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Trade Unions

Around 20% of Bulgaria’s employees are union members. There are two main union confederations. The larger of the two is KNSB, which emerged from the reformed official trade union movement of the communist period, while Podkrepa came out of the opposition movement. Despite this, they now work together reasonably well.

Figures from the unions themselves suggest there are around 400,000 trade unionists in Bulgaria, and the latest official census of trade unions, undertaken in 2012, produces union density figure of around 18% of all employees, although this does not include trade unionists outside the two main union confederations. Figures from the ICTWSS database of union membership put union density at 19.8% in 2009.1

There are two main union confederations in Bulgaria. These are KNSB (often known by its initials in English as CITUB) and K T Podkrepa. KNSB emerged with a reformed structure from the official trade union confederation of the communist period. Its founding congress was in 1990, following on from a special congress of its predecessor. Podkrepa was established in February 1989, as part of the opposition movement to the then communist government. It was concerned to protect civil rights, particularly those of ethnic Turks. In the years that followed the fall of the communist government in November 1989 the two confederations played a major role promoting reforms in the Bulgarian economy and society as a whole.

KNSB has always been larger than Podkrepa and figures compiled for the most recent trade union census in 2012 show 275,762 members for KNSB and 88,329 for Podkrepa.2

There are also a number of unions outside the two main confederations. Some cover a number of specific occupations, including journalists, firefighters and some jobs in air and sea transport; some are in industries, such as electricity generation and banking. There are also police unions that by law are not allowed to affiliate to the main union confederations. Finally, there are also other trade union confederations which emerged as rivals to the two main confederations in the 1990s, such as Promyana, which came into existence in 1996 with the express purpose of overthrowing the then socialist government.

The issue of membership is important, as it is one of the factors in deciding whether or not a union confederation is ‘representative’. Representative confederations have seats on a range of tripartite bodies – made up of the unions, employers and the government – which have both an advisory role and administer parts of the social security system. These tripartite bodies exist at local as well as national level. Representative unions also have specific rights in the area of collective bargaining (see section on collective bargaining).

In order to be representative at national level, the Bulgarian labour code, which was amended in this area in 2012, states that a union organisation must fulfil a number of conditions. As well as having the appropriate legal status – that of a non-profit association -- and being registered with the court, a representative union must have at least 75,000 members (previously 50,000); It must organise in at least a quarter of the sectors of the Bulgarian economy (previously a half), with either 5% of the employees in membership in each of these sectors or 50 local trade union organisations, each with at least five members, in each of the sectors; It must also have legal bodies in at least a quarter of Bulgaria’s municipalities (previously a half) and a national executive.

At present only KNSB and Podkrepa have the status of representative unions at national level, although other confederations have also been granted this status in the past. Disputes over the issue led to a change in the procedure for establishing representative status. There is now a clear timetable for submitting requests for representative status, including the need to re-establish status every four years, and a clear requirement to ensure the information provided in support of the request is accurate. In both 2007 and 2012 only KNSB and Podkrepa provided the necessary details - the smaller bodies chose not to participate in the process.

Relations between KNSB and Podkrepa are reasonably good. For example, the two confederations organised a major joint protest in November 2011 against government plans to raise the retirement age, although there are sometimes differences.

Both KNSB and Podkrepa have cooperated with the Bulgarian socialist party in the past, although relations with the socialist-led government elected in 2005 deteriorated towards the end of its period in office in 2009. The unions also clashed with the centre-right government, which was elected in July 2009, although there was agreement on an anti-crisis package in March 2010. More recently, both confederations have been very critical of Bulgarian politicians from all parties, blaming them for the country’s ongoing political crisis.

KNSB and Podkrepa have a similar structure of affiliated industry federations/unions. There are 36 in the case of KNSB, of which the largest is the teachers’ union, with some 75,000 members. KNSB also has six associated organisations representing the self-employed, home-workers, farmers and others. Podkrepa has 25 affiliated industry federations.

Overall union membership has fallen, not just from the period of the communist government, when it was close to 100%, but since the late 1990s. At the time of the 1998 union census, there were 777,000 recorded union members and union density was around 39%. However, by 2003 membership had fallen to 499,000 and union density to around 27%.The figures for 2007 show membership at 419,000 and density at 20%, and the latest figures show membership at 364,000 and density at 18% .1 The later figures do not include the membership of unions outside the two main confederations or bodies, such as the KNSB’s homeworkers’ association, that are not full KNSB members. However, even taking this into account, the overall downward trend is very clear. The reasons for this fall include a sharp reduction in the size of the manufacturing sector, where unions have traditionally been strong, a smaller role for the state, and a growth in smaller businesses, where unions find it much harder to organise. Density has not fallen by as much as the total membership because of a 7% fall in the numbers employed between 2007 and 2012.

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.