Court of Appeal halts general strike at Mital Steel Galaţi

Two days after it began, the general strike called by the Solidaritatea Steel Workers Trade Union (Sindicatul Solidaritatea Siderurgiştilor) at the Mital Steel Galaţi was suspended by the Galaţi Court of Appeal (Curtea de Apel Galaţi). The Galaţi High Court (Tribunalul Galaţi) then ruled it illegal. However, the labour conflict has not been settled, and the future of the collective agreement, which should come into effect in June 2008, is still uncertain.

Trade union claims

After the strike of 18 April 2007 (RO0704039I), the management and the Solidaritatea Steel Workers Trade Union (Sindicatul Solidaritatea Siderurgiştilor, Solidaritatea), representing a part of the worker s of Mital Steel Galaţi, are again in disagreement.

The workers of this huge group of steel enterprises are organised in 28 trade unions grouped into four large organisations: the Metarom Steel Workers Trade Union Federation (Federaţia Sindicală a Siderurgiştilor Metarom, FSS Metarom), comprising 17 trade unions; the Territorial League of Free Trade Unions of Factory Railway Workers (Uniunea Teritorială a Sindicatelor Libere de la Căile Ferate Uzinale, UTSL), a cluster of four unions; the Forum Free Trade Unions League (Uniunea Sindicatelor Independente Forum, USI Forum), representing the six unions of the technicians, economists, and clerical apparatus of various professions, and Solidaritatea, which, according to its leader, stands for approximately 6,000 of the total of 13,500 employees.

The bargaining for the collective agreement due to take effect in June 2008 started as early as December 2007, with the participation of all the four major unions.

However, the parties did not reach an agreement on pay raises. Solidaritatea demanded: a 25% increase in the wage bill, and a raise of RON 275 (approximately EUR 75) per employee; a doubling of the weekend work bonus from 25% to 50% of pay, and an increase in bonuses from RON 120 (EUR 33) to RON 300–350 (EUR83 – EUR 97. The other unions demanded a wage raise of RON 150 (EUR 41)

On 9 April, FSS Metarom and UTSL signed an agreement with the employer for an increase of 9.5% and RON 100 (EUR 28) per employee, a yield-related bonus of 2% of annual income, payable at the end of the year, and an Easter bonus of RON 200 (EUR55); the agreement also stipulated that workers earning the least (categories 1 and 2 on the pay scales) will be promoted straight to category 3 (currently, the minimum wage is RON 650 – EUR 193).

Background to the conflict

In February, Solidaritatea notified this conflict of interests to the Ministry of Labour, Family and Equal Opportunities (Ministerul Muncii, Familiei şi Egalităţii de Şanse, MMFES). Pursuant to a complaint filed by the management to the effect that the collective agreement was to be in force until June, the ministry dismissed the notification. According to law, collective bargaining may start no sooner than one month in advance of an agreement expiring.

In response to the ministry’s decision, the unions made public their intention to sue the Labour Minister, and started collecting signatures in support of the general strike.

On 11 April, Solidaritatea notified the management that a general strike would be called for 14 April, 06.30, if, by 13 April, 24.00, the management failed to accept, in writing, the unions’ claims.

The general strike started on 14 April, and, the same day, the management petitioned both the Galaţi High Court (Tribunalul Galaţi) and the Galaţi Court of Appeal (Curtea de Apel Galaţi) to rule the strike illegal and suspend it.

On 15 April, 23:00 hrs, the Court of Appeal ruled that, for security purposes, the strike be called off for a period of 30 days, and, on 16 April, the High Court decided that the strike was illegal.

Solidaritatea’s leader denounced the haste in which the two courts ‘admitted the petitions yesterday, summoned us this morning, and are determined to issue a verdict by the end of the day’, and said that the unions would appeal both court rulings.

Meanwhile, the unions staged a protest rally on 1 May. Spontaneous revolts were also reported at the coke plant and the blast furnace plants, in support of pay claims, but also in response to what the unions described as the management’s attempts to pressure and blackmail the workers.

Commentary

Solidaritatea is the strongest union organisation in the company, and enjoys the support of unions in other steel plants held by the Arcelor Mittal Group in Romania and France.

With the collective agreement expiring on 13 June, the deadline for the official start of the negotiations is 13 May.

The management has so far issued no formal invitation to bargaining, therefore the unions have threatened that if talks do not start within 15 days, they will be free to trigger the labour conflict without having to go through the appeal procedures.

Constantin Ciutacu,Institute of National Economy, Romanian Academy

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