Strike action resolved through agreements

During September and October 2009, social tension has increased in two companies in Bulgaria’s public and private sectors. In the state-owned National Railway Infrastructure Company and in the private paper and paper products enterprise Kostenetz AD, workers have not received their wages since August 2009. In light of this, the trade unions began to prepare for strike action, but negotiations with the employers ended successfully and strike agreements were signed.

Case of National Railway Infrastructure Company

On 16 September 2009, the Executive Committee of the Trade Union of Railway Workers in Bulgaria (Синдикат на железничарите в България, TURWB) met at the Confederation of the Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (Конфедерация на независимите синдикати в България, CITUB) to discuss the escalation of social tension due to wage arrears in the National Railway Infrastructure Company (Национална компания ‘Железопътна инфраструктура’, NRIC). The shop stewards of the trade union organisations represented in NRIC also participated in the meeting.

At the meeting, the trade unions adopted a common position which was subsequently sent to the Minister of Transport, Communications and Information Technology, Alexander Tsvetkov, the President of CITUB, Zhelyazko Hristov, and the General Director of NRIC, Milcho Lambrev. The trade unions’ main demands were the immediate payment of wages due for August and an advance payment for September, as well as an end to the process of dismissals and job cuts at railway stations and in railway system maintenance operations. The trade unions threatened to organise nationwide protests and strike actions if the Ministry of Transport, Communications and Information Technology (Министерство на транспорта, информационните технологии и съобщенията, MTITC) failed to comply with their claims.

Government response

On 25 September, Minister Tsvetkov discussed the situation with CITUB’s President Hristov, TURBW’s President, Petar Bunev, and the President of the CITUB-affiliated Federation of Transport Trade Unions in Bulgaria (Съюз на транспортните синдикати в България, FTTUB), Ekaterina Yordanova. In the discussion, Minister Tsvetkov highlighted the main reasons for the delay in payment of wages:

  • a 45% decline in freight transport and 7% decrease in passenger transport;
  • irregular spending of the annual subsidy;
  • advance spending of 80% of funds for capital expenditures;
  • debts accumulated with banks and creditors.

Minister Tsvetkov promised to block the remaining 20% of capital expenditure in order to pay workers’ wages. Mr Hristov of CITUB and the minister agreed to appeal to the Association of Banks in Bulgaria (ABB) to discuss the possibilities of spacing out the railway company’s debts.

Agreement ends strike activity

On 16 October, a meeting took place with all of the trade unions represented at NRIC and the strike committees, including TURWB, FTTUB, together with the Federation of Transport Workers (Федерация на транспортните работници, FTW) and the National Railway Union (Национален синдикат на железничарите, NRК) which are both affiliated to the Confederation of Labour ‘Podkrepa’ (Страница на КТ Подкрепа, CL Podkrepa). They formed a joint strike committee to prepare the protest actions, while also agreeing with the employer on ensuring minimum transport services and activity during the strike actions, as required by the Law for Settlement of Collective Labour Disputes.

On 27 October, the joint strike committee and the employer reached an agreement, of which the main points are as follows, committing the employer to:

  • stop the dismissal of current staff;
  • pay any wage arrears on schedule up to the end of 2009;
  • make provision for the supplementary voluntary pension insurance.

Case of paper and paper product company Kostenetz

On 29 September 2009, the employees of the paper and paper products company Kostenetz AD went on a one-hour warning strike organised by the Federation of Trade Union Organisations in Forestry and Woodworking Industry in Bulgaria (Федерация на синдикалните организации от горското стопанство и дървообработващата промишленост, FSOGSDP), which is affiliated to CITUB. The reason for the protest action was the accumulated wage arrears since May and also the arrears in social benefits from an earlier period. In light of this situation, a strike committee was formed. FSOGSDP issued a statement stipulating that it was unacceptable for a large number of workers’ families to remain without water and electricity because they have no means to pay their respective bills.

The trade union’s strike demands included the following:

  • the establishment of a payment schedule for wages;
  • the payment of food vouchers for all staff, as provided for in the valid collective agreement.

On 23 October, the parties signed an agreement ending the strike as all of the workers’ demands were satisfied.

Commentary

The trade unions’ firm position in this matter led to a successful end of the protests in both company cases. It is worthwhile noting that in times of crisis many companies do not pay wages on time. Nevertheless, these recent protest actions represented an opportunity to strengthen social dialogue and reach agreement through negotiations and compromise.

Tatiana Mihaylova, Institute for Social and Trade Union Research (ISTUR)

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