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Trade Unions

Union density is low in Estonia at around 10%. It fell sharply in the 1990s, but it now seems more stable. Most union members are organised in two major confederations, one, EAKL, primarily manual the other, TALO, primarily non-manual.

There are between 40,000 and 50,000 trade union members in Estonia. Figures from the Estonian Tax and Customs Board show that 41,951 individuals declared their union membership fee as a tax deductible expense in 2009 (now no longer possible), while a survey conducted by the official body Statistics Estonia in 2009 found that there were 51,800 union members.1 Based on the sample used by Statistics Estonia, organisations with five or more employees, the proportion of employees belonging to a union is 10.7%. It is likely to be slightly lower, at around 9.5% if all employees are included as very small organisations are less likely to have a union presence. The ICTWSS database database of union membership has a lower figure, estimating union density at 8.1% in 2010.2

Estonia has two trade union confederations, EAKL, which was founded in 1990 as the country was breaking away from the Soviet Union (it became independent in 1991) and TALO, made up of unions which left EAKL in 1992.

EAKL is primarily a manual workers’ confederation, while TALO is primarily a confederation of non-manual workers, but this division is not absolute, particularly in the case of EAKL which includes several non-manual unions.



EAKL is the bigger of the two with more than 30,000 members in 2012, while TALO has only around 3,000 members (2012). There are also several thousand members in other smaller unions, which are not part of either of the larger confederations, including the teachers’ union EHL with around 10,000 members, and a new, much smaller union for financial employees EFL3 . A union only requires five employees to found it.

The individual union affiliates of both EAKL and TALO are organised on either an industrial or an occupational basis. EAKL’s 20 affiliates include ETTA, the road transport workers’ union, EKTAL, the light industries’ union, EEAÜL, the energy union and EMTAL, the metalworkers’ union and ROTAL, the state and local government employees’ union. The nine affiliates of TALO include EAL, the journalists’ union, the broadcasting union RTAL and the customs officials’ union TTAÜ.



EAKL is politically independent but has links with the Estonian social democratic party which resulted from a merger including a left-of-centre political grouping. TALO is more clearly politically independent.



Both confederations have experienced a loss of members in recent years, with EAKL initially particularly badly hit. In 1996 EAKL had 119,000 members, more than three times the present total, while TALO had 45,000, many more than now. Among the reasons suggested for the decline are the perceived links between the unions and the Communist Party during the period when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union, the fact that unions no longer provide the benefits and services whose distribution had been one of their key functions in the past, and the loss of employment and restructuring that accompanied the economic changes in the 1990s.4



Whatever the reasons, the 2009 Statistics Estonia survey shows that unions are present in only 6% of all organisations employing five or more people, and 48% of those employing 250 employees or more.5 This means that significant parts of the economy, including construction and most small companies remain effectively union free.

L. Fulton (2015) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.