Railway unions join forces

The three biggest and most traditional trade unions in Hungary’s railway sector have formed a bargaining association to negotiate on job security, wages and working conditions. The main priority of the association is to launch wage negotiations with the sector’s employer organisations. Internal differences have always prevented the unions joining forces in the past. The new association represents around 30,000 railway workers, more than 50% of the employees of the sector.

Background

The rise of a pluralistic railway trade union movement is connected to the political changes that took place in eastern Europe in the early 1990s. Before 1990, there was only one railway trade union, the Trade Union of Hungarian Railway Workers (VSZ). In the transitional period after 1990, two more strong and powerful railway unions were established – the Free Trade Union of Railway Workers (VDSZSZ) and the Hungarian Engine Drivers’ Union (MOSZ).

Later, a further 15 grassroots trade unions were established, but the previous three remained the most powerful, representing the majority of the employees.

The three unions have different approaches to trade unionism and are affiliated with three different confederations. This has caused conflicts and issues among the union leaderships, and they have struggled to reach consensus on a number of issues.

Membership

In the period of transition in 1990, more than 100,000 employees worked at the Hungarian Railway Company (MÁV). Due to the permanent restructuring, privatisation and subdivision processes that have since taken place, the number of workers employed in the whole sector has dropped to around 50,000, and around 30,000 are members of the three major unions. VSZ and VDSZSZ each have a membership of about 12,500, and MOSZ represents a further 5,000 workers.

Conflict and cooperation

There has been cooperation between the three unions on certain key issues, such as strike threats over the restructuring of the railways and the closure of secondary railway lines, but there have been times when VDSZSZ has been left to protest on its own. Over the past 20 years, it has called for industrial action over issues such as the withdrawal of state subsidies, and restructuring of the free travel system available to railway workers.

The unions have always acknowledged they would be in a better bargaining position with a more coordinated approach, but it has taken nearly 20 years to agree on anything more than simply a general expression of interests.

The first signs of cooperation between the three organisations came with leadership changes in two of the three main unions.

János Borsik, co-founder of MOSZ, retired in 2009. The new MOSZ President László Kiss, with a newly-elected board, was more open to discussions on cooperation.

Then a new VSZ new executive board was elected at the union’s congress in April 2011 and gave new president Zoltán Papp the democratic right to start negotiations on closer cooperation.

Together with István Gaskó, President of VDSZSZ, the three unions decided to work more closely and to attempt to unite power.

However, VSZ President Papp did comment:

To tear the trade union movement into pieces was much easier 20 years ago than to create some cooperation now.

At their initial meetings the three presidents discussed political and strategic issues. Legal experts then started working on the constitution of the association that had been adopted by the inaugural assembly. The Association of Railway Trade Unions (VASZ) was officially established on 31 January 2013 with three member organisations.

The association’s main body is the assembly of envoys that consists of the representatives of the three trade unions. VSZ contributes 21 envoys and VDSZSZ and MOSZ each provide 15.

The presidency is the operative body of the association and has 11 members: the president, two co-presidents and eight vice-presidents. The association has a supervisory board, as well as an audit committee. It was decided to have a rotation system of presidency. For the first round, Gaskó from VDDSZ took the role of President, while the other organisations’ leaders will function as co-presidents of the new association.

The expenses of the operation are covered mainly by membership fees.

Aims and objectives of the association

According to the congress’s documents, the aims of the association are:

  • coordinating the cooperation of VSZ, MOSZ and VDSZSZ in favour of railway workers’ and retired railway workers’ social and economic interests;
  • the creation of joint programmes to preserve wage values and to raise wages to the EU average for railway workers;
  • increased job security in the sector;
  • maintaining and developing the level of the Hungarian railway transport services.

The first programme points agreed on were:

  • cooperation for employees’ social protection, employment, improving life and working conditions, including cooperation against branch line closures and unprovoked staff reduction;
  • developing common points of view in the Hungarian macroeconomic reconciliation bodies;
  • undertaking common actions in international and European transport trade union policies;
  • amending the negative effects of the new Labour Code;
  • concluding a Railway Industrial Collective Agreement via the Railway Social Dialogue Committee;
  • negotiating common collective agreements at MÁV Group, avoiding individual agreements;
  • increasing wage levels for employees during the reorganization of MÁV affiliates.

Joint negotiations and actions were also agreed in order to maintain:

  • the existing system for early retirement schemes and unemployment programmes at MÁV;
  • the Health Protection Programme for jobs with physical and mental risks;
  • the railway hospitals and health services;
  • the railway workers’ and families’ right to travel discounts.

Reaction of the three union presidents

Zoltán Papp from VSZ said the association had already achieved two key objectives. Firstly, the trade unions no longer needed to waste time negotiating with each other, and secondly, a joint wage demand had been brought to the table for discussion with the employers.

István Gaskó from VDSZSZ emphasised that the current trade unions had been established in 1989–1990, and since then their work and operations have been for the benefit of employees. Mr Gaskó added that the three most powerful trade unions in the sector had founded this association, but that their separate identities would remain.

László Kiss from MOSZ stressed that the inaugural session had set several concrete goals to ensure that while wage negotiations would be launched, the focus would also be on regaining workers’ rights that have been taken away by the new Labour Code.

Commentary

The foundation of the new association is a good example of the Hungarian trade union movement showing that cooperation is a key issue for strengthening employee bargaining power.

If this kind of cooperation is democratically supervised carefully by union members, and they are constantly involved in decision-making and receive feedback from the executive boards, this new association will be a good negotiation partner for the railway employers.

It should be of common interest to ensure social peace in one of the few Hungarian sectors where labour disputes have led to conflicts and strikes during the past 20 years. The disputes have resulted in losses for the companies and have threatened the social peace in the country several times.

However, VASZ can be largely successful if the three unions are cooperating on an equal footing and give the employers no chance to divide them, as has happened several times in the past.

Ildikó Krén, Solution4.org

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