Trade Unions

Hungary Table of Contents

In the mid-1980s, official trade unions had almost 4.4 million members, or about 96 percent of all persons living on wages and salaries. The growth of trade unions was mainly a postWorld War II phenomenon; before the war, unions had a total membership of only about 100,000 (mostly crafts people). After the communist takeover, the unions were supervised by the National Council of Trade Unions (Szakszervezetek Orszagos Tanacsa--SZOT), elected by a national congress. SZOT had nineteen officially recognized unions, organized by industrial branch. Trade unions theoretically had great powers, but they traditionally had made little use of them. For example, SZOT had a legal right to veto decisions made by the government concerning the workers. In practice, the unions' historic inability to strike made this authority meaningless. The government specified overall policy concerning work requirements and wages. Most dayto -day decisions about hiring and firing were made by the management staffs of enterprises and collective farms. Unions did have great influence in the use of the social and cultural funds of enterprises and in industrial safety issues. Trade unions also controlled the administration of health care and holiday resorts. However, in the 1980s subsidies from the central government for these purposes were diminishing, so that maintaining even the existing level of services and amenities was difficult.

In 1985, in a move to increase its appeal to the country's youth, SZOT set up its own organization to represent young people, separate from the Communist Youth League. This organization was the first, other than the Communist Youth League itself, to officially represent young people. According to the authorities, the Communist Youth League was to remain the only political mass organization for youth, while the trade union youth would focus on issues of the workplace, social and cultural programs, and other traditional concerns of trade unions. Trade union members under thirty years of age could be members of the unions' new youth sections.

In the late 1980s, Western analysts detected a significant easing of restrictions on trade union activity in general. The official unions became increasingly outspoken, criticizing such practices as the requirement for overtime work and other austerity measures. In public discussions, both critics and union representatives openly admitted that the unions as constituted inspired little confidence in workers. In 1988 the press began reporting some brief strikes among workers in officially recognized unions, revealing that the outcomes of the strikes had been favorable to the workers. At the same time, some professionals and blue-collar workers made efforts to form independent unions that were not subordinate to SZOT. In May 1988, the Democratic Union of Scientific Workers, the first independent trade union established in Eastern Europe since Poland's Solidarity, was founded. Social scientists at research institutes of the Academy of Sciences, the country's premier research organization, were the first members of the new union. The union's program included a call for the end of discrimination against professionals based on their political views. Additional researchers and teachers from other institutions soon joined, raising the number of members to more than 4,000 by December 1988. Several smaller unions also came into existence. Initially, the membership of such independent organizations appeared to be limited to white-collar workers. The success of these fledgling attempts was uncertain, but after initial hostility from authorities, the groups were permitted to function.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress