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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 the union density estimates of the government. There are two main trade union confederations, the CGTP-IN and the UGT, whose relationship was initially marked by conflict rather than co-operation, but has now improved. Trade union structures are complex with almost 350 autonomous individual unions.

There are 1.3 million trade union members in Portugal, according to figures provided by the unions themselves, although, as the 2006 green paper on Portuguese labour relations noted, “The number of trade unionists and union density is controversial”. 1 The green paper made no estimate of union density. However, the subsequent white paper on labour relations, published at the end of 2007, estimated union density in Portugal at 18.4%.2 The ICTWSS database of union membership has a similar figure. It put union density in Portugal at 19.3% in 2010. 3 These density figures imply that union membership among those in employment is around 550,000, less than half the totals provided by the unions. In 2013, EIRO estimated that “trade unions together may have between 700,000 and 800,000 members [and that] overall, average density is probably below 20%.”4

There are two main union confederations in Portugal – the CGTP-IN and the UGT. The CGTP-IN is larger: it reported to its latest Congress in January 2012 that it represented 614,088 workers. The UGT has about 500,000 members according to its general secretary, João Proença, speaking in an interview in November 2010. In addition, there are a number of smaller unions outside the main confederations, which have perhaps 50,000 members.

As already noted, these figures are much higher than those implied by the union density figures in the 2007 white paper, and external observers agree that in reality the numbers are lower – about 500,000 for the CGTP-IN and 200,000 for the UGT. In terms of the level of support for each of the confederations, the survey undertaken for the 2007 white paper asked with which union grouping the respondents had the greatest sympathy. It found that support for CGTP-IN unions – at 21.0% – was around twice as high as for UGT unions – 9.8%, while unions outside the main confederations had the support of 7.0% of respondents. This “sympathy” is not, of course, the same as union membership.

The structure of trade unionism in Portugal is complex, in part because of the long-lasting inheritance of the authoritarian corporatist regime which continued until the April revolution of 1974. The 2006 green paper stated that a total of 421 trade union bodies were registered with the ministry of labour in 2005: 348 trade unions, often based locally rather than nationally, 27 industry federations, 36 district groupings and seven confederations (including the two largest, CGTP-IN and UGT). Although around 50 of these bodies were considered at the time to be no longer operating and there have been changes since, the structure is still very fragmented. The database of the ministry of labour showed 490 union organisations in existence on 31 December 2010.5

The CGTP-IN, for example, has, according to its website, 80 unions that are directly affiliated to it, but there are another 33 unions that have links to it through the wider body, the MSU (Movimento Sindical Unitário). Many of its affiliates are not national but based in regions or districts, or groups of districts, although its largest affiliate, the local government union STAL, whose stated membership is 56,000, is a national union.

Since the early 1990s, the CGTP-IN 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 88 by 2008. The CGTP-IN’s 10 industry federations and the individual unions linked to them now provide a much clearer structure for organisation. The CGTP-IN organises the majority of trade unionists other than finance and energy and it is strongest in manufacturing and the public sector.

The UGT 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.) There are also two federations directly affiliated to the UGT, covering unions for port workers and education unions, and four others, which are not directly affiliated, but whose members are primarily UGT unions. 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, states on its website that it has more than 50,000 members, making it the largest union in the UGT.

As well as the unions within or allied to the main confederations there are around 100 other unions, some grouped in other smaller confederations, such as the USI, but the majority not linked at all.

The CGTP-IN 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-IN'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.

These differences were shown in their diverging approaches to the changes in industrial relations, labour market and social policy involved in the 2009 revision of the Labour Code, and more recently in the two confederations’ responses to the various rounds of austerity measures, which began to be introduced in 2010. Both the CGTP-IN and the UGT opposed the proposals, and, for the first time since 1988, organised two joint general strikes, the first on 24 November 2010 and the second, in response to new cuts, exactly a year later on 24 November 2011. However, at the start of 2012 the UGT signed an agreement with the employers and the government, after a plan to increase working time was dropped. The CGTP-IN, in contrast has continued to oppose the plans and to organise action against them, which has been backed by some individual UGT unions and federations .

The lack of detailed information makes it difficult to judge union membership developments in Portugal. However, it seems clear that both main confederations lost membership in the 1990s and while union membership has grown in some areas, particularly the public sector, membership has been adversely affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs in recent years. Both the CGTP-IN and the UGT adopted programmes at their recent congresses aiming to increase their membership, with the CGTP-IN setting a target of 100,000 new members over four years.

L. Fulton (2013) 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.