Strike at coal mines ends in victory for workers

An eight-day strike by nearly 7,000 Bulgarian miners ended on 23 January 2012. The strike forced the country to halt electricity exports in order to guarantee enough power for domestic needs. Workers at the state-owned Maritza East Mines, a complex of three mines which produces 90% of the country’s coal, walked out when management failed to pay agreed bonuses, improve health and safety, or reduce staff shortages. However, agreement was reached after 16 hours of negotiations.

Background

Bulgarian state-owned Maritza East Mines is the country’s largest mining complex, and the main source of lignite coal for three thermal power plants; state-owned Maritsa Iztok 2, Maritsa Iztok 3 (which US Contour Global recently acquired from Italy's Enel), and AES Galabovo (owned by US company AES). Together, the plants provide about one third of the country’s electricity.

The dispute, between management at the Maritza East Mines and trade unions, began in early December 2011, after claims that an agreement reached in July 2011 had not been honoured. The agreement had promised a bonus for exceeding planned targets, and also improved working conditions. Unions say the miners, who work 12-hour shifts, are in the dark and wet without protective working clothes and have outdated equipment. The unions also point out that safety is compromised by reduced staff numbers. Despite this, however, the miners produced 33 million tonnes of coal, well in excess of their production target of 27 million tonnes.

A joint strike committee was set up by members of the two trade union organisations affiliated to the Federation of Independent Miners’ Unions of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (CITUB) and Miners’ Federation of Podkrepa Confederation of Labour (Podkrepa CL). The committee called a one-hour warning strike on 10 January. However, management refused to negotiate, stating that it had fulfilled all of its commitments under the agreement. When talks between management and unions on structural changes in the company and the payment of bonuses failed, the strike committee started to organise a proper strike.

Main demands

Apart from the bonus, the miners also wanted:

  • better work organisation;
  • improvements for health and safety;
  • adequate equipment;
  • adequate staffing levels;
  • meaningful social dialogue;
  • information and consultation with management over any planned structural changes.

Strike chronology

The strike started on 15 January 2012. Some 92%–95% of all workers at the three mines, including administrative staff, walked out. Negotiations stalled, but resumed on January 21, when management announced all workers would receive a bonus of 10.5% of their gross monthly wage for the third quarter. The unions, however, said management had not agreed to consider their demands over health and safety and staff levels.

The leadership of the two trade union confederations and branch federations supported the striking miners and were with them daily at the mines. On 21 January a protest meeting was held at the headquarters of the company. The President of CITUB, Plamen Dimitrov, made a speech saying the most important issue was not the unpaid money, but the implementation of the agreement and planned structural changes in the company, which he said violated the Labour Code and the requirements of the Working Conditions Law. He added that unfilled job vacancies meant the number of employees is below the critical minimum, endangering the technological processes and safety of workers. The president also attacked claims by Angel Semerdjiev, the head of the Bulgarian State Energy and Water Regulatory Commission (BSEWRC) and by the Energy Minister Traycho Traykov, that the strike would lead to a hike in energy prices. In response, Plamen Dimitrov said:

Such allegations constitute an attempt to set Bulgarian people against the justified demands of the protesting workers, as the prices are to increase irrespective of the strike due to higher green energy prices and the obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Reaction of management

Before the start of the strike, management said it would be illegal, and that it was just a dispute over extra money. On 15 January, the CEO of Maritza East Mines, Evgeni Stoykov attempted to stop the strike by telling the miners:

I'm sure all of you know that [as a court] has announced [this strike] is illegal, and all involved in it are subject to disciplinary and material responsibility. Under Article 18 of the Collective Labour Disputes Settlement Act during the strike the employer does not pay wages.

However the management was compelled to withdraw its claim on 20 January due to procedural inaccuracy.

Government position

Angel Semerdzhiev said each of the power plants had enough coal reserves to operate at full capacity for between two and three weeks. However, should the strike go on for more than a week, he forecast a 10% increase in electricity prices.

Energy Minister Traykov told journalists on 20 January: ‘Blackmail is not the solution to the problem.’ He said the unions had persuaded miners to demand the company's entire profit as bonus payments. ‘They are disrupting the work of their colleagues at the Maritsa Iztok 2 thermal power plant,’ Traykov added, warning that a potential act of sabotage aimed at blocking coal supplies to the TPP would be dealt with by the police.

International support

The strike received the support of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM), which has affiliations to both miners’ federations. ICEM General Secretary Manfred Warda wrote on 20 January 2012 to Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and Minister Traykov, saying:

ICEM has pledged its full support to the two unions and the workers represented by them. The ICEM also calls on the Government of Bulgaria to immediately intervene to correct the deficient conduct of mine management and to put in place an adequate set of social criteria in which miners can work in a safe and dignified environment.

Difficult negotiations end in agreement

An agreement was reached in the early morning of 22 January, after 16 hours of negotiations between management and the joint strike committee. Also taking part were Plamen Dimitrov; Konstantin Trenchev, the President of Podkrepa CL; Delyan Dobrev, Deputy Minister for Economy and Energy; as well as the presidents of the miners’ branch federations of Podkrepa CL and CITUB. The morning shift in the mines began when the talks ended.

Mangement agreed to:

  • partially pay the promised bonus;
  • allocate BGN 20 million (€10.2 million) for improving health and safety;
  • increase investment;
  • not to consider privatisation;
  • make up shortages of equipment, spare parts and monitoring devices;
  • hire additional workers where safety is compromised by lack of staff.

Both sides agreed to work towards technological modernisation, higher production efficiency and output.

The total sum allocated for the miners’ bonuses amounts to BGN 2.13 million (€1 million). All miners and administrative workers will receive a bonus of BGN 300 (€152). Management announced that the strike had caused an estimated loss of BGN 6–8 million (about €3–4 million) in missed benefits and unsold stocks.

Reactions to agreement

The agreement seems to have satisfied both workers and management. The CEO of Maritza East Mines, Evgeni Stoykov, and Delyan Dobrev, Deputy Minister for Economy and Energy, said both parties had made reasonable concessions and that the management appreciated the willingness of trade unions to find mutually acceptable solutions to the conflict. Konstantin Trenchev, President of Podkrepa CL, said: ‘A compromise deal has been struck with management that includes improvements in working conditions and cash bonuses for the miners.’

According to CITUB President Plamen Dimitrov, the negotiations, despite initial controversy, were carried out in a spirit of cooperation, mutual concessions and respect for the interests of both parties to the agreement.

Nadezhda Daskalova, ISTUR

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