Estonian labor organization disagrees with Eurobarometer figures of union membership

Ametiühingud sõdivad uue streigiseaduse vastu.

PHOTO: Urmas Luik / Pärnu Postimees

The Estonian Trade Union Confederation (EAKL) maintains that union membership in Estonia is several times bigger than suggested by figures of the Eurobarometer survey released on Thursday.

According to the Eurobarometer study on participatory democracy in Europe, only 3 percent of the Estonian workforce belongs to trade unions. EAKL claims the actual figure is 2.5 times bigger. At the beginning of this year the confederation had close to 30,000 members, spokespeople said.

"As the overall number of wage workers in Estonia was nearly 571,000 last year, members of the branch organizations of EAKL alone make up 5.2 percent of all employees," EAKL secretary Kaja Toomsalu said.

The chairman of the confederation of employees' unions TALO, Ago Tuuling, said it is not clear from the Eurobarometer study whether it took into account also smaller unions that are not part of some umbrella organization. "It also ought to be taken into consideration that membership varies widely in different spheres - the Estonian Theater Union, for example, represents 80 percent of the employees in this field, and three fourths of TV and radio workers are union members. Of cultural workers 35 percent belong to unions," he said.

Tuuling observed that a small membership percentage does not mean unions' role in society is not fulfilled - the French membership figure is fairly close to Estonia's but unions are a force to be reckoned with in France. Beside EAKL and TALO there are in Estonia numerous smaller occupational associations and independent unions which do not belong to any umbrella organization.

Basing on the Tax and Customs Board data about income tax rebates on union membership dues, around 8 percent of the Estonian workforce belonged to unions a couple of years ago.

Compared to the rest of the European Union, citizens of the Baltic states are very lukewarm about participating in the work of trade unions and non-governmental organizations, the Eurobarometer study published on Thursday showed.

Only 3 percent of Estonian and Lithuanian respondents and 9 percent of Latvian respondents said they belonged to unions.

Trade unions are the most popular in Nordic countries, with 61 percent of the workforce organized in Denmark and 54 percent in both Finland and Sweden. The EU average is 16 percent.

The fieldwork for the survey was conducted in February. Pollsters interviewed by telephone 25,551 people across the EU including 1,000 Estonians.