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Bulgarian unions get organizing boost

20 November, 2018IndustriALL Global Union and industriAll European Trade Union met with Bulgarian affiliates in Sofia on 13 November to strengthen union power and enhance organizing strategies against a background of declining membership and growing hostility to unions in the country. 

The gathering also welcomed leaders of the main national centers in Bulgaria, Plamen Dimitrov, President of CITUB and Dimitar Manolov, President of Podkrepa.

The meeting, which was organized as part of developed cooperation between IndustriALL Global Union and industriAll Europe, covered all aspects of organizing and building union membership.

Union leaders reported that workers are threatened with reprisals or even dismissal if they joined or set up a union, making organizing and retaining members very difficult.

In a number of cases workers have been harassed or penalized because of their union work. Affiliates also acknowledged that union structures had to be reviewed and they discussed where they held the greatest strengths. Some multinational companies, which have global framework agreements (GFAs) with IndustriALL, have production facilities or suppliers in Bulgaria. As experience has shown, GFAs can open up opportunities for organizing and developing social dialogue. 

Participants lamented that employers had “boycotted” the talks on the minimum wage and social dialogue was not functioning properly. While Bulgarian legislation is quite protective of workers’ rights, in reality enforcement is weak. Fundamental rights at work, based on ILO Conventions that Bulgaria has ratified, are abused with impunity. Furthermore, the lack of a legislative obligation to sign collective agreements sometimes makes the bargaining process ineffective.  

Bulgaria has the lowest income per capita in the European Union. If the country is to reduce growing economic and social inequalities, there is a need to promote industry-wide collective bargaining and increase wages. Currently bargaining takes place at plant level and workers in small and medium-sized enterprises are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, not covered by any collective agreement.  

Poor working conditions and low wages are pushing young people, in particular, to leave the country.  The meeting participants highlighted the acute shortage of qualified workers that limits the country’s growth prospects and they called on the government to urgently address the training gaps in key industry sectors, such as engineering.

Participants had a common understanding about the need to prioritize organizing and consolidate union structures to make unions more relevant to their members and better able to meet challenges in the world of work.  In particular, an effective communication plan has to be developed to reach out to potential members and strengthen union presence in the workplace.  

IndustriALL Global Union Assistant General Secretary Kemal Özkan stated:

“Both IndustriALL Global Union and industriAll European Trade Union will continue to support the Bulgarian affiliates in developing their capacity and training activities into the future. This is part of our determined cooperation on our organizing and building union power agenda. This is a very timely initiative since there is a burning need for organizing in Southeast European countries.”

IndustriAll European Trade Union’s General Secretary Luc Triangle stated:

“In order to create a better life for Bulgarian workers, to go for wage levels that allow a decent life, and to create a real future for Bulgaria as a country and for Bulgarian citizens and workers, trade unions have to increase membership and building strong and powerful organizations. Both global and European federations are determined to assist the Bulgarian affiliates with that. Because strong trade unions are the best way to a better life”