New collective agreement ends railways’ longest strike

A strike by Bulgarian State Railway workers officially ended on 20 December 2011 when a new collective agreement was signed following eight-hours of negotiations. Employees went on strike on November 24 over government plans for restructuring and job cuts. The cost-cutting measures were in breach of a Memorandum of Understanding, signed after a one-day warning strike early in 2011. The resulting 20-day strike was the longest in the history of Bulgaria’s State Railway.

Background

In October 2011, Finance Minister Simeon Djankov announced that the Bulgarian State Railways (BDZ) had a total debt of BGN 771 million (€392.7 million). This followed an announcement in September 2011 that the World Bank had withheld a rescue package for BDZ worth BGN 600 million (€305.6 million), and which had been negotiated in December 2010, until the government cut the railways’ staff costs by 30 percent.

To reach this target, in October the government announced a programme of reforms and cost-cutting measures. These included:

  • the dismissal of 2,000 workers;
  • suspension of 138 sheduled services and the sale of non-operational assets such as buildings, carriages and wagons;
  • fare increases of 15% for commercial rail traffic and 9% for other services;
  • the sale of the freight transport service.

About 400 rail workers agreed to voluntary lay-offs in exchange for six months’ pay as compensation. The trade unions wanted a new collective agreement but the management of BDZ had consistently refused to approve it. Further motivation to strike was created by the proposed privatisation of the railway’s freight service, one of the most profitable sections of BDZ.

Unions strongly oppose the measures

The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (CITUB) and the Confederation of Labour Podkrepa (CL Podkrepa) called an indefinite strike by BDZ employees, beginning on 24 November 2011 at 8 am, and affecting all rail traffic for eight hours a day. The strike was sparked by the management’s violation of the collective agreement signed last autumn (BG1103011I)Among the most serious issues contested by the strikers were:

  • the dismissal of workers without consultation with trade unions;
  • the abolition of canteen vouchers and no payment of arrears;
  • the elimination of additional voluntary pension insurance under professional schemes for workers in different work categories;
  • the decision to no longer provide working clothes.

Employer's reaction

In order to undermine the strike, BDZ introduced measures that ignored labour legislation and broke the company’s ‘Rules for Internal Work Order’. The Director of the Railroad Infrastructure contravened railway safety rules by using an employee to stand in for the striking worker who normally supervises the electrical system at Gorna Oryahovitsa Station, even though the stand-in lacked the qualifications necessary for the task.

The management also forced workers to declare in writing whether or not they would take part in the strike. On day six of the strike the management issued an order to stop 30 trains.

‘This is a lock-out within the meaning of the Settlement of Collective Labour Disputes Act,’ said Valentin Nikiforov, Vice President of CITUB. He explained that after the strike was declared, the managers could either suspend business or dismiss workers. Under the pretext of an urgent need for staff optimisation, the company’s Chief Executive Officer Yordan Nedev had ordered that offices used by the trade unions should be cleared and the union leader’s phone line was cut off. The strike was supported by members of the European Confederation of Labour (ETUC) and the International Confederation of Labour (ITUC).

Collective agreement reached

The management of the freight transport department at BDZ reached an agreement with the unions on day 20 of the strike, following eight-hours of negotiations. The Collective Agreement on Passenger Transport was signed on 20 December 2011.

According to the agreement, workers’ income will remain unchanged until 1 June 2012. After that date, a bonus system will be introduced similar to that in Bulgaria’s public administration sector (BG1111011I). The new collective agreement reduces annual leave from 22 to 20 working days. Under the previous agreement, workers were entitled to a lump sum equivalent to nine months’ wages at retirement age, and this has now been reduced to the equivalent of eight months’ money.

Commentary

Regular railway timetables have now been restored but although the strike has demonstrated the trade unions’ bargaining power, employers will be less willing to deviate from agreed austerity measures in future.

Snezhana Dimitrova, ISTUR

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