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Trade Unions

Union density is low in Estonia at around 7%. It fell sharply in the 1990s, and it has continued to decline. Most union members are organised in two major confederations, one, EAKL, primarily manual, and the other, TALO, primarily non-manual.

There are around 40,000 trade union members in Estonia. The latest figures from the official body Statistics Estonia found that there were 38,100 union members in 2015.[1]  This means the proportion of employees belonging to a union is 7.2% (in organisations with five or more employees).


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 21,211 members in 2016, while TALO has only around 3,000 members (2012).[2] There are also several thousand members in other unions, which are not part of either of the larger confederations, including the teachers’ and education union EHL with around 10,000 members, a union for university staff UNIVERSITAS, the nurses’ union EÕL,  the doctors’ union Eesti Arstide Liit, and a union for financial employees EFL.[3]  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 has 17 affiliates, and they include: ETTA, the road transport workers’ union, which has around 2,500 members; ETK, the health workers’ union; Energeetik, the energy union; IMTAL, the industry and metalworkers’ union; and ROTAL, the state and local government employees’ union. TALO’s seven affiliates are primarily in the cultural sector, including the broadcasting union RTAL and theatre union Eesti Teatriliit, but it also has the customs officials’ union and a radiologists’ union. EAL, the journalists’ union, which was previously in TALO, has transferred its affiliation to EAKL.


EAKL is politically independent but in October 2018 it signed a cooperation agreement with the Estonian Centre Party (Keskerakond), which despite its name is, in its employment policies at least, on the left of the political spectrum in Estonia. TALO is more clearly politically independent.


Both confederations have experienced a loss of members in recent years. The loss was particularly sharp in the 1990s, when the reasons suggested for the decline included the perceived links between the unions and the Communist Party during the period when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union and the fact that unions no longer provided the benefits and services whose distribution had been a key function in the past. The loss of employment and restructuring that accompanied the economic changes in the 1990s made the situation even more difficult.[4]


Since that period losses have slowed but they still continue. The Statistics Estonia figures show that between 2009 and 2015 union membership fell from 51,700 to 38,100, a decline of a quarter (26%).[5]


Currently, unions have lower levels of membership in the private than in the public and voluntary sectors. The 2015 figures show that just 5.2% of those working in companies are union members, compared with 11.6% of employees of central and local government, and 17.2% of those working in non-profit associations and foundations.This means that significant parts of the economy are effectively union free.


The statistics also show that women have higher levels of union membership than men: 6.9% of male employees are union members, compared with 7.5% of female employees.


Unions are now very aware of the need to increase union membership, and the EAKL website states that increasing the union influence implies first of all “a significant increase in the number of members”.[6]

[1] Statistics Estonia, database Table WQU96: Employees by group of employees and membership of trade union, 2015  http://pub.stat.ee/px-web.2001/Dialog/varval.asp?ma=WQU96&ti=EMPLOYEES+BY+GROUP+OF+EMPLOYEES+AND+MEMBERSHIP+OF+TRADE+UNION&path=../I_Databas/Social_life/19Worklife_quality/10Work_organisation/&lang=1  

[2]   Living and Working in Estonia: Working life in Estonia by Ingel Kadarik and Märt Masso, Eurofound, July 2018, https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/country/estonia (Accessed 25.07.2019)

[3] Financial sector creates its first trade union, by Liina Osila and Ingel Kardarik, Eurofound, January 2014 http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/eiro/2013/11/articles/ee1311019i.htm

[4] The evolving structure of Collective Bargaining in Europe 1990-2004: National Report Estonia, Margarita Tuch, Florence 2004

[5] Statistics Estonia, database Table WQU96: Employees by group of employees and membership of trade union, 2009  http://pub.stat.ee/px-web.2001/I_Databas/Social_life/19Worklife_quality/10Work_organisation/10Work_organisation.asp

[6] https://uus.eakl.ee/meist (Accessed 14.12.2018)

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.