General strike at Mittal Steel Galaţi
Three months of repeated attempts at collective bargaining, ending in several violent demonstrations at Mittal Steel Galaţi, resulted in complete failure, forcing the largest trade union to launch an open-ended general strike on 18 April 2007. Workers at the company are unhappy with current working conditions and wage levels and have thus issued a number of demands to the company’s management.
In 2002, following its privatisation, Sidex SA Galaţi, the major steel works company in southeastern Europe, was acquired by Mittal Steel Galaţi and thus became the property of the Mittal Group. Prior to privatisation, 40,000 workers were employed by the company.
Causes of conflict
The bargaining round for a new collective agreement at Mittal Steel Galaţi began in early December 2006. After an initial meeting with the company management, the leader of the largest trade union structure at the plant, the Steel Workers’ Solidarity Trade Union (Sindicatul Solidaritatea Siderurgiştilor, Solidaritatea), disputed the right of seven trade unions represented in the company to participate in the collective bargaining process. In the absence of a court ruling, Solidaritatea queried the trade unions’ representativeness. According to information provided by trade union representatives, about 7,000 of the total 15,000 employees at the plant are members of Solidaritatea.
Important stages of bargaining process
Employer’s proposal and initial reactions of trade unions
The representative employer organisation proposed a 12% wage increase for the company’s workers as of 1 January 2007. Dissatisfied with the fact that the company had failed to keep promises made during negotiations for the previous collective agreement, the members of Solidaritatea disapproved of the proposal.
According to statements made by the leader of Solidaritatea, Gheorghe Tiber, in 2002, the employer had asked workers to waive several of their statutory rights defined in the Labour Code in the initial stage of company development, promising to gradually restore the respective rights starting with the second year of profit. Given that the company has made considerable profits over the past few years, representatives of Solidaritatea have requested a 30% increase of basic wages.
The other trade unions represented in the company tacitly accepted the offer made by the employer organisation.
On 21 March 2007, after several negotiation attempts had failed, Solidaritatea organised a protest meeting with the participation of about 1,000 steel workers at the Galaţi plant. The protesters stormed the company control tower and threatened that they would not to leave the building unless fair collective bargaining was fully guaranteed.
In the wake of these events, representatives of the employer organisation and Solidaritatea signed an agreement to resume negotiations the following day with the participation only of representative trade unions.
Position of trade unions
On 22 March 2007, would-be participants in the collective bargaining process included leaders of some trade unions which, according to Solidaritatea leaders, could not prove their representativeness. As they refused to leave the venue of the meeting, Solidaritatea leaders declined to participate in the collective bargaining process.
Collective bargaining continued in the absence of Solidaritatea leaders and subsequently the company spokesperson publicly announced that ‘the new collective agreement was signed by all trade unions in the steel works with the exception of Solidaritatea which refused the management’s offer’. Leaders of Solidaritatea warned that the respective collective agreement could not be registered at the Labour Directorate (Direcţia de Muncă) without their signature.
General strike launched
On 27 March 2007, Solidaritatea organised a meeting of steel workers which was attended by approximately 1,000 workers who decided to stage a general strike.
To avoid affecting the Easter holidays and to give the company management time to initiate negotiations should it decide to do so, trade unions decided to postpone the launch of a general strike which required the signatures of at least 4,000 trade union members. Attempts at conciliation and mediation failed as did the management’s effort to declare the strike illegal when their claim was rejected in court. By 17 April 2007, the required signatures had been collected and a general strike was launched starting on 18 April 2007 at 06.30.
This represented the first general strike in the 40-year long history of the company.
Mr Tiber of Solidaritatea declared that the workers’ main demands fall under two categories. A number of these demands are wage-related and include the following:
- a basic wage increase of 30% compared with the wage level in December 2006;
- a 50% and 100% increment respectively for working hours on Saturdays and Sundays, as opposed to the current 25% increment;
- granting workers four bonuses a year to the value of RON 250 (€80 as at 30 July 2007), providing an increase on the current amount of RON 100 (€32) (for example, for Christmas, Easter holidays or Steel worker’s Day), and a holiday bonus of RON 1,000 (€320) compared with the current RON 600 (€192));
- access of employees to a share of company profits, in compliance with the provisions in the single national collective agreement;
- removal from the collective agreement of any provisions for payments to union leaders.
Apart from the above demands, trade union members consider that the general outlook of the company as an employer is unacceptable in comparison with that of companies across the EU Member States: ‘employees are regarded solely as a means of obtaining profit, treated with contempt, while working conditions are absolutely atrocious’.
Luminiţa Chivu, Institute of National Economy, Romanian Academy