2nd Dec 2023

The decline of Romanian trade unions

  • A recent protest in Brussels. Romanian trade unions have problems getting people on to the streets (Photo: EUobserver)

The progressive decline of the influence of Romanian trade unions has not not caused by the economic crisis but is rather the result of the increasing entanglement of the unions' leadership with the political class. Matters have been made worse by a waning belief in the importance of trade union membership and a loss of confidence in the probity of their leaders.

In spite of the extremely tough austerity measures imposed by the Romanian government – a 25 percent cut in all salaries in the public sector, combined with a 15 percent reduction of pensions – most union members could not be convinced to take to the streets.

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The most recent protest, organised by the unions in Bucharest on 22 September, was a clear failure, with only 10,000 demonstrators taking part. The organisers had anticipated at least double the number. The half-hearted demonstration even ended one hour earlier than foreseen, which proved a major embarrassment for the organisers, principally the CNSRL-Fratia, a full member of the European Trade Unions' Confederation (ETUC).

Romanians do not have a solid tradition of trade unionism, and the atomisation of society brought about by a half century of hard-line communist ideology only worsened the social trend towards individualism. Independent trade unions and union confederations flourished in the 1990s after the fall of communism. While most of them became affiliated with the big international union federations, inside the country leaders became increasingly engulfed in political affairs.

A recent example of political meddling is the case of Liviu Luca, vice-president of CNSRL-Fratia, in connection with the financial activities of one of country's most controversial media moguls, Sorin Ovidiu Vintu. Mr Luca allegedly helped Mr Vintu conduct dubious financial transactions.

Although Mr Luca was later released, pending the results of an ongoing enquiry, his close business relationship with a shady nouveau riche individual accused of having gained prosperity through a Ponzi scheme seriously damaged the authority of the trade union.

The leader of the rival Cartel Alfa trade union federation, Bogdan Hossu, was quick to bring new accusations about how Mr Vintu planned to take over the patrimony of the unions through his relations with the CNSRL-Fratia federation. It is little wonder that the organisations decided not to demonstrate together.

Personal rivalries are at the root of many of the unions' problems. The two unions representing public-sector workers, SedLex and SNFP, cannot organise common actions because of the animosity between the SedLex chief, Vasile Marica, and the leader of SNFP, Sebastian Oprescu.

Still, the organisations' difficulties reach deeper than the personal dealings of some of their leaders. The CNSRL-Fratia confederation entered into an alliance with the opposition Social-Democrat party (PSD) in 2008. This was the party under which the privatisation of state property took place in the 1990s.

This then led to the rise of a whole class of super rich, among them Mr Vintu. As for the Confederation of the Romanian Democratic trade Unions (CSDR), it is known to be close to the governing PDL party and did not take part in the recent demonstrations.

Incapable – or unwilling – to coordinate their efforts, the trade unions became prisoners of a rigid ideological stance, while the margins for negotiating wages shrunk steadily. The minimum legally guaranteed salary in Romania is €150 a month, and one of the demands of the trade unions is that it be raised to €180. This is an ambitious target considering that the average salary in Romania is a mere €350, down from approximately €500 before the government-imposed austerity measures.

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