Hide menu

Trade union renewal and social dialogue in post-communist societies: The Baltic states


This project continues a key theme of Charles Woolfson's European Commission Marie Curie Chair Excellence Award (2004-2007) in the Baltic states - social dialogue and trade union renewal in the post-communist states. The Baltic states are among the most open new market economies and their transformation from Soviet republics to new European Union member states reveals many of the problems of European integration, not least the development of employee representational rights in the workplaces. This project comparatively examines the reasons for the very low levels of union membership and the rather weak structures of social dialogue which exist both nationally, and at workplaces in the Baltic countries. Its key findings so far are that the difficulties facing trade union renewal have as much to do with the pathway of "illusory corporatism" pursued since independence from the Soviet Union, as with the actual negative legacy of pro-regime trade unions in the previous era.


Industrial relations, Labour standards/rights, Work, trade union renewal, social dialogue


The Baltic states present an important case study in the possibilities for trade union renewal and the creation of effective social dialogue between the social partners of capital and labour in post-communist societies. A number of factors have combined to ensure the continuing weakness of trade unions in their role as social partners in the neo-liberal Baltic countries. First, trade unions represent a very small fraction of employees, and the decline of union membership that started with the transformation process has steadily continued. Second, low levels of membership have not permitted the servicing of a large union apparatus which could be effective either in representing employees or enabling competent social partner participation on a wide array of policy and employment issues. Third, the fragmented structure of union representation, with confederations splintered between rival organisations, particularly in Estonia and Lithuania, has further depleted the limited available organisational and financial resources. Such trade union strength as has existed is often residual in nature, mainly concentrated in the public sector, with most private sector employers remaining hostile to union representation in their workplaces (though some limited advances can be seen, such as in unionising the supermarket sector in Lithuania). In the public sector, a few sections of the workforce have also become better organised, for example, police officers. The data are clear, however, that union density in all other new EU member states exceeds that of the three Baltic countries, which have the lowest trade union membership levels in the entire EU-27
Given the relative absence of effective bipartite social dialogue, tripartite social dialogue as co-ordinated by governments has acted as the prime mover in setting national agendas. However, even though tripartite social dialogue between the key parties has been present in all three Baltic countries, it has often been no more than an empty shell with little substantive content and unable to compensate for the ongoing dialogue deficit at the level of the enterprise and workplace. The recent economic crisis in the Baltic states, an extension of the wider global economic and financial crisis, has presented trade unions with an even more difficult challenge as previous tripartite social dialogue arrangements have been largely swept aside by governments seeking to impose sever austerity packages. Renewed overtures by governments seeking to carry through austerity without organised opposition on the part of labour has presented trade unions with a dilemma as to how far to re-engage in state-sponsored social dialogue without at the same time removing their remaining credibility as representatives of working people.


E. Kallaste and C. Woolfson (2013) Negotiated responses to economic crisis in the Baltic states. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research, 19, (2): 253-266.

C. Woolfson, (2011) Baltic trade union responses to the global economic and financial crisis. International Union Rights, 18, 1, 4-5.

C. Woolfson and E. Kallaste, (2011) "Illusory Corporatisms in the Baltic States", Warsaw Forum of Economic Sociology, Special issue on David Ost "illusory corporatism" 2, 1 (3), 51-72.

C. Woolfson, E. Kallaste and J. Berzins, (2011) Industrial relations and social dialogue in the Baltic states: crisis, conflict and compromise, in S. Contrepois, V. Delteil, P. Dieuaid and S. Jefferys (eds) Globalising Employment Relations: Multinational Corporations and Central and Eastern European transitions, London: Palgrave/Macmillan, pp. 179-

Other Academic Output

Conference paper: "The re-solidarisation of labour: Economic crisis, social unrest and postcommunist labour unions: The case of Baltic Lithuania", Negotiating capitalism in Central and Eastern Europe Chances and barriers to trade union revitalisation in a comparative perspective , University of Wroclaw, Polish Sociological Assoc., 4 May 2011.

Discussant for Ronaldo Munk paper "Beyond North and South: Migration, Informalization and Trade Union Revitalization" REMESO/UNESCO MOST workshop Labour rights as human rights: Migration, labour market restructuring, and the role of civil society in global governance, Linköping University, Campus Norrköping, 23 February 2011.

"Neo-corporatism re-instated? The impact of crisis on the credibility of Baltic trade unions" with Epp Kallaste and Janis Berzins, to Standing Group on International Relations, 7th Pan-European International Relations Conference: Stockholm, 9-11 September 2010. Conference abstracts listing.

Presentation on "Social dialogue in the Baltic States" to Working together for sustainable labour markets, International tripartite conference of the Baltic Sea Labour Network (BSLN) mid-term conference of trade unions and employers, Vilnius, Lithuania, 11 May 2010.

Keynote address to "From crisis to catastrophe - trade unions in a free-fall economy" European Trade Union Institute/European Federation of Building and Woodworking Trade Unions, workshop, Brussels, 4 May 2010.

2009 - 2015


Linköpings universitet

REMESO Project Leader

Charles Woolfson, Professor Emeritus

Participants not from REMESO

  • Dr Arunas Juska, University of East Carolina
  • Dr Epp Kallaste, Director of Center for Applied Social Research, Tallinn, Estonia

Contact for project


Last updated: 2015-08-22

Page responsible: erik.berggren@liu.se
Last updated: 2020-05-27