Rail workers hold ‘spontaneous’ work stoppage in pay dispute
On 1 February 2008, employees at three Romanian rail companies held a three-hour ‘spontaneous’ work stoppage in a dispute over wage increases for 2008 . The Minister of Transport claimed that the strike had in fact been coordinated by trade unions. If no agreement is reached in current pay talks, trade union leaders state that a nationwide strike may be organised in the railway sector at the end of March.
Roots of conflict
The 2008 collective agreement for the transport sector, effective from 24 January, provides for a gross monthly minimum wage of RON 700 (€187.56 as at 3 March 2008) in the sector, which corresponds to a gross hourly rate of RON 4.12 (€1.10). This represents a 29% pay increase on the previous year.
The sectoral collective agreement forms the basis for subsequent collective bargaining at the level of companies and company groups. Negotiations over collective agreements for railway companies started on 9 January 2008. The trade unions demanded an increase in the minimum wage to RON 700 a month, in line with the provisions of the overall collective agreement for the transport sector.
Despite the reorganisation and split-up of the former National Company of Romanian Railways (Societatea Naţională a Căilor Ferate Române, SNCFR) in 1998, railway companies are still state-owned and operate under the authority of the Ministry of Transport (Ministerul Transporturilor, MT). The government therefore set the national minimum wage at RON 500 (about €134) by regulation, with effect from 1 January 2008, with a chance to raise it to RON 540 (about €145) by the summer of 2008. The railway companies observed this minimum wage rate.
On 30 January 2008, the government adopted a ‘Memorandum regarding the capping of wage costs in public companies monitored for indebtedness and operating at a loss’, based on proposals from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which aimed to limit 2008 pay rises in debt-ridden and loss-making public companies to 8%.
As an effect of the memorandum, those railway companies facing debts and losses went back on their previous agreement with the trade unions. The companies’ decision was due to the fact that an increase in the minimum wage to RON 500 and, later, to RON 540 would have meant a 6.4% and ultimately a 12% pay rise. On average, this would have represented an increase in the companies’ wages of more than the 8% limit set by the government, while a rise to RON 700 would have been equal to a wage increase of 55% compared with the previous year.
Spontaneous work stoppage
Following the government’s decision on 30 January 2008 to cap wage increases, railway workers ceased work without notice at 07.00 on 1 February at the Bucharest North Station, in the entire Timişoara Railway District in western Romania and in other railway districts. The strike lasted until 10.00. As a result of this stoppage, some 290 trains were delayed, totalling about 560 hours of delay and affecting some 20,000 passengers. A total of 2,000 workers were involved, employed by the National Company for Passenger Railway Transportation CFR Călători SA (Societatea Naţională de Transport Feroviar de Călători CFR Călători SA, CFR Călători), the National Railway Freight Company CFR Marfă SA (Societatea Naţională de Transport Feroviar de Marfă CFR Marfă SA, CFR Marfă) and the National Railways Company CFR SA (Compania Naţională de Căi Ferate CFR SA, CNCFR) which is responsible for railway infrastructure.
This spontaneous protest by railway trade union members was supported, through press releases, by the National Trade Union Confederation ‘Cartel Alfa’ (Confederaţia Naţională Sindicală ‘Cartel Alfa’, Cartel Alfa) and the National Trade Union Bloc (Blocul Naţional Sindical, BNS).
Minister Orban’s reaction
The Minister of Transport, Ludovic Orban, stated in television and radio interviews that the protest was illegal and that is was anything but spontaneous, as it started simultaneously all over the country and work was resumed at the same time everywhere. ‘It is hard to believe’, he said, ‘that the 2,000 workers involved did not communicate in order to time their work cessation and resumption.’
In Minister Orban’s opinion, the refusal by some of the employees of the three state-owned railway companies to carry out their work duties was coordinated by trade union leaders, who chose to ignore the staged dispute procedure required by the legislation governing labour conflicts. Minister Orban highlighted that the trade unions could not hide behind a spontaneous protest by their members and that they would be held liable according to law.
The minister also indicated that any pay rise must be earned, based on higher rail revenues, failing which the railway companies should be restructured.
Trade union views and prospects
Trade union leaders claim that the minister’s allegations ‘are mere speculations, and they have to be substantiated’. As to the minister’s comments on restructuring, trade unions argue that this would be tantamount to collective redundancies and dismissals, which they cannot possibly accept.
After the harsh words and actions on both sides, the unions and the authorities resumed negotiations. The trade unions consider that restructuring ‘should start from the top’, because the number of management and administrative staff in the three railway companies has trebled since 1990.
If no agreement is reached, a general strike may be organised in the railway sector at the end of March 2008, according to trade union leaders.
A first step towards a national strike has been taken by the National Federation of Railways Traffic/Trade (Federaţia Naţională Feroviară Mişcare–Comercial, FNFMC) union, which issued a press release on 7 February stating that ‘the conditions are in place for a labour conflict’. The trade union considered the railway companies’ response to its demands to be outside the legal provisions regarding labour conflicts, and consequently FNFMC requested the Bucharest Labour and Social Protection Division (Direcţia de Muncă şi Protecţie Socială Bucureşti, DMPS Bucureşti) to mediate in the conflict of interests that has broken out at CNCFR and CFR Călători.
Luminiţa Chivu, Institute of National Economy, Romanian Academy