Bulgaria's Perpetual Crisis

02/20/2013 09:51 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2013

In the early 1990s, I helped put together a delegation on the topic of women and workplace in East-Central Europe. Several U.S. groups invited the delegation to the United States, with support from the German Marshall Fund, to meet with women's organizations, trade unions, and a variety of Washington-based organizations.

It was not an easy task to identify women for the delegation. Many unions wanted to just pick the participants and didn't understand my request for several candidates and their CVs. Also, there were two types of unions in the region: former official unions and new unions affiliated in some way with the political opposition. In those days, they didn't get along very well. The U.S. government, and most U.S. organizations, only worked with the independent unions. So, it was challenging to put together a delegation with representatives of both sides.

I pushed hard to include representatives from the former official unions. As I wrote in a 1993 report:

The former communist trade unions have been doing a reasonably good job of democratizing themselves, and they still command the lion's share of workers' support. This despite several years of money and effort on the part of the AFL-CIO and the U.S. government to strengthen the 'alternative' unions. Now the international unions are having to adjust their strategies and open doors to the very unions they initially spurned.

It seemed like the people who might benefit the most from a trip to the United States would be representatives from these former official trade unions. And it would have been educational, to say the least, for U.S. trade unions and government staff to meet with "the other side." But for a mixture of external and internal reasons, a mixed delegation didn't happen.

Still, I learned a great deal from my meetings at these former official unions. Some of the best discussions that I had on these topics, for instance, were at the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CITUB) in Sofia, thanks to the help of Snezhana Dimitrova who was working with the international affairs division.

Twenty-three years later, I returned to the CITUB building and met in her office. CITUB still owns a big building in the center of Sofia. But whereas many other offices in Bulgaria's capital have been remodeled and modernized, the CITUB building has none of the fancy furniture and outfitting that USAID recipients enjoy. It looks much as it did during the communist period, though without the bustle or the security. There was no guard in the booth in the lobby on the day I visited, and I pushed through the turnstile without having to announce myself.

Indeed, it has not been an easy time for CITUB. It has seen its membership base decline from 2.5 million to 300,000. However, it is still by far the largest union confederation.

"We no longer have heavy industry in Bulgaria," Snezhana Dimitrova explained to me as a major reason for the decline in membership. "There are still union members in the big cities, where there is work. Also, it's very difficult for workers at small enterprises to organize, because they're afraid they'll lose their jobs."

The economic reforms, from a trade union perspective, were largely disastrous. "From 1991, controls on prices were removed and industry was privatized," she continued. "Collective farms were dissolved. A new constitution was introduced in July 1991. Economic reform started off in the wrong way. For example, agriculture was destroyed. Now they are saying that they made a mistake when they destroyed the cooperatives. They also didn't privatize the right way. When they privatized and sold off the enterprises and the machinery, we lost many enterprises and many many jobs. The chemical industry, the Kremikovtsi steel complex, heavy industry in general: everything was destroyed."

We also talked about the relationship between CITUB and the other major trade union organization (Podkrepa), the role of strikes, and the economic prospects for Bulgaria. Economic crisis in Europe? "Here in Bulgaria," Snezhana Dimitrova told me, "we say that we are not feeling the crisis because we've always been in crisis."

The recent resignation of the Bulgarian government, after several days of protest, reveals the deep discontent among the people over the economic situation. Bulgaria's crisis continues.

The Interview

Why has there been such a big decline in union membership?

We no longer have heavy industry in Bulgaria. There are still union members in the big cities, where there is work. Also, it's very difficult for workers at small enterprises to organize, because they're afraid they'll lose their jobs.

Bulgarian workers are losing jobs, and they have lower pay. Compared to other European countries, we are at the bottom in terms of wages. Also, pensions are very small. If pensioners didn't live with their families, they couldn't pay for electricity and heating.

As a trade union, CITUB attaches great importance to collective bargaining as an essential tool for the effective protection of the rights and interests of employees. Since 1995, CITUB is a member of the European Trade Union Confederation, which is an institutional partner of the European Commission. Representatives of CITUB participate actively in the work of the European Economic and Social Council.

In Bulgaria, we have many trade union organizations. The labor code defines the criteria for trade union representativeness at national, branch, and sectoral levels. According to this labor code , only Podkrepa and CITUB are national representatives of workers. Other trade union organizations are present only at the enterprise level. They can't negotiate at the national level. This kind of trade union has no power. Wages more often depend on the ministry, at the national level. Because of that, it is necessary to have a bigger trade union that can negotiate with the ministers. But still, more aggressive and more charming union leaders are appearing at the enterprise level, perhaps because they are not satisfied with either CITUB or Podkrepa.

Have there been a lot of strikes?

There were many strikes, especially between 1991 and 1993. There were meetings, rallies, political strikes, economic strikes. And sometimes the government resigned because of the strikes. After this political turmoil, they strike only for wages, to improve working conditions. They strike because they don't want to lose their jobs if the enterprise closes. You can read about every strike at Eurofound, where we are the correspondent for Bulgaria. You can read about what happened, the results, and who was the leader, whether CITUB, Podkrepa, or another organization.

Have there been any particularly successful strikes?

The railways wanted to stop increasing wages. They threatened to cut jobs. Both CITUB and Podkrepa negotiated with the management. We had a strike. Now the railways make reforms but without cutting jobs, and they even increased the wages a little bit.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.