The paradoxical trade unionism


The expected price hike of energy sent in the street thousands of protesters, well organised and with reasonable demands that are undisputable. The extent and radicalism of these protests surprises, because of two reasons. First, because such anti-government rallies were all but absent these last years, when the trade union structures of Romania are in a continuous decomposition. Second, the extent and radicalism of recent protests also surprised because they were organised with support from the management of several energy-intensive chemical plants, rather than following the initiative of trade unions. In present day Romania, protests went beyond specific initiatives and gravitate around the protesting or approving approaches of companies with private capital. The concrete targets of these social protests transcend the individual interests of the regular unionist and converge on the interests of companies that initiate and promote such rallies.

This is the big problem of the trade union movement in present-day Romania. Traditional unions, very active and most powerful until the early years of this century, have gradually diminished their organisational structure, because of several reasons. The first reason is unemployment, which is on the rise although official figures show it as stagnating. In fact, it does not stagnate and, on the contrary, soars in hand with poverty in Romania. Many of these jobless people are forced into dark labour, which is an area that escapes any control by trade unions. This is why the fierce statements and warnings issued by some union leaders about organising a general strike often remain without the expected consequences. The best demonstration is the fact that such a general strike has not been organised for a long time in our country. Many employees complain that, when they are accepted in a new job, the first “professional document” they are presented to sign is a commitment that they will not go on strike. With the dwindling number of available jobs, sticking to this commitment becomes commonplace among employees. Between the temporary unemployment benefit and the modest wage offered by employers on a longer term, the latter becomes the best choice. Because, unfortunately, it is the only way allowing employees to feed their families and send their children to school.
But the dissolution of the trade union movement started at its top, rather than at its large-scale, bottom layers. Most union leaders do not converge toward a sustained solidarity between trade unions. This capital flaw explains the fact that, despite the ever harsher economic and social realities, despite the increasing unemployment and poverty, along with the protesting spirit of the population, trade unions must renew their efforts each time, without the expected result. The successive intentions of calling an unlimited general strike are often replaced by limited protests, which in turn are postponed on indefinite duration. And even when they take place, they fail to rally the expected number of unionists. These frequent public failures saps the authority of union leaders, whose dialogue with authorities ends in forms without substance. This kind of talks sometimes even do not reach the phase of negotiations and, when they are held, they are finalised without any practical result. And this turning in circles is wrongly described as “argument” in favour of a pretended social dialogue.
The main cause of this tragicomic situation is the fact that our trade union movement is too divided. Since the early ‘90s, the Romanian trade union movement has been fragmented under the pressure of group interests. Several union structures were founded inside the same economic sector, all with the same objectives and attributes. The initial reason for this dispersion is the splitting of the former umbrella association that regrouped all the trade unions before 1990 time (UGSR), which had an immense patrimony. The main concern of the new trade union leaders that emerged after 1990 was to gradually change their status from administrators to… owners of these assets. Thus, they became entrepreneurs and started doing business with the state.
This explains the fact that many union leaders no longer opposed the “formalised” bankruptcy or fraudulent privatisation of strategic state-run companies. Sometimes, they even stimulated this process that would increase their personal wealth, under the protection of the illicit actions committed by the State Ownership Fund. The union leaders turned businessmen unveiled their illicit condition when they asked being exempted from wealth verification procedures provided in the new Law of the National Integrity Agency. Thus, Romania offers a paradoxical image: trade union leaders emigrated to the parties in power, becoming ministers and even a prime minister. In these qualities, they often had a surprisingly indifferent, even hostile attitude toward the most legitimate demands made by trade unions.
On the other hand, the trade union movement in Romania – as mentioned before – no longer listens to the voices of its pretended leaders. Their appeal to protests often remains unanswered, while the extent and radicalism of spontaneous protests exceed the organising capacity of the leaders, who in such situations seem to be rather mediators than respected unionists, capable to put people in motion. From exponents of the less privileged persons in the process of professional activity, our trade union leaders thus migrate toward the condition of collaborators of the ruling authorities. This led to the situation of some of these leaders only contenting themselves with limited, insignificant demands, and ignoring the more serious problems experienced by employees.

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