The current trade union movement of the Czech lands took shape at the end of 1989 in opposition to the form which was given to trade unions by the totalitarian regime. At the same time the older trade union tradition was followed. That is to say that trade unions have been a permanent and inherent part of the history of the Czech nation for over 100 years.
We can consider 7th April 1870 the starting date of our trade union movement; on that day the Austrian Parliament adopted an act on coalition freedom making it possible "to force those who hire workers to pay higher wages or provide better working conditions by means of a joint stoppage of work". The original workers´ associations which focused, above all, on supporting actions were later transformed into trade union organisations defending wide range of interests of their members as well as the other employees on a legal basis. The act was adopted under pressure of workers´ demonstrations. The fact that it was passed by a House with a clear liberal majority corresponds with the recognised principle of free trade and free disposal of one´s property: a worker owning his capacity to work is free to decide where he can sell his property to best effect.
The expected development of the trade union movement, however, was halted by the severe economic recession as well as by the persecution of the labour movement. Only the oldest trade union organisation in the Czech lands, namely Typografická beseda (Fellowship of Typographers), which was founded in 1862, was able to operate continuously. On a larger scale, trade unions were being established in the early 1890s; as compared with the situation in Western Europe, they were based on a national basis and dependent on political parties. Unions and trade union centres came into existence through a process of integration: the largest, social democratic Odborové sdružení českoslovanské /Czech-Slavic Trade Union Association/ was founded in 1897; in 1918 it was renamed Odborové sdružení československé (OSČ) /Czechoslovak Trade Union Association/. Five years later, the national social Česká obec dělnická /Czech Workers´ Society/ (later Československá obec dělnická /Czechoslovak Workers´ Society/, ČOD) was founded and, last but not least, a centre of Christian social labour came into being.
While the Austrian State stayed aloof from the trade union organisations, the young Czechoslovak Republic which owed its existence, among others, to trade unions made it possible for them to become involved in all spheres of social welfare and workers´ protection. The public and legal role and position of trade unions was strengthened in mid-1920s due to the so-called Gent system whereby the main responsibility for payment of unemployment benefits was held by trade unions. Trade unions became also involved in purely political life; that is to say that they were integrated into representative bodies where trade union interests were defended by a number of deputies and senators (e.g. Rudolf Tayerle, OSČ); Alois Tučný (ČOD) and Jan Šrámek (Christian trade unions) became repeatedly ministers.
Beside the existing centres, particularly agrarian trade unions and communist (red) trade unions were gaining ground while a part of trade union organisations remained politically neutral. As a result of a political, national or otherwise motivated division, the trade unions did not act as a unified force; however, the largest trade union centres, i.e. OSČ and ČOD, were often able to agree on a common action. Joined together in the social democratic and the Christian trade union centres, Czech and German trade unionists stood jointly for democracy and the independence of the Czechoslovak Republic.
Liquidation of the so-called Czechoslovak First Republic in September 1938 meant a fateful blow to the trade union movement and terminated the period of trade union pluralism for a long time. Negotiations on creation of a single trade union organisation during the so-called Second Republic were to no avail. They ended after the German occupation on 15th March 1939 by establishing two new organisations, namely Národní odborové ústředna zaměstnanecké /National Employees´ Trade Union Centre/ (NOÚZ) and much larger Ústředí veřejných zaměstnanců /Centre of Public Employees/ (ÚVZ) which gradually included all trade union organisations and centres assuming that such a concentration of force shall serve national interests. The Nazi invaders endeavoured to involve NOÚZ in the workers´ control and in motivating workers to enhance the work intensity. On the other hand, NOÚZ participated in the resistance movement against the Nazi Germany.
At the end of the World War II a group of officials emerged in NOÚZ preparing for an overthrow. They then managed to convert the NOÚZ into a new single trade union organisation, namely Revoluční odborové hnutí /Revolutionary Trade Union Movement/ (ROH), headed by the Communist Antonín Zápotocký. ROH obtained extensive competences and got a considerable influence over masses of workers. This gave the ROH leaders great power which they used – despite the fact that ROH was formally a non party organisation – for the benefit of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. It also had a considerable share in communist coup in February 1948. Since that time the ROH performed all the functions assigned to it by the Communist Party and followed the Party´s instructions. It broke free from the Party´s control in the period 1968-1969 when it participated in the process of reforms and sought for new working methods as well as for a new identity and confidence of the membership. A side-effect of this process was establishment of numerous new unions. New people who played a leading role in these unions and other bodies did their best not to disappoint those who delegated them to their positions. Thanks to them trade unions were resisting the advancing normalisation longer than the other political forces.
Dissatisfaction among citizens and ROH rank-and-file members with the regime became apparent very clearly in November 1989. Company ROH committees, too, protested against the violent police crackdown against demonstrators. General strike meant the end of the regime which lost all support. The committees which organised the strike laid down the rudiments of a new authentic trade union movement. They took over the ROH staff and property at the All-Union Congress which took place on 2nd and 3rd March 1990.
The newly established unions created the Czechoslovak Confederation of Trade Unions at national level and the Czech-Moravian Chamber (since 1998 Confederation) of Trade Unions at the level of the Czech lands which became the top representative of the Czech trade union movement after the establishment of the independent Czech Republic.