-party talks, we may say that the trade union back room lacks people – a brain trust – able to analyse and formulate solutions fit for Estonia.

It’s a bit better with employers. However, none has the analytical force to face the state, comparable with even Finnish unions, for instance. With background processing weak, it can easily happen that, in negotiations, some topics are needlessly pushed, and some amendments just silently agreed upon – only later realising the need of heated arguments.

The number of paid workers belonging to unions in Estonia is hard to estimate. EAKL covers all unions, and, as of last year, just about 30,000 people belonged to these. Another roof organisation, Estonian Employees’ Unions’ Confederation (TALO), unites ca 3,000 trade unionists.

In three-party talks, trade union leaders speak, as if, for all contractors – formally, the impact is great. At the same time, the unions’ membership is comparatively small. The picture is further blurred by the fact that Estonian Education Personnel Union and the Estonian Medical Association, which lead the last year’s strikes, belong to neither of the roof organisations. It is, indeed, characteristic to Estonia, that it is the people directly or indirectly paid from public budgets who gather into trade unions.

EAKL alone unites 12,500 people paid from public budgets – 42 per cent of membership. Add TALO, the thousands of teachers and doctors, and we see that Estonian contractors are well able to unite indeed.

In private sector, comparatively strong unions can be found at the largest industries (energy, mining), as well as sailors and truck drivers.

What is remarkable is the low membership from services, which is a large sector. The horror stories told about working conditions and communication culture at various retail chains make one think that this is the place to fight. Starting with people not being intimidated and harassed for belonging to trade unions – which is in violation with the constitutional freedom of association.

Estonia would benefit from trade unions willing to help where it is most needed, not only fighting where we’re already strong.