Weak Unions and National Politics in the Baltics


David Ost (Hobart and William Smith Colleges)

Trade unions emerged in all of postcommunist Europe in a weak position, burdened by the negative legacies of communism, the rise of neoliberal ideology (even among new union activists), and the effort by employers and the state to restrict the rise of unions. Unions in the Baltic republics, however, are seen by a number of scholars as the weakest of the weak, unable to attract workers, mobilize members, or exert pressure on firm or state. This paper explores that claim, shows strong evidence for its validity, and suggests that it should be interpreted in terms of ethnic nationalism. The argument is that Baltic state policy after communism, particularly in Estonia, sought not so much to weaken labor, but to weaken institutions in which the Russian-speaking minority were heavily invested. That meant undercutting the heavy industry concentrated in the eastern areas, as well as the unions heavily represented there. Factors that contributed to such policies were official efforts to propel emigration, large numbers on non-citizens in unions, and the limited proletarianization of the Baltic population after World War II were all contributing factors to today’s anti-labor outcomes. So whereas even neoliberal governments in other postcommunist countries had to find some common ground with organized labor in order to obtain social stability and electoral support, no comparable pressure emerged in the Baltics.

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