The Bulgarian trade union movement was rejuvenated in the pluralist post-Zhivkov political atmosphere after being forced to adhere totally to BCP policy throughout the postwar period. By 1990 unions were a powerful policy-making force, using well-organized strikes and walkouts to emphasize their positions.
Unions under Communist Regimes
In the decade before World War II, the benign dictatorship of Tsar Boris III abolished independent trade unions in favor of a single government-sponsored Bulgarian Workers' Union. As Bulgaria emerged from the war under Soviet occupation, communists abolished that union and replaced it with a General Workers' Professional Union that included both white- and blue-collar workers. Gradually, independent union organizations were forced to disband or join the communist organization. By 1947 union leaders were an important instrument in consolidation of the party's power. When capitalism was declared illegal in 1948, the Dimitrov government united thirteen unions under the Central Council of Trade Unions, which endured until 1989 as the single umbrella organization representing Bulgarian workers.
During that entire period, all workers' and professional organizations followed faithfully the economic policies of the BCP. The official goals of the Bulgarian trade unions were first to help management to fulfill state economic plans, then to defend workers' interests when they did not conflict with such fulfillment. As institutions the unions had no policy input. In individual enterprises, union leaders and managers developed informal advisory relationships. The only official role of the unions was as transmitters of party policies to the working masses. Although union and BCP membership were theoretically separate, officials at the national and local levels often overlapped to give the party direct control of workers. For example, members of the districtlevel people's councils often were also union executives.
General congresses of trade unions were held explicitly to carry out BCP policy; congress delegate structure (2,997 attended the ninth congress in 1982) and the holding of preliminary district congresses mimicked BCP procedures. The many industrial reorganization plans of the Zhivkov regime meant periodic restructuring, if not new roles, for the unions. In the early 1980s, for example, the decentralizing reforms of the New Economic Model (NEM) changed the labor union structure from one divided by region to one divided by brigade, collective, and enterprise, matching the NEM industrial structure of the time. Although this change was controversial, it did little to improve the influence of the Bulgarian working class on enterprise policy.
In the 1980s, union membership approached 4 million, encompassing an estimated 98 percent of Bulgarian workers. Almost a year before the fall of Zhivkov, the Independent Labor Federation, Podkrepa, organized as a white-collar opposition group inspired by the Polish Solidarity movement. In 1989 Podkrepa consistently was persecuted for its outspoken criticism of Zhivkov's policies.
Independent Union Organizations
When the communist regime was overthrown, the central council began restructuring the trade union system, declaring the organization independent of the BCP and renaming its umbrella organization the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CITU). In 1990 BCP organizations were banned from work places, although the continuing overlap of party and union officials maintained substantial communist influence in the CITU at local levels. In the early reform years, the CITU and Podkrepa were the two major trade union federations, although many independent unions also emerged in this revival period for the movement. Early in 1990, Podkrepa established its credibility by exacting an agreement with CITU guaranteeing its members all the rights (and the substantial privileges) accorded official trade unions under the previous system. From the beginning, Podkrepa sought maximum influence on government policy, repeatedly demanding radical economic reform.
Podkrepa grew rapidly in 1990 because of its roles as a charter member of the UDF, as a participant in the policy round tables with the BCP, and as the organizer of strikes and demonstrations against the communist-dominated Lukanov government. In early 1990, an estimated 300 strikes helped convince the government that talks with opposition groups were necessary. Although Podkrepa ran no candidates in the national elections of 1990, it vigorously supported candidates who espoused labor views. In late 1990, another wave of strikes pushed the Lukanov government out and led to the coalition Popov government. Although CITU and other unions participitated, Podkrepa usually was the prime organizer in such actions.
CITU, whose membership of 3 million dwarfed the 400,000 of Podkrepa, remained politically passive in the early post-Zhivkov period. In mid-1990 CITU began issuing statements critical of government inactivity, and it mobilized 500,000 workers to participate in the November 1990 strikes initiated by Podkrepa against the Lukanov government.
The strikes that forced Lukanov's resignation also raised criticism of the political role of both labor organizations late in 1990. CITU received criticism for both its continued ties with the BSP and its aggressive reformist stance. The Supreme Party Council of the BSP declared a policy of noninterference in CITU affairs. Meanwhile, Podkrepa, led by controversial, outspokenly anticommunist Konstantin Trenchev, responded to internal and external criticism by changing from active membership to observor status in the UDF.
The unions continued active participation in political decision making in 1991, however. Because economic reforms brought substantial unemployment and workplace disruption, representing worker interests was synonymous with such involvement in this period. In January 1991, CITU and Podkrepa signed a "social peace agreement" with the Popov government to refrain from striking during the first phase of economic reform in exchange for limitations on work-force cutbacks. However, jurisdictional and policy disputes threatened to undermine the agreement. Although both organizations continued to support the Popov government, in March 1991 Podkrepa proposed that UDF representatives boycott the National Assembly because it failed to pass reform measures.
As opposition to the communists declined as a uniting factor, Bulgaria's trade unions maneuvered to shape new roles for themselves in 1991. Representing 40 percent of the population in a wide-open political culture, they exerted tremendous influence on policy even in the first post-Zhivkov year. The radical economic reform envisioned by Bulgarian leaders would include entirely new relationships among the government, enterprise management, and unions. Movement to a Western-style free-market economy would mean conceding some worker rights taken for granted under the command economy, but compromise with the Podkrepa-led union movement promised to be a severe test for other political institutions.
|Country Studies main page | Bulgaria Country Studies main page|