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  • Problems of PostcommunismThe Battle of the Trade Unions
  • Adrian Karatnycky (bio)

Workers' movements have played key roles both in the establishment of communism and in its downfall. They are now also likely to play a crucial part in determining whether the postcommunist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union can successfully establish stable democratic regimes and modern market economies.

Under communism, trade unions throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were pliant institutions that served as "transmission belts" between the ruling communist party and the workers. Although they had millions of members and vast resources, such unions did not engage in strikes or collective bargaining, and did not hold democratic elections. Their leaders were often party functionaries or recruits from the ranks of management; their aims were to mobilize workers to fulfill the state plan and to enforce labor discipline. Before the upsurge in democratic worker activism that began in Poland in the summer of 1980, unions as we conceive of them in the democratic world simply did not exist in the Soviet bloc.

In most of the postcommunist countries of Europe, worker activism has been decisive in bringing about both democratic revolution and subsequent moves toward multiparty democracy and a market-based economy. The achievements of Poland's Solidarity, the first independent mass movement to emerge and persist in what was then the Soviet bloc, have rightly been lionized. First rising to prominence under the leadership of Lech Walesa during the Gdansk shipyard strike of 1980, [End Page 43] it survived eight years of official suppression beginning in 1981 to take part in the 1989 Roundtable negotiations that led to the demise of communist rule in Poland and touched off the stunning revolutionary events of later that year in the rest of Eastern Europe. Also worthy of mention is the Bulgarian trade union movement Podkrepa, which began in February 1989 as a tiny group of dissident workers and intellectuals, helped to bring down communist strongman Todor Zhivkov later that year, and now has over half a million members. In Czechoslovakia, a massive one-day general strike on 28 November 1989 attracted the participation of most of that country's workers and struck the crucial blow against the communist regime and in favor of Václav Havel's Velvet Revolution.

Despite the success of democratic revolutions and the collapse of communism, the new independent unions in most of Eastern and Central Europe must coexist with erstwhile "official" unions that still linger on as unwelcome legacies of communist rule. Only in Czechoslovakia, where free workers' committees leaped to preeminence on the basis of the nationwide general strike of November 1989 and seized control of the old trade union structures, is there no mass-based communist labor movement. In Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland, the old communist unions are still larger than their democratic rivals.

Several circumstances explain this odd state of affairs. The old official unions are still in possession of vast financial and material holdings accumulated under communism; in many cases, much of their old membership sticks with them because they administer a broad range of health, vacation, and social benefits. Moreover, for many workers and democratic leaders, the very idea of trade unions has been badly tainted by association with the communist apparat. Finally, despite the crucial role that workers played in toppling communism, democratic leaders have all too often placed worker concerns near the bottom of their agenda as they grapple with the immense challenges of economic and political reform. Democratic governments and legislators have simply not assigned union reform a high priority, meaning that the sort of free elections which led to a thorough cleansing of national and local governments has not yet been reproduced on the postcommunist trade union scene. The delay, of course, has given the old communist union bosses some breathing space.

Today, trade unions are once again taking center stage in the emerging democracies of the East. Amid conditions of rising unemployment, declining industrial production, high inflation, and general economic depression, the way in which workers respond to change will be crucial to the stability of democratic governance. The rapid shift to markets has proved far more difficult than...