Home / National Industrial Relations / Countries / Portugal / Trade Unions

Trade Unions

Lack of precise data makes it difficult to give figures of trade union membership in Portugal and there is a large gap between the totals provided by the unions and other estimates. There are two main trade union confederations, the CGTP and the UGT, whose relationship was initially marked by conflict rather than co-operation but has now improved. Trade union structures are complex with around 400 autonomous individual unions.

There are just over a million trade union members in Portugal, according to figures provided by the unions themselves, although some of the available union density figures suggest a lower number.


There are no regular official estimates of union density for the whole economy, but the Office for Planning and Strategy (GEP) in the Ministry of Labour and Social Solidarity (MTSS) produces regular figures on union density in the private sector. Figures published in the 2018 updating a 2016 green paper on labour relations, show union density in the private sector 8.3% in 2016.[1] However, this is certainly an underestimate of union density across the economy, as the figures do not include public administration, where union density is higher, and they originally come from the employers, who only know about union members who pay their subscription via the employer, not those who pay directly.[2]  


The ICTWSS independent database of industrial relations information calculated union density in Portugal at 15.3% in 2016.[3] This is based on a total estimated union membership of 560,000, split between the two main union confederations, the CGTP with 400,000 members and the UGT with 160,000.


These figures are well below the membership numbers the union confederations themselves have published. In figures provided to the European Trade Union Confederation, the CGTP indicated that it had 555,000 members in 2015.[4] The UGT stated that it had 458,000 members at the end of 2016, in its report to its congress in March 2017.[5] In addition, there are a number of smaller unions outside the main confederations. However, there is no information on their total membership.


The problems in establishing accurate membership figures are, in part, explained by the fragmented and complex structure of trade unionism in Portugal. The database of the Ministry of Labour and Social Solidarity listed 404 active union organisations of all types at the end of June 2020.[6] The 2016 green paper on industrial relations, using data from 2015,identified 377 union organisations, of which six were confederations, 43 were unions (Uniões) normally at a regional level , 27 were federations (normally industry based and 300 were independent unions (Sindicatos).[7]


The CGTP provides an example of this complexity and fragmentation. In the report presented to its 2020 congress, it states that there are 79 unions that are directly affiliated to it, but there are another 46 unions which are not affiliated but cooperate with it either on a regular basis (17 unions) or on an issue by issue basis (29). This wider group of 125 unions, known as the MSU (Movimento Sindical Unitário), breaks down between 56 which operate at national level, 65 which operate at a local level – mostly covering several districts, two which operate outside Portugal and two based in the Azores. In terms of the type of membership, 37 are occupationally based unions, 82 are industrially based unions and six are a mixture of the two.[8] The CGTP’s largest single individual affiliate is the local government union STAL, whose stated membership is 56,000 and which operates across Portugal at national level.[9]


Since the early 1990s, the CGTP has made considerable progress in rationalising these structures by getting unions to merge, reducing the number of separate unions affiliated to it from 152 in 1993, to 107 in 1999 and to 79 by 2020. The CGTP’s 10 industry federations and its 22 regional bodies now provide a much clearer structure for organisation. The CGTP organises the majority of trade unionists other than finance and energy and it is strongest in manufacturing and the public sector.


The UGT also has a mixture of industry and occupationally based unions. Most of its 49 unions are national but there are some, such as those for bank employees and teachers which only cover part of the country. (There are bank unions for the north, centre and the south of the country and the islands, for example.) Like the CGTP, the UGT has unions which, while not affiliated, work with it. There are 24 of these. There are also six industry federations and 20 regional bodies.[10]  The UGT has most members in the services sector, both private and public, and is particularly strong in banking and insurance. SBSI, which represents bank employees in the south of the country and the islands, describes itself on its website as “the largest Portuguese trade union” and is reported to have 40,000 members.[11]


As well as the two main confederations CGTP and the UGT there is a much smaller confederation, the USI, which lists 14 affiliated unions on its website.[12] However, more significant in industrial relations terms are the unions which not linked to any of the main confederations. There are around 100 of these and there are some indications that their number may be increasing. A report in April 2019 noted that 22 of the 24 new unions that had been set up since the start of 2017 were not affiliated to any confederation. These new unions included two, a nurses’ union, ASPE, and a lorry drivers’ union SNMMP, which have been involved in important strikes.


There are important political differences between the two main confederations. The CGTP emerged after the 1974 revolution and initially had close links with the communist party. The UGT was set up in 1978 to provide an alternative to the CGTP's political approach by, as its own history states, trade unions with links to social democratic and liberal-conservative parties.As a result, relations between the two confederations were initially very strained. However, since the late 1980s the position has improved considerably, although clear differences remain.


One key difference is that the UGT is much more prepared to sign national tripartite agreements with the employers and the government than the CGTP. Between 2012 and the end of June 2020 there have been six separate agreements signed in the Standing Committee for Social Concertation (CPCS), the national body that brings together representatives of the government, the employers and the unions. The CGTP and the UGT are the only union bodies in the CPCS (see section on collective bargaining). These agreements have in some cases led to far-reaching changes to employment law, particularly those signed in 2012 and 2018. However, none of these agreements has been signed by the CGTP.[13]


The lack of detailed information makes it difficult to judge union membership developments in Portugal. However, the figures from the Ministry of Labour and Social Solidarity (MTSS), which cover union density in the private sector, show a steady fall from 10.6% in 2010 to 8.3% in 2016.[14] Over the longer term, it seems clear that while union membership has grown in some areas, particularly the public sector, membership has been adversely affected by the loss of jobs in manufacturing, and, following the financial crisis, in banking and insurance. Both the CGTP and the UGT have adopted programmes at their recent congresses aiming to increase their membership. The CGTP reporting at its 2020 congress that its target of recruiting 110,00 new members over the previous four years had been beaten, with 114,677 new members being recruited.


As in other countries, larger workplaces are likely to have higher levels of union density (18.1%) for those with more than 250 employees, but only 3.1% for those with 10 to 49, although it is important to emphasise that these figures, from the Ministry of Labour and Social Solidarity and published in the update of the green paper, only cover the private sector.


There are no official figures on union density for men and women. Figures provide to the ETUC gender equality survey show that women make up 52% of the membership of the CGTP (2015) and 45% of the UGT’s membership (2018).[15]

[1] Atualização do Livro Verde sobre as Relações Laborais 2016, Ministério do Trabalho, Solidariedade e Segurança Social 24.01.2018 https://www.portugal.gov.pt/pt/gc21/comunicacao/documento?i=atualizacao-do-livro-verde-sobre-as-relacoes-laborais-2016 (Accessed 01.07.2020)

[2] Ainda vale a pena ser sindicalizado? by Sónia M Lourenço, Expresso, 01.05.18 https://expresso.pt/politica/2018-05-01-Ainda-vale-a-pena-ser-sindicalizado- (Accessed 01.07.2020)

[3] Jelle Visser, ICTWSS Data base. Version 6.1. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies AIAS. October 2019

[4] ETUC Annual Gender Equality Survey 2019 – 12th edition, by Lionel Fulton and Cinzia Sechi, ETUC, April 2019  https://www.etuc.org/sites/default/files/circular/file/2019-05/ETUC_Annual_Equality_Survey%202019_FINAL_EN.pdf (Accessed 01.07.2020) 

[5] Relatório do Secretariado Nacional  XIII Congresso UGT   https://www.ugt.pt/13congresso/publicfiles/zg41n1hleeph7dmtaf4u1kmhrhte20u8agevucmm.pdf   (Accessed 01.07.2020)

[6] Organizações de Trabalho – Lista de associações sindicais e de associações de empregadores , Direcção-Geral do Emprego e das Relações de Trabalho, Ministerio do Trabalho e da Solidariedade Social https://www.dgert.gov.pt/organizacoes-de-trabalho-lista-de-associacoes-sindicais-e-de-associacoes-de-empregadores#dsrcot_ws_form (Accessed 01.07.2020)

[7] Livro Verde sobre as Relações Laborais, Gabinete de Estratégia e Planeamento do Ministério do Trabalho, Solidariedade e Segurança Social, December 2016 http://cite.gov.pt/pt/destaques/complementosDestqs2/LIVRO_VERDE_2016.pdf (Accessed 01.07.2020)

[8] Relatório de Actividades (Mandato 2016-2020) http://www.cgtp.pt/xiv-congresso/documentos/relatorio-de-actividades (Accessed 01.07.2020)

[9] STAL website https://www.stal.pt/index.php/o-sindicato/quem-somos.html (Accessed 01.07.2020)

[10] UGT website https://www.ugt.pt/comissoespagina/sindicatos-verticais-e-profissionais-124  (Accessed 01.07.2020)

[11] SBSI website https://www.sbsi.pt/Pages/default.aspx and Outros poderes. Como resiste a UGT à crise do sindicalismo by Ana Suspiro, Observador, 26 December 2019  https://observador.pt/especiais/outros-poderes-como-resiste-a-ugt-a-crise-do-sindicalismo/  (Accessed 01.07.2020)

[12] USI website https://www.usi.pt/filiados/ (Accessed 01.07.2020)

[13] CES website http://www.ces.pt/concertacao-social/acordos (Accessed 01.07.2020)

[14] Figures from the 2016 green paper and its updating in 2018: Livro Verde sobre as Relações Laborais (2016) and Atualização do Livro Verde sobre as Relações Laborais (2018)

[15] ETUC Annual Gender Equality Survey 2019 – 12th edition, by Lionel Fulton and Cinzia Sechi, ETUC, April 2019  https://www.etuc.org/sites/default/files/circular/file/2019-05/ETUC_Annual_Equality_Survey%202019_FINAL_EN.pdf (Accessed 01.07.2020)   

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.