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Trade Unions

Hungary has a relatively low level of union density – probably less than 12%. Trade unionism is also fragmented, with six competing confederations (MSZOSZ, ASZSZ, SZEF, ÉSZT, LIGA and MOSZ), although in 2013 three of them (MSZOSZ, ASZSZ and SZEF) set up a new confederation, MSZSZ, as an umbrella body. There is currently competition between unions both in industries and in individual companies, particularly in large state-owned companies.note1

Figures from the 2009 Hungarian labour force survey indicate that some 380,000 of the employed workforce are in trade unions, equivalent to 12.0% of all employees.1 This is well below the figures from the ICTWSS database of union membership, which put union density at 16.8% in 2008.2 The unions themselves report having almost 600,000 members, and one reason for this difference is that the confederations, especially those which emerged from the union confederation SZOT, which was in existence before 1989 (see below), have a high proportion of members who are pensioners.



Four trade union confederations, MSZOSZ, ASZSZ, SZEF and ÉSZT, emerged as reformed organisations from the unified trade union confederation SZOT, which existed before 1989. However, two, LIGA and MOSZ (also known as Munkástanácsok), grew out of a combination of anti-communist activists and local protest movements. As well as these confederations, there are also a large number of independent unions.



In December 2013 three of the four reformed trade union confederations, MSZOSZ, ASZSZ and SZEF, came together to form a new confederation, MSZSZ. The reasons are in part political – a response to the FIDESZ-led government (see below), but they also reflect a wish to reduce the divisions among Hungarian trade unions, and as such the move has been welcomed by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).



Despite the creation of MSZSZ as a new confederation, the three confederations which have joined together to form it continue to exist and many issues need to be resolved to establish a completely unified structure.

The divisions between the reformed trade union confederations are essentially that they cover different parts of the economy, but the lines of demarcation are not precise. In broad terms, MSZOSZ represents workers in manufacturing industry and private services, such as retail, and ASZSZ represents workers in the utilities and transport, and the chemical industry. SZEF and ÉSZT cover public service employees, both those with special status as civil servants and normal employees. The difference between the two confederations is that ÉSZT organises employees in higher education and research institutes only, while SZEF organises public service employees in health, social services, other parts of education and local and central government.



LIGA and MOSZ both represent workers across the economy. However, from 2005 onwards the balance of membership in LIGA changed, as it began to recruit existing organisations that had previously been independent or affiliated to other confederations. The first was FRDÉSZ, a union representing those employed in the military and the police with some 42,000 members. Its decision to join LIGA gave the confederation a substantial presence in the public sector. In the years that followed, a number of other unions, including those covering electricity workers and health care workers, also joined LIGA, although in some cases the unions subsequently left, following disputes within the leadership of the confederation.


Competition between the confederations means that accurate figures for their membership are difficult to obtain and difficult to reconcile with the labour force survey figures. At its founding congress in December 2013, the new confederation MSZSZ stated that it had 250,000 employed members and 100,000 pensioner members.3 Of the three confederations which went into the merger, MSZOSZ, with 125,000 employed members, seems to be the largest, followed by SZEF (92,000 employed and 18,000 unemployed and retired members) and ASZSZ (70,000 employed and 10,000 pensioners and students).4



LIGA, which states on its website that it has 112,000 members, is the largest of the unions outside the new merged confederation.5 ÉSZT and MOSZ are smaller; ÉSZT has 52,300 employed members and 24,200 non-employed, of whom most are pensioners; MOSZ has 50,000 active members.6



In political terms, MSZOSZ has historically been close to the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and signed an electoral agreement with it in 2005. The report to MSZOSZ congress in 2006 noted that the values it supports were contained in the socialist party’s electoral platform, although it emphasised that it would be prepared to oppose even a left-wing government to defend worker’s interests. At the other end of the political spectrum, MOSZ identifies itself as a Christian union and has built alliances with right-wing parties. Most of the other confederations, SZEF, ASZSZ and ÉSZT, place greater emphasis on their political independence.



Political tensions between LIGA and other confederations, particularly MSZOSZ, increased in 2006-07 when LIGA and MOSZ supported demonstrations and organised strikes against the austerity policies of the socialist-liberal government at a time of considerable political unrest. These actions led to a strengthening of links between LIGA and FIDESZ.7



Union relationships with government changed after the election of 2010, which produced a landslide win for the FIDESZ-KDNP coalition. The FIDESZ-led government introduced a range of controversial legislation, including a revised labour code that weakened the position of unions. LIGA and MOSZ continued to negotiate with the government, while the other confederations were largely ignored and the official tripartite structures were dismantled. However, following protests, at the end of 2011, MSZOSZ joined LIGA and MOSZ in discussions on the new labour code, and finally were among the signatories of the agreement on the new labour code, which was somewhat less draconian than the initial proposals.8 MSZOSZ, together with LIGA and MOSZ, is also represented on a new tripartite body, the VFK, although the other confederations, SZEF, ASZSZ and ÉSZT, are not (see below).



Relationships between LIGA and the reformed union confederations, primarily MSZOSZ, have not improved since then, as the reformed confederations consider that the government gives preference to LIGA, both in terms of negotiations and in the distribution of EU and other grants, which have allowed LIGA to increase its staff.9 One example is an EU supported project, which has allowed LIGA to employ full-time organisers in each of Hungary’s seven regions.10



The main response of the other confederations has been the creation of the new body MSZSZ through the merger of MSZOSZ, SZEF and ASZSZ. Announcing the plan to merge in May 2013, the three confederations specifically referred to the “divisive” policy of the government towards the unions, and said that since 2010 the FIDESZ-led government had given “exclusive preference” to some unions, while others were “ignored”. The answer, they said, was “unification”.11



Although the founding congress took place in January 2013, many issues still remain to be resolved.



Union membership declined sharply over the 1990s and the decline has not ended. The labour force survey figures show a fall in overall union density from 19.7% in 2001 to 16.9% in 2004 and 12.0% in 2009.12



There are, however, differences in the rate of decline. Manufacturing and private services were much more affected by the economic change of the 1990s than were the public services and utilities. Given the structure of Hungarian trade unionism, this means that MSZOSZ, which in the past had clearly been the largest confederation, was hit more heavily by membership loss in the 1990s than SZEF and ASZSZ, whose organising base was less affected.



In the period 2001 to 2009, figures from the labour force survey show that the largest falls in union membership were in information and communication – where membership fell by 17.3 percentage points, from 20.2% to 2.9%, and education – where it fell by 15.5 percentage points, from 39.4% to 23.9%. Despite this the labour force survey figures confirm that the public sector and public utilities, including transport and energy supply, are the areas with the highest levels of union membership. They also show that union density is higher among women – at 12.9% – than among men – at 11.1%.

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.