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Trade unions: Recruiting young people is a challenge

Demonstration in support of striking teachers on Toompea, Tallinn, January 22, 2024.
Demonstration in support of striking teachers on Toompea, Tallinn, January 22, 2024. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Estonia's trade unions have been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, but trade unionists say it is an aging workforce and a lack of young recruits that are most responsible for the decline in membership. However, the trade union confederation is optimistic after the teachers' strike.

There are 122 trade unions in Estonia, according to the Estonian Business Register. Even unions' financial affairs show both paying and non-paying members.

The Estonian Trade Union Confederation (EAKL), an umbrella organization, is made up of 15 trade unions with approximately 12,000 members in total; however, according to Harri Tali, the former chair of the EAKL, when he left, there were 29,400 paying members – a reduction of more than half in 11 years.

The EAKL, however, does not include several trade unions with a large membership, such as the 7300-member Estonian Education Personnel Union (EHL) or the 3000-member Association of Healthcare Professionals (Tervishoiutöötajate kutseliit).

Kaia Vask, chair of the Estonian Confederation of Trade Unions (Ametiühingute keskliit), would not say which EAKL-affiliated unions were doing well or which were doing worse, but said they were having busy days and the future looked promising against the backdrop of the teachers' strike.

"The recent teachers' strike has convincingly shown that Estonian trade unions stand firmly for workers' interests. This experience is an important signal that trade unions are ready and able to intervene effectively and defend workers' rights," she said.

The Confederation has a really wide field of work. As Vask pointed out, the economy and labor relations are changing rapidly, but Estonian legislation is not keeping pace. "Platform working, home offices, e-selling, and other trends are here to stay, particularly in the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak. Unfortunately, in the wake of rapid change, the legal regulation of labor relations has become outdated. Problems such as irregular and low incomes and limited access to social protection are also associated with these new forms of work," Vask said.

"While new forms of work create new opportunities for people, they also pose legal and policy challenges. The EAKL wants to see employment relations laws evolve more rapidly and adapt better to the conditions of today's labor market," she said.

Taliga: Declining membership reduces influence

Harri Taliga, who headed the EAKL from 2003 to 2013 and now works as an adviser to the deputy national conciliator, said that there are several aspects to consider when assessing the performance of trade unions.

"Impact on industrial relations and working conditions can be seen at the company and national levels. The size or influence of trade unions, i.e., how many members they have, their visibility, and the significance of their ideas all affect this impact," he said.

Taliga said trade union membership has progressively fallen over the years. "This in itself is, of course, anything but a positive trend and undoubtedly reduces the potential for trade unions to be influential," he said.

The second issue, according to him, is how trade unions and employers are represented in the national social partnership: whether trade union and employer perspectives are equally heard.

Taliga recalled that 20–25 years ago when major social security reforms were made – pension reform, health insurance reform, and unemployment insurance – the then-Minister of Social Affairs, Eiki Nestor (SDE), who had a trade union background, wanted trade unions and employers to participate in lawmaking.

"The government may have some ideas, but it doesn't know all the working life intricacies and problems. So, trade unions and employers' contributions is crucial," Taliga said.

Taliga highlighted the number of collective agreements inked as a key indicator of trade union strength. "Collective agreements are also declining. The difficulty is that there has been virtually no increase in collective agreements at the branch level: there is a collective agreement in health care and one in land passenger transportation. A collective agreement governing teachers' minimum salary has also been agreed. But there are barely any other, and there is little evidence of any more coming from anywhere," he said.

Taliga said that branch union membership is, at best, stagnant, and at worst, declining. "There are many reasons for this, including economic fluctuations. A number of companies that once had large unions have either downsized or laid off workers, resulting in a decline in union membership. Another major factor in the decline of union membership is the aging of the workforce; the new workers who enter the workforce may not join unions," he said.

Engaging new members requires focus and thought. You must educate people about trade unions and demonstrate outcomes. He said that labor unions may also lack the capacity or ambition to deal with new members daily.

Lember: Covid redundancies reduced membership

The Estonian Seamen's Independent Union (EMSA), which is not a member of any umbrella organization, unites 2,400-2,500 seafarers, port and hotel workers. More than half of its members work for Tallink companies.

"Had it not been for the Covid-19 crisis, our union membership would be much higher. Two years ago the ships were out of service, and some of the ships of our largest employer are still out of service. As a result, during the two years of the Covid-19 crisis, our membership shrank by 600 people due to layoffs. In addition, a ship with 290 jobs was withdrawn from the Estonian flag and returned to the Finnish flag," he said.

When asked about trade unions, Lember pointed out that solidarity in society, which is the foundation for trade unions and their growth, has been weak in Estonia. "Our society's maturity is evidenced by teachers' ability to strike collectively. However, some people didn't go on strike, which proved that they didn't understand that they act against their colleagues' interests, because they acted against the common interests," Lember said.

According to Lember, however, the teachers' strike had a positive impact on unions. "No matter how good or bad the financial result of the strike was, it showed that society will not continue to sail in the face of slavery, but it is hoped that with each nationwide action, people will realize that this is the only way to turn the tide," he said.

The ruling coalition in the form of the prime minister's party has certainly not responded adequately to the demands of educators, Lember said. "As Indrek Neivelt pointed out, they failed to find €10 million to improve the succession of teachers in the education sector, but at the same time, they allowed several hundred million to leave the state through big holes. The management of the state by the ruling coalition is inadequate and not professional," Lember said.

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Editor: Mari Peegel, Kristina Kersa

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