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Eastern Europe
Trade Unions in Lithuania - A Brief History - Sergejus Glovackas (2009)

Trade Unions Under Tsarism

In Lithuania, with the assistance of socialist intellectuals, the first trade union of shoe makers (sabots) was founded in 1892, much earlier than in other parts of the Russian empire. It should be noted that the workers' movement in Lithuania was more conscious and more organized than in Russia at that time. The Jewish workers actively united in the Bund (founded in 1895), a socialist party as well as a union.

In 1896 in Vilnius 21 strikes took place, involving about 500 labour union members. During May 15 – June 3, 1895 a big shoemakers strike was held. Three workers were arrested, but were later released as a crowd of 2,000 workers gathered near the place where they were held in custody. The strikers ran out of money to continue the strike, so they appealed for help to the German shoemakers trade union, which organized a solidarity campaign and collected money to help the Vilnius strikers. The strike was successful.

The common feature of the trade unions of Lithuania at the beginning of the 20th century was the principle of territorial unification (Vilnius, Klaipeda regional trade unions), according to the national identity (Jewish, Polish, Lithuanian Unions of Workers – Sv. Juozapo (St. Józef) Workers Union, Sv. Zitos (St. Zita) maid/servant union), as well as according to the political and religious identity – Social Democratic and Christian Workers Organizations.

In 1902 Lithuania had regional and primary organisations of shoemakers, dressmakers, tailors, joiners, metalworkers, brick-makers, bakers, knitwear garment workers, sawmill workers. The same year workers' demonstrations against the governor took place on April 18 (according to the old Russian empire calendar) or on May 1st (according to the new calendar). Many workers were arrested and beaten. To avenge the harsh treatment of the Jewish Workers' Union, worker Girsa Lekert shot three times at the General Governor von Val at Lukiskiu Square and wounded him. Lekert was sentenced to death and executed in what is currently the North district of the town. He was buried in the Seskinės Jewish cemetery in Vilnius.

Most labour organizations acted illegally and were restricted in every way by the Tsarist regime. In 1905 the first agricultural workers' strike occurred. Also in 1905 a general strike was held. Governor von der Palen arrived to negotiate with the workers who demanded that the troops be withdrawn from the city, and von der Palen offered the worker delegates to go with him to General Governor for negotiations. As his coach started to move, a shot was heard from a window of Gediminas Street. Von der Palen was hiding and the soldiers began firing into the crowd. Three workers were killed, and another died of his wounds (a tablet commemorating this event is still to be seen at the Central bookstore in Vilnius). Their deaths caused a mass demonstration of about 50,000 people.

In 1906 the Estates and Village Workers' Union, and the Žagarės Field Workers Union were founded.

After the 1905 Revolution, in which workers' unions participated actively, the eight-hours working day was temporarily achieved in industry, and the ten-hours working day in other sectors. Also, collective bargaining was recognized.

In 1908-1909 the tannery workers struck for five months in Vilnius, with demands that are relevant even today. It was directed against the employers' intention to extend the working day from 8 to 10 hours, reduce wages by 30 percent and to abolish the union's right to monitor workers' hiring and dismissal. All tanning workers' unions supported the Vilnius trade union from their mutual aid funds. The outcome of the strike was that the working day was still increased, wages were cut by 20 percent, but the union's rights were not restricted, it continued to monitor recruitment and dismissal. The union also saved the jobs for the workers. The employers were trying to bring in strikebreakers (scabs) from Moscow, but the Russian workers who had become aware of this stopped it. Money for strikers was collected by the Austrian, French and German trade unions.

In 1912 a workers' insurance law passed. This was also influenced by a petition introduced by the Social-Democratic fraction on behalf of the workers in the Duma (Parliament), signed by 296 people. In 1912, there were altogether about 700 trade union members in Vilnius. In 1913 unions of industrial and commercial workers were established with 400 members; and in 1914 a metal workers' local union with 250 members was founded.

Trade unions in Independent Lithuania

After World War I, workers actively joined trade unions in the independent Lithuanian State. They operated legally until 1931. Trade union density reached 17% of wage-earners in Lithuania (today: about 11%). Labour issues were under the responsibility of the Labour and Social Welfare Ministry. In the first government of independent Lithuania of Mykolas Slezevicius, the labour minister Juozas Paknys (1883 – 1948), was an active trade unionist and a social-democratic leader. During the years 1919-1929 May Day was an official holiday. After the declaration of independence a Labour Inspectorate was established, the eight-hours workday introduced in industry (elsewhere, i.e. in the service sector, the ten-hour day still applied); an employment office was established, a Health Insurance Fund was established by law, and a strict law regulating employment contracts was passed. In addition, the State protected a number of trade union functions. Labour law violations were threatened with substantial fines.

A number of employers' organizations were active - the Society of Catholic Businessmen, the Jewish Employers' Union, and others. Lithuania, as a member of the League of Nations, also joined the International Labour Organisation (ILO), on the basis of its tripartite principle, with employer, trade union and government representatives. At the annual International Labour Conference the delegation sent by the government was tripartite. For example, in 1929, the delegation included Telsiai labour inspector Barkauskas representing the government, employers' representative Soloveichik; and worker Kaukorius representing the Lithuanian Labour Federation.

Even then, the problem of foreign capital companies already existed. Of the total foreign investment, 58 per cent was Belgian, 17 Swedish, 10 German and about 5 percent Latvian. In Lithuania foreign firms accounted for 17 percent of all public limited companies, while in Latvia the percentage was 28 and in Poland 38 per cent.

Two main national trade union centers existed in Lithuania between the World Wars: the social-democratic oriented workers and public service trade union center bureau (LPS), and Lithuanian Labour Federation influenced by the Christian-Democrats. LPS was founded in 1919.

Lietuvos Profesiniu Sajungu Centro Biuras (LPS)

During 1926-27 the LPS union center bureau was led by the prominent Lithuanian labour movement activist Juozas Paplauskas (1896-1946). Leaders of the Lithuanian Social-Democratic Party (LSDP) actively participated in the trade union movement – LSDP Chairman Steponas Kairys, who signed the Independence Act of February 16, 1918, LSDP members of parliament - V. Pozela, J. Pakalka, K. Venclauskis, A. Purenas, Siauliai city mayor J. Sonda-Sondeckis, also K. Bielinis, J. Paknys.

In 1920 the first congress of Lithuania's trade unions in Independent Lithuania was held, which represented 40,000 organized members (at the time Latvia had 30,000 and Poland - 403,000 union members). From 1921 onwards, the social-democratic unions began to lose members, as many workers started joining the Lithuanian Labour Federation, which was supported by the Christian-Democratic ruling party. In 1923 the LPS adopted the principle of branch organization and the communist-oriented wing was expelled. The Trade Union Center Bureau headquarters were in Kaunas, Kęstučio g. 40 (at the LSDP office premises).

By July 3, 1926 the LPS had 18 affiliated unions:

1. Lithuanian agricultural workers' trade union - 2000 members, 75 local organisations;
2. General Workers union - 6000 members, 54 local organisations (unskilled workers);
3. Leather industry workers' trade union - 700 members, 5 sections;
4. Metal industry workers' trade union -760 members, 4 sections;
5. Food industry workers' trade union - 1100 members, 6 branches;
6. Railway workers and staff trade union - 4500 members, 32 local organizations;
7. State and municipal civil servants trade union - 2000 members, 19 sections;
8. Teachers' trade union - 1000 members, 10 branches;
9. Commercial, industry, public enterprise workers union - 600 members, 6 branches;
10. Press Workers union - 600 members, 2 branches;
11. Postal, telephone and telegraph union officials - 1200 members;
12. Clothing, laundry, and hat makers' union - 300 members, 4 branches;
13. Tobacco, cigarette and wrapper (filter) workers trade union - 400 members, only in Kaunas.
14. Cooperative staff trade union- 150 members;
15. Water transport staff and workers' union - 150 members;
16. Porter labourer's union - 80 members;
17. Kaunas municipal civil servants trade union;
18. Lithuanian artists and musicians union - 100 members.

The LPS affiliated to the International Federation of Trade Unions (Amsterdam International) in 1927. The same year membership was suspended under the regime of Antanas Smetona, who had seized power unconstitutionally in 1926 and established a dictatorship. Also in 1927 Albert Thomas, Director-General of the International Labour Office, visited Lithuania to investigate the infringement of trade union rights in the country. He met with the leadership of the pro-regime Lithuanian Labour Federation and the social-democratic LPS leaders, and raised the concern why the activity of the socialist trade unions had been suspended. However, in 1929 Smetona forbid all LPS activity.
The LPS headquarters also harboured other workers' organizations, all part of the social-democratic labour movement: the workers' sports club "Viltis” (Hope) and the workers self-education society “Kultura” (Culture). In addition, the LPS cooperated with the social-democratic Workers' Youth “Ziezirba” (Spark) and the Students' Corporation. “Zaizdras” (Forge). It also ran a trade union training school and published newspapers: “Profesines Zinios” (Union News) and “Darbininku Zodis” (Workers Word). The daily “Lietuvos Žinios” (Lithuanian News) was representing trade unions positions.

In 1922 and 1926 representatives of workers' unions were elected to the Parliament on the LSDP ticket: P. Mikulskas (who died in the Taurage uprising in 1927 against the regime of A. Smetona), V. Galinis, J. Kedys, J. Markelis, V. Sakalauskas, J. Paplauskis.

After the December 1926 coup d’etat, right-wing nationalists came to power, and all trade unions activities were repressed. In October 1927, the civil servants' union was closed. Some branches continued to operate until 1932. In 1927 the Latvian Trade Unions organized massive solidarity protest actions in Riga where they condemned the Lithuanian authorities and an attack on workers rights in Kaunas . The Lithuanian embassy in Riga was blocked, and its windows broken. The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry sent a protest note to Latvian Government.

During the right-wing dictatorship, the oppression of workers in Lithuania became general. On May 15, 1936 in Kaunas a member of Christian workers union, 25 years old worker Antanas Kranauskas, suffering from his employer's arbitrary harassment and from unbearable working conditions, shot Ruvin Kamber, the owner of the sawmill where he worked, and then shot himself. His funeral became the largest massive demonstration of workers' rights in Lithuania, and triggered the general strike in Kaunas on May 18-19, 1936. Trade union activity was then totally banned in 1936, and trade union functions were transferred to the Labour and Crafts Chambers. Only the Catholic Federation of Labour continued to exist and took over the property of the LPS.

A small part of organized labour under communist control acted mainly in underground conditions, with financial support from Moscow . Its headquarters were in Kaunas, Mapu street.. The Agricultural Workers' Union was a member of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU).

In the Vilnius and Klaipeda regions workers maintained their own large regional organizations, which were less restricted than the unions in most of Lithuania.

The Lithuanian Labour Federation

Lietuvos Darbo Federacija – the Lithuanian Labour Federation (LDF) was established on September 27-28, 1919 in Kaunas, at the Lithuania’s Christian Workers' Representatives Congress. LDF published the newspaper “Lietuvos Darbininkas” (Lithuania’s Worker).

LDF in a political block with the Christian Democrats participated in the parliamentary elections, had their own representatives in the Constitutive Assembly and in the Parliaments elected in 1922 and 1926. In 1923 LDF claimed 20,000 members. On the initiative of the LDF, a number of laws were adopted in favour of workers: health care support, labour inspection, insurance and others. LDF leader Dr. A. Milcius worked as State Controller. (Ombudsman) The LDF actively supported and promoted cooperatives. A Polish workers section also functioned in the LDF.

Because of its clear anticommunist position, the LDF was tolerated by the ruling authorities. In 1938, LDF led a large-scale protest campaign, when an LDF member, Jonusas, was killed by Nazis in a tavern in Priekule. Jonusas had refused to salute with a raised arm in the Nazi fashion. The murderers, local Germans, were caught and tried.

In 1934, LDF changed the name to Lithuanian Union of Christian Workers, and mainly engaged in cultural and educational activities. In 1938, LKDS claimed 8000 members. The most known LDF leaders in Lithuania were Dr. K. Ambrozaitis, Dr. P.V. Raulinaitis, Professor P. Dovidaitis, Dr. A. Maceina.

In 1942, LDF was re-established for a short time. It participated in the activities of the exile governing body, the Lithuanian Liberation Committee. In exile the LDF functioned till 1990.

After the restoration of independence the LDF was re-established on December 28, 1991. Before World War II the LDF was an affiliate of the International Federation of Christian Trade Unions and, since 1996, a member of the WCL. It is now is a member of the ITUC. The LDF is one of the oldest trade union organizations in the CEE region with consistent continuity.

Vilnius Region Trade Union History Between World Wars

After Lithuania declared its independence in 1918, Vilnius changed hands several times between Lithuanian, Polish and Soviet Russian forces. In 1920, an agreement sponsored by the League of Nations attributed Vilnius to Lithuania, but the Polish Army occupied it soon afterwards and in 1922 the city and the surrounding area was incorporated into Poland. Kaunas became the provisional capital of Lithuania. In September 1939 Vilnius was occupied by the Soviet Army which had invaded Poland from the East and, in October, Vilnius was turned over to Lithuania. However, in June 1940 all of Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union and a Soviet government was installed with Vilnius as the capital of the new Lithuanian SSR. After a period of German occupation (1941 – 1944), the Lithuanian SSR was re-established until March 1990, when the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian SSR announced its independence from the Soviet Union and restored the independent Republic of Lithuania. Independent Lithuania was recognized by the Soviet Union in August 1991.

In 1921 the Vilnius Trade Unions Center Bureau was established, with 15,000 members and 30 organizations, and Novicki as chairman. He worked closely with the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partija Socialystycna - PPS). The Christian unions in Vilnius claimed 16,000 members. According to the 1921 population statistics, a total of 80,000 workers lived in Vilnius, but in reality the number of employees was about 40,000, since workers were classified together with their family members. Next to the Center's bureau a youth section was active. It published the newspaper "Pochodnia” (Torch), which was eventually closed, having fallen under Communist influence. In 1922 the Vilnius Trade Union Center decided to join the Polish Trade Union Commission (Komisija Krajowa, which in 1921 represented 403,000 members). In Vilnius, as in all Poland, the trade unions supported the May 14, 1926 Pilsudski coup and the return of J. Pilsudski to power, because he belonged to the PPS. When the Republic of Poland was established, quite satisfactory labour laws were adopted - 8 hours workday, broader powers for labour inspection, social security, the right to strike, trade union laws. Some factories, such as the Kalvaria and Vitrum glass factories, also had apartments for workers. Trade union based on national identity also existed - the Belarusian peasants and workers' organization "Hromada", the Jewish Workers Association (Bund), which published the newspaper "Arbeiter Leben" and had its sports club ‘Maccabi’. The Vilnius region trade unions were active until 1939. In 1933 a total of 21 strikes took place, with the participation of 1,704 workers; in 1934 there were 31 strikes, in 5,670 workers participated. In 1937, a strike in the Vilnius bus company, controlled by the Belgian "Arbon” company, ended with the workers victory. Also, in 1939 strikes were won in Plywood factory and the Chocolate factory "Viktoria”.

In 1939 when Lithuania regained Vilnius, the Vilnius region trade unions were suppressed. Polish workers organizations submitted a number of complaints to international organizations regarding lay-offs of civil servants and workers by nationality (all civil servants who lived in the Vilnius region from 1914, had been dismissed from the State and local government services).

In the Klaipėda region, formerly part of the German Empire and since 1923 part of Lithuania, the level of workers' organization was much higher than in most of Lithuania. German workers were organized in the regional organization of Klaipėda (5 branches), which was an affiliate of the IFTU (Amsterdam International) from 1923 to 1937, and was linked to the German social-democratic trade union center (ADGB). Its official name was: Gewerkschaftsbund des Memelgebietes. After the annexation of the Klaipėda region by Nazi Germany (1939 – 1944) the unions were dissolved and replaced by the Nazis labour organization Deutsche Arbeitsfront (DAF). In 1944, the Soviet Union re-occupied Lithuania including Klaipėda.

Trade Union Activity During the Soviet Period

In 1940, free trade unions were re-established shortly in Lithuania, but were quickly taken over by the Soviets and united with the Soviet Trade Unions. In the June 23, 1941 uprising against the Red Army the workers' organizations members were actively involved. Free trade union representatives participated in the activities of the Lithuanian Liberation Committee (VLIK), a resistance organization. After the war a number of trade union activists were deported to Siberia, or went into exile in the West. Many Lithuanian representatives of the Free Labour Movement who had suffered before from the Smetona regime were now repressed by Stalin's regime. In the West a Free Lithuanian Trade Union Group was established. It participated in the free trade unions' activities and represented Lithuania in their conferences. Trade unions in exile were sending representatives to various global events, i.e. even represented Lithuania at the 1949 founding congress of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in London.

After the incorporation of Lithuania into the USSR, trade unions were organized under the Soviet model and became part of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (VCSPS). In Lithuania in 1980 it represented 20 branches and 1,735 million members. The trade union activities during the Soviet period are widely described in the publications of that time. Rejecting ideological templates, it is possible to imagine an overall picture of the state of the organizations, their functions and their nature.

Trade Unions After the Restoration of Independence.

In the beginning of the national liberation movement, next to 'Sajudis', the club "Labora" was founded, which generated trade union renewal ideas. In 1989 it launched the trade union renewal movement (A. Januška, R. Dagys, D. Paukstė, etc.). The same year, as an alternative to the Soviet trade unions, the Lithuania Workers' Union was established. Its first president was Kazimieras Uoka. The cooperation with All Unions Central Council collapsed, some manufacturing branches left the Soviet branch unions.

On April 19-21, 1990 the first Lithuania's trade union congress took place, where the Lithuanian Confederation of Free Trade Unions was founded and became the legal successor of the LSSR Council of Trade Unions. One of first decision was to leave the Soviet Trade Union umbrella organization VCSPS L. Radzevicius was elected president, then from the residue of the organization the new Lithuanian trade union center was established. Some of the trade union branches and organizations were dissatisfied with the slow reform and the "Soviet" past and did not join this organization, but in February 1992 founded another organization - the Lithuanian Trade Union Unification (LPSS), which elected Algirdas Sysas as chairman. The LPSS cooperated closely with the re-established LSDP (social democratic party).

In 2002, the Lithuanian trade union center, led by Juozas Olekas, and the Lithuanian Trade Union Unification merged into the largest organization of Lithuania - the Lithuanian Trade Union Confederation (LPSK). Also in 2002 the Lithuanian Workers' Union changed its name and became the Lithuanian Trade Union "Solidarumas".

The internal struggle for the former USSR trade union assets was very damaging for the for modern Lithuanian trade union movement. It was caused by inconsistent decisions of Parliament and governments on the asset usage and redistribution, and by the influence of various financial and business groups.

Trade union representatives participated actively in the Independent State recovery work. A number of independent Lithuania trade union activists have become members of Parliament and of the Government - A. Sysas, R. Dovudeniene-Zakaitiene (Minister of Culture 2001-2004 and Minister of Education 2004-2008), D. Paukste, J. Olekas (Minister of Health Care 2001-2004 and Minister of Defence 2004-2008) K. Kuzminskas, J. Beinortas, G. Paliokienė, P.Sakalinis, O. Baboniene, A. Januska , R. Hofertiene and others. Giedrius Asmys was elected mayor of Kaunas. Most of the legislative amendments regarding labour issues and social affairs were adopted with the trade union support.

Currently, Lithuania has three recognized national trade union centers - LPSK (Chairman A. Cerniauskas), the LBS "Solidarumas" (Chairwoman A. Jasinskiene) and LDF (chairman V. Puskepalis), which cooperate on the basis of an agreement and are the members of National Tripartite Council, established in 1995. Trade union activities are based on principles of social partnership.
A number of regional trade unions did not join national unions. Trade unions density in Lithuania is among the lowest in the EU – 10-11% of total employment. One of reasons is economic migration. The Irish trade union SIPTU, and Fellesforbundet in Norway have set up branches for Lithuanian workers.

In independent Lithuania entirely new organizations have developed, such as unions of the police, firemen, customs officers, tax inspectors, officials of the Seimas (Parliament) and of the Prosecutor's Office, investigators (detectives), banking and insurance, casinos, private security, gas stations, state security workers. Lithuania’s largest professional trade union is the Education Workers Trade Union, and the largest primary organization is the AB Mazeikiu Nafta (oil refinery) trade union.

Lithuanian trade unions cooperate closely with those of the other Baltic countries, and the unions of the Nordic Countries, the United States, Poland, Russia, Georgia, Belarus and Ukraine. A Baltic Council of Trade Unions was established for the sub-regional coordination of activities. Since independence, Lithuanian unions have received a significant financial and methodological support from the international trade union movement – for the activities in the market conditions and increase of membership.

Currently, the newspapers “Lietuvos profsajungos” (Lithuanian Trade Unions), “Solidarumas", a number of branch and regional publications are published, a number of trade unions websites (www.lprofsajungos.lt and others) exist. Since Independence, due to a lack of resources and incomplete laws, only few strikes were organized: warning strikes of the public transport workers, teachers and healthcare workers, the hunger strike at Kaunas factory "Koordinate".


M.Cheis - Profesinės Darbininkų sąjungos (Kaunas, 1922)
V.Vilčinskas - Lietuvos Socialdemokratija (Londonas, 1980)
S.Čepuliene - Už kovingas profsąjungas (Vilnius, 1981)
Socialdemokratai Lietuvos Seimuose (Vilnius, 2007)
Vilniaus istorija I dalis (1968)
Vilniaus istorija II dalis (Vilnius, 1972)
Lietuviška Tarybinė Enciklopedija 9t.(Vilnius 1982)
Lietuvių Enciklopedija 24t.(Bostonas 1961)
S.Glovackas “Lietuvos Profsąjungoms 110 metų” (Laikraštis “Lietuvos profsąjungos”)
Newspaper “Lietuvos Darbininkas” (1929 nr. 11)
Newspaper”Socialdemokratas”(1927 nr 36)
Newspaper “Profesionalnyje Vedomosti” (1907 m. 5,6,7)
P.G.Davidiuk “Profsojuznoe dvizenije: Istorija, teorija, praktika” (Minsk, 1999)

March 2009