Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

The Paradox of Post-Communist Trade Unionism: 'You Can't Want What You Can't Imagine'

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

The Paradox of Post-Communist Trade Unionism: 'You Can't Want What You Can't Imagine'

Article excerpt

Introduction

Trade union density is falling in most of the world, and nowhere has the decline been as steep as in former Soviet bloc countries and specifically in Baltic countries. The main forces re-shaping the landscape of industrial relations in post-communist societies are considered to be, in addition to overall common structural trends in industrial societies, a specific historical inheritance driven by general ideological reasons, and the particularities of the institutional set-up of post-transition industrial relations (eg. Lado 2002; Crowley 2004; Mailand and Due 2004; Ost 2007).

It is important for existing and new trade unions both in the West, and in the former socialist bloc countries of the East, to know what the attitudes of employees towards the trade union movement are, and whether there are any possibilities for increasing union membership. In other words, are there any employees who might be interested in joining trade unions? The low level of membership might be because of reduced demand for trade unions, or alternatively, because of restricted access to trade union membership, which would be expressed as frustrated demand. Frustrated demand for unionisation is created by employees who would like to have union representation, but do not have it for some reason. Such frustrated demand might exist because of restrictions such as information barriers, or high fixed costs of unionising (such as the high cost of organising employees' meetings, bureaucratic impediments in registering a union--for example, legal requirements for a high membership threshold, or the necessity to disclose a full list of potential members' names and addresses), as a result of which trade union membership is not attainable. This article uses data from the Baltic Working Environment and Labour (BWEL) Survey (2006) conducted by the authors in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to determine the extent of demand for trade union representation in Baltic countries. It adds to the existing literature on the representation gap by exploring specifically post-communist societies, with their rather different backgrounds and experiences.

We find that alongside the low revealed demand for unionisation (i.e. actual union membership), there is, contrary to what could have been expected, rather low frustrated demand for trade union membership in comparison to the size of the representation gap in other countries (Farber 1983; Farber and Krueger 1993). However, in addition to frustrated demand, we find there to be quite a significant group of employees (the 'undecided'), who are not able to determine whether they would like to have union representation or not. By adopting an approach which sees trade union membership as an 'experience good' (Gomez and Gunderson 2004; Bryson et al 2005) we argue that this sizeable undecided group is accounted for in the context of post-communist societies because employees have no direct experience of the value or benefits that trade union membership could offer. We argue that the enduring legacy of the Soviet trade unions and the impediments posed to collective organisation in post-communist free-market economies have created a situation, where current employees are not able to assess the functions that trade unions could fulfil, and therefore they are not able to positively affirm or reject the value of trade union representation. However, we also argue that since it is now a generation since the demise of socialism in Eastern Europe, faced with the imperatives of the free market in terms of struggles for acceptable workplace terms and conditions, it might be expected that employees would be inclined to seek collective forms of protection and representation in the workplace, although not necessarily via trade unions. It is this uncertain, fluid, and somewhat amorphous area that the current article seeks to probe empirically.

There are very few analyses looking at the decline of trade unions in the Baltic countries and at perceptions of employees with respect to collective representation. …

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