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Trade Unions

Around 15% to 17% of Bulgaria’s employees are union members. There are two main union confederations. The larger of the two is KNSB (known in English as CITUB), which emerged from the reformed official trade union movement of the communist period, while Podkrepa came out of the opposition movement. Despite this, they now work together reasonably well.

Figures from the unions themselves suggest there are around 350,000 to 400,000 trade unionists in Bulgaria. The latest official census of trade unions, undertaken in 2016, produces a union density figure of 15.4%, although this does not include trade unionists outside the two main union confederations, and assumes that all trade unionist are employees.[1] Figures from the union research institute ISTUR put union density at 15.1% in 2018.[2]


There are two main union confederations in Bulgaria. These are KNSB (often known by its initials in English as CITUB) and K T Podkrepa. KNSB emerged with a reformed structure from the official trade union confederation of the communist period. Its founding congress was in 1990, following on from a special congress of its predecessor. Podkrepa was established in February 1989, as part of the opposition movement to the then communist government. It was concerned to protect civil rights, particularly those of ethnic Turks. In the years that followed the fall of the communist government in November 1989 the two confederations played a major role promoting reforms in the Bulgarian economy and society as a whole.


KNSB has always been larger than Podkrepa and figures compiled for the trade union census in 2016 show 271,312 members for KNSB and 79,567 for Podkrepa.[3]


There are also a number of unions outside the two main confederations. Some cover a number of specific occupations, including journalists, firefighters and some jobs in air and sea transport; some are in industries, such as electricity generation and banking. There are also police unions that by law are not allowed to affiliate to the main union confederations. Finally, the two main confederations have also faced rivalry from other trade union confederations, such as Promyana (“Change” in Bulgarian), which came into existence in 1996 with the express purpose of overthrowing the then socialist government. However, these bodies have declined in importance, if not effectively disappeared.


The issue of membership is important, as it is one of the factors in deciding whether or not a union confederation is ‘representative’. Representative confederations have seats on a range of tripartite bodies – made up of the unions, employers and the government – which have both an advisory role and administer parts of the social security system. These tripartite bodies exist at local as well as national level. Representative unions also have specific rights in the area of collective bargaining (see section on collective bargaining).


In order to be representative at national level, the Bulgarian labour code, which was amended in this area in 2012, states that a union organisation must fulfil a number of conditions. As well as having the appropriate legal status – that of a non-profit association – and being registered with the court, a representative union must have at least 75,000 members (previously 50,000). It must organise in at least a quarter of the sectors of the Bulgarian economy (previously a half), with either 5% of the employees in membership in each of these sectors or 50 local trade union organisations, each with at least five members, in each of the sectors. It must also have legal bodies in at least a quarter of Bulgaria’s municipalities (previously a half) and a national executive.


At present only KNSB and Podkrepa have the status of representative unions at national level, although other confederations have also been granted this status in the past. Disputes over this issue led to a change in the procedure for establishing representative status. There is now a clear timetable for submitting requests for representative status, including the need to re-establish status every four years, and a clear requirement to ensure the information provided in support of the request is accurate. The most recent decision, confirming that KNSB and Podkrepa were the only two representative unions at national level, was taken in August 2016.[4]


Despite their different histories, relations between KNSB and Podkrepa are reasonably good, and on many issues the two confederations take a common position. For example, in June 2018, together with the European Trade Union Confederation, they submitted a common complaint to the Council of Europe concerning the collective bargaining rights of civil servants.[5] However, there are still differences – a rally for higher wages in October 2017 organised by KNSB was not backed by Podkrepa, and May Day marches and events are typically held separately.


Both KNSB and Podkrepa cooperated with the Bulgarian socialist party in the past, although relations with the socialist-led government elected in 2005 deteriorated towards the end of its period in office in 2009. More recently, both confederations have been critical of Bulgarian politicians from all parties.


KNSB and Podkrepa have a similar structure of affiliated industry federations/unions. There are 38 in the case of KNSB, of which the largest is the teachers’ union, the SBU, with some 80,000 members. KNSB also has six associated organisations representing groups, such as artists, disabled workers and hairdressers. Podkrepa has 25 affiliated industry federations.


Overall union membership has fallen, not just from the period of the communist government, when it was close to 100%, but since the late 1990s. At the time of the 1998 union census, there were 777,000 recorded union members and union density was around 39%. However, by 2003 membership had fallen to 499,000 and union density to around 27%.The figures for 2012 show membership at 364,000 and density at 17.2%, while by 2016 membership had fallen to 351,000 and density to 15.4%.[6]


The later figures do not include the membership of unions outside the two main confederations, or bodies which are associated members of the KNSB. However, even taking these into account, the overall downward trend is clear. The reasons for this fall include a sharp reduction in the size of the manufacturing sector, where unions have traditionally been strong, a smaller role for the state, and a growth in smaller businesses, where unions find it much harder to organise. Between 2012 and 2016 union membership (in the two largest confederations) fell by 3.6% and overall employment grew by 2.6%.


[1] The total number of trade unionists in the two main confederations declared in the census was 350,879 in 2016 and total employment in Bulgaria in the same year was 2,277,345 (National Statistical Institute Bulgaria)

[2] See Annual Review 2018 of Labour Relations and Social Dialogue Bulgaria, by Plamen Dimitrov, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2019, http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/bratislava/15354.pdf (Accessed 17.07.2019)

[3] ibid


[5]  Trade unions lodge collective complaint with Council of Europe against Bulgaria, Radio Bulgaria, 11.06.18 http://bnr.bg/en/post/100982088/trade-unions-lodge-collective-complaint-with-council-of-europe-against-bulgaria (Accessed 15.11.18)

[6] The figures for 2012 and 2016 are taken from the official census and figures for total employment from the National Statistical Institute Bulgaria; for the earlier figures see The Bulgarian Labour Market in 2003, published by the KNSB’s research body, the Institute for Social and Trade Union Research (ISTUR), Posted to the Global Policy Network on 27 April 2004

L. Fulton (2021) National Industrial Relations, an update (2019-2021). Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.