The Baltic States and Their Region: New Europe or Old?

By David J. Smith | Go to book overview

Labour rights, social conflict and cohesion in accession
Lithuania: implications for EU enlargement

Charles Woolfson


1. Introduction

This chapter examines the legal inhibitions on strike action in the new European Union (EU) member state of Lithuania. The right to strike is a part of collective labour law which falls outside the competence of the EU, in terms of the alignment of elaborative provisions of national governments in this sphere. Significant legal inhibitions on the right to strike are embodied in post-independence labour law, and largely reiterated in the new Lithuanian Labour Code of 2002. It is argued here that one of the basic expressions of democratic society, the right to freely withdraw labour in order to assert labour's independent demands, is potentially being compromised. This may pose a longer-term threat to social cohesion, not only within the society, but also to broader European social cohesion, as acceding central and east European countries, such as Lithuania, attempt to integrate into the wider European project of enlargement.

The US Agency for International Development, USAID, lists the freedom of trade unions as one of its ten primary criteria for assessing levels of democratic governance within post-transitional Central and East European states.1 Similarly, influential foreign foundations such as the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Swedish Work Life Foundation today are actively promoting the values of free collective bargaining in the former Soviet bloc.2 These activities are in line with the widely stated belief that the right to withdraw labour differentiates genuine democratic societies from the previous system where the freedom to strike was only a theoretical possibility.3 During the past decade or so of capitalist transformation and democratisation, the ruling elites of many postcommunist countries, nevertheless, have remained ambivalent about the desirable scope of the right to free collective bargaining and, in particular, the freedom to strike. This continuing ambivalent attitude is attributable, in part, to the belief that further economic restructuring requires a weakening rather than a strengthening of organised labour's role in the political economy of transition.

Hitherto, one of the signal features of transition has been the relative quiescence of labour which has had to bear the brunt of these costs.4 It has been argued that one reason for such quiescence is that organised labour has been entrapped by the uncertain promises of triparitsm and a philosophy of partnership with employers.5 However, while in the past, many central and eastern European workers have viewed

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