A shot in the arm or the foot?

Editorial, The Slovak Spectator, 12 February 2003

AFTER 10 years of independence, Slovakia has had its first taste of massive labour unrest: a three-day rail strike that paralysed the country's passenger and freight transport infrastructure, tested the mettle of organised labour, and strengthened the resolve of state authorities to push ahead with gausterity measures.

The strike did not end with an agreement, however. Instead, a court order suspended the walkout while judges determine whether or not the strike was legal. For now, trains are running, but the Transport Ministry's cuts—25 local lines and 200 other mostly local trains—are in place, and issues around government plans to cancel local train lines have yet to be resolved.

A court still has to decide if rail workers had the right to strike in the first place. Prime Minister Mikulás Dzurinda charges that the lack of reason for the action shows a political motivation for the strike. It can be seen as an attempt by labour to gauge its own muscle as debate on planned amendments to the Labour Code heats up. The KOZ umbrella union has already threatened a general strike if labour's objections to the amendments are not addressed.

But the rail strike has put the debate to the general public. People in every part of the country were affected, and the event dominated the news. The railworkers' unions got to present their case to the whole country—that the reduction of local lines will cost jobs and leave communities stranded.

The government, however, came back with damning figures. Last turning a profit in 1995, the state railways lost 71.6 million euro last year, debt is approaching 1.2 billion euro, and the railroad employs four-fifths as many workers as Germany's rail system, which is 10 times larger.

Legal or not, railway workers should not have been on strike in the first place. The cuts they were protesting had been announced by the Transport Ministry as soon as the governing coalition agreement had been reached in October. The rail unions had enough time to present their case.

Similarly, union threats to call a general strike over the Labour Code revision are unwarranted. What they are protesting—provisions to enable employers greater flexibility in hiring part-time labour, giving overtime, and using independent contractors—is not a great enough threat to workers to justify the calamity of a general strike. Few jobs are threatened by the proposed amendments, and many are likely to be created if the bill is passed.

Support for the initial six-hour railway strike was strong, though few were inconvenienced by the early-morning stoppage. The open-ended second walkout, however, put industrial facilities at risk of running out of raw materials and shutting down.

Some train stations broke the strike early. Meanwhile, unions from Slovak chemicals and metallurgic operations begged strikers to call it off before the court order was handed down.

If Slovakia's first big strike is any indication, many Slovaks may be willing to support unions if they do call a general strike, but few will want to pay the cost.