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Trade Unions

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Around a quarter of employees in Greece are union members, but the position is very different in the public and state-owned sector, where unions have relatively high levels of membership, and the private sector, where unions are weak. There are only two major confederations, ADEDY covering the central, local and regional government, and GSEE covering the rest. Below this level there is a hierarchy of union structures, but they are fragmented.note1

Figures for the number of trade union members in Greece vary but the trade unions’ own figure of voting members suggest they have approximately 650,000. Taking some account of trade union members who are not employed, this suggests that around a quarter of all employees are trade unionists. A report published by the main union confederation GSEE in 2001, based on a survey of adults, found that approximately 30% of employees were in a union. However, the ICTWSS database of union membership put union density in Greece in 2011 at 25.4%.2

 

 

There are two main trade union confederations in Greece: the GSEE, which organises private sector employees and employees in firms and sectors under public control (such as banks and transport and utilities like electricity and water-supply) and ADEDY, whose membership is only civil servants, although these include teachers as well as those working in ministries and local authorities.

The GSEE had 418,433 voting members eligible at its congress in March 2013 and ADEDY reported it had some 200,000 members at its congress in November 2013.3

In the past the two confederations have expressed a wish to work together with the intention of moving towards an eventual merger. Although there are already a number of institutions which are run jointly by the two confederations including the research institute INE GSEE-ADEDY, there has been little recent progress towards a merger.

 

 

Greek law provides for three levels of trade union organisation. At the base are the primary level unions, of which there were 3,400 in 2007.4 They have legal autonomy and their operations are governed by law. In the past the primary level unions were largely occupationally based and often limited to a small geographic area. However, many are now company-based groupings and they can also be branches of larger national or regional bodies. The result is that, while in theory, there may be several unions in a particular workplace, in reality, this is less common than in the past.

 

 

Above the primary level unions are the second level organisations. These are either industry or occupational federations, or regional organisations, known as labour centres. The primary level unions decide which secondary organisation to join, and in the GSEE this determines how the primary union sends its delegates to the national congress, whether through the industry/occupationally-based federations or through the geographically-based labour centres.

 

 

Finally there are the third level bodies, the confederations such as the GSEE, composed of second level organisations. The GSEE is made up of around 150 second level organisations, and its website lists 73 industry/occupationally-based federations and 81 regional labour centres. At its 2013 congress, 2,190 primary level unions, as well as 92 primary level organisations of pensioners were represented. ADEDY is organised mainly on a ministry or administration basis and lists 46 federations on its website.6

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The result is that trade union structures in Greece are highly fragmented. Although the union confederations have made some efforts to reduce the fragmentation, for example by encouraging co-operation among industry federations, progress so far has been slow.

 

One reason may be that the financial pressures which have led to mergers in other countries have been less noticeable in Greece, as Greek unions (at second and third level) do not depend entirely on direct income from the membership for funds. They get an important contribution from the state through a fund into which all workers, whether unionised or not, contribute. This helps to pay for equipment, staff salaries and some overheads, such as postage and telephone costs. However, since the crisis, this source of finance has been under threat. In November 2012 the contributions to the fund were cut by 50% and the OEE the institution responsible for providing finance the trade unions, among other things, was abolished. A new source of funding for trade unions has been provided within the budget of the public employment service (OAED), but since 2012 the amount provided has been sharply reduced.

 

The trade union movement in Greece has traditionally been highly politicised with the major political parties represented directly in the trade union movement through organised political groupings. The 45-strong GSEE executive is elected at congress on the basis of political blocks. In the executive elected in March 2010, the largest block, 22 members, came from the grouping aligned with the social democratic PASOK party. However, the crisis since 2010 has shifted political alignments and affiliations. The group linked to PASOK still had the largest number of members in the executive elected at the 2013 congress. However, with only 16 members it lost ground to the groups on the left. The group linked to the communist party gained one additional member, taking them from nine to 10; an autonomous group linked to the left party SYRIZA gained two members, going from three to five; and another autonomous group, which split from PASOK, won three seats (previously none). The number of members closest to the conservative New Democratic Party remained stable at 11. The grouping linked to PASOK is also the largest political block in the leadership of ADEDY, although in the November 2013 congress it also lost seats to parties on the left, leaving it with only 22 of the 85 members.

The lack of precise figures makes it difficult to record detailed changes in trade union membership. However, the longer-term trends seem clear and show a marked difference between the public and private sectors. While union density in the private sector is now less than half the level it was in the mid-1980s, in the civil service it is now 50% higher than it was 20 years ago. Overall, one third of union density has been lost. As a result, there are now major differences in the level of organisation between sectors of the Greek economy. While union density remains relatively high in the public sector and industries under public control or recently privatised, like the public power company DEH, or the national telecommunications OTE (which the government privatised, selling a substantial shareholding to the German Deutsche Telecom), it is low in the fully private sector, which is dominated by very small companies.5

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.