Slovakia's first strikes hit railways

In 2003, Slovakia has witnessed its first genuine strikes since it became independent. Two strikes were held on the railways in protest at plans to close 25 regional lines and reduce services on main lines. The second strike was indefinite, but was brought to an end by a court ruling (against which the unions have appealed) after three days. The unions' demands were not met by railway employers or the government.

January 2003 saw the first genuine strikes organised in Slovakia since it became independent in 1993 (SK0211103F). The strikes took place on the railways as a consequence of long-term disputes between trade unions and management. Railworkers had previously been on the verge of strike action on several occasions in recent years. In late 1998 there were calls for a strike, while in the following year trade unions set a strike date during lengthy negotiations on pay increases. However, the negotiations led to a compromise with railways management and the planned strike was cancelled. In 2001, a two-hour strike was announced by the trade unions but cancelled one hour before it was due to start because of a lack of organisational preparedness.

Railway restructuring

In 2002, Railways of the Slovak Republic (Zeleznice Slovenskej republiky) was split into two independent companies - the Railways Corporation (Zeleznicná spolocnost as, ZSSK) and Railways of the Slovak Republic (Zeleznice Slovenskej republiky, ZSR). ZSSK is in charge of the operation of passenger and freight trains, while ZSR is responsible for the track and the operation of railway stations. So far, it appears that this division has not contributed to an improvement in railway management, but only increased administration and management costs. The former Railways of the Slovak Republic accumulated a debt of SKK 48 billion and was threatened by the Minister of Transport, Post and Telecommunication (Ministerstvo dopravy, post a telekomunikácií Slovenskej republiky) with insolvency. In 2003, ZSSK received a larger financial grant from the state budget than in previous years, but the government did not allow the company to obtain additional credits in order to cover its previous losses. ZSSK was forced to cut its operating costs and thus close 25 regional rail lines and cancel 200 passenger-train connections on main lines. Contracts concluded with external contractors should also be reviewed and revised in terms of their profitability for the railways. The Minister of Transport, Post and Telecommunication suggested that regional governments should share the operational costs of the lines slated for closure. However, it proved to be too late for the relevant regional governments to take action.

Trade union reaction

On 23 January 2003, the central strike committee of the railworkers' trade unions announced a strike from 03.00 to 09.00 on 29 January, aimed at halting all passenger and freight trains. According to the committee's official declaration, the main goal of the strike was to stop immediately the planned closure of the 25 regional lines and the preparations to cancel the 200 passenger-train connections. Moreover, the unions demanded a solution to the issue of involving the regions in the operation of the regional lines in question, which should be based on implementation of the necessary legal adjustments. The committee also called for the cessation of the 'liquidation policy' aimed at the railways and for the creation of conditions for railway operation comparable with those in neighbouring countries and the EU Member States. Nine of the 11 trade unions represented on the railways agreed with the strike call.

Two days before the strike was due to take place, the Minister of Transport, Post and Telecommunication, Pavol Prokopovic, negotiated with trade union representatives in an attempt to convince them to call off the action. However, the Minister did not change or postpone the closure plans. He did, though, tell the unions that there was 'over-employment' on the railways and that almost 15,000 of the present 43,000 employees were likely to be surplus to requirements.

First strike

More than 70% of the railworkers reportedly participated in the strike on 29 January, which completely shut down the railway network for six hours. The economic loss was estimated at approximately SKK 10 million. Some 2,000 passenger services were affected, either being delayed or cancelled. During the strike, railworkers prevented all international rail traffic into Slovakia. However, there were thought to be no significant problems for passengers.

After the end of the strike, the Minister called a press conference at which he stated that he would not change his original decision on the closures. The rail unions responded by deciding not to negotiate with him any further and instead addressed the Prime Minister, Mikulas Dzurinda. According to the chair of the central strike committee, Jozef Schmidt, the trade unions felt that they had strengthened their bargaining position after the strike and thus organised the first long-term strike in the history of the Slovak railways, starting on 31 January. However, before the start of the second strike, the unions returned to talks with the Minister of Transport, Post and Telecommunication, who left the meeting after informing the union representatives that the issue was solely the responsibility of ZSSK and (as reported by the chair of the central strike committee) that there was no reason to postpone the planned changes. The President of the Slovak Republic, Rudolf Schuster, became involved in the dispute and asked the Minister to postpone the planned closures. The Minister reportedly informed the President that he could not bend to pressure from the trade unions. The Prime Minister did not react to the unions' request for a meeting.

One day before the start of the second strike, the director of ZSR tried to discourage railway employees from striking and issued a statement on employees' obligation to work during the strike. He claimed that the strike's demands related to activities which were the responsibility of ZSSK rather than ZSR. The trade unions interpreted his actions as an attempt at intimidation. At the same time, the supervisory board of ZSSK proposed to the unions that the planned closures should be examined by a committee of experts. The trade unions rejected this offer.

Second strike

The second strike started in line with the trade unions' plan at 23.00 on 31 January. The action was indefinite, with the unions stating that the strike would continue until the government met their demands. It was expected that the strike would significantly damage the economy. The preliminary estimations of the losses to the railways were SKK 60 million to SKK 80 million per day, while many large companies - such as the Slovnaft petrochemicals and refinery complex , Volkswagen and US Steel- were likely to face serious problems with supplies as most rail freight operations would be halted. Furthermore, passenger traffic would be brought to a standstill.

The strike fulfilled these expectations, with most services halted. On the third day, many companies dependent on regular supplies of stock and raw materials had used up their reserves and others faced problems with the storage of their final products. The daily losses were estimated at SKK 80 million. The trade unions, railways management and the Ministry invited each other to meetings but, though they met several times, none of the parties shifted from its original position. The Prime Minister claimed that the strike had 'nothing to do with defending the interests of workers on the railways but it is an action with a clear political background'. Railworkers were outraged by this statement. The Prime Minister refused to negotiate with the unions under pressure, and the latter refused to end the strike if there was no agreement to postpone the planned line closures for at least three months. In the meantime, the Bratislava regional government expressed an interest in becoming responsible for the operation of one of the regional lines and financing it from its own budget.

Tension mounted in East Slovakia, where railworkers reportedly felt under strong pressure from the railway companies, especially in terms of providing the US Steel complex with supplies. At first, 35 employees in East Slovakia broke the strike and they were then joined by a number of other workers. On 3 February 2003, three days into the strike, District Court I in Bratislava - which had been asked by the employers to rule on the legality of the strike - ordered workers to stop their action until it made a ruling on the strike's legality. Soon afterwards, the Minister of Transport, Post and Telecommunication warned the unions that if train services did not resume, this would be considered as breaking the law. Consequently, the chair of the central strike committee decided that the unions would respect the court’s order and end the strike, stating that 'we are ending this genuine strike but will stay on strike alert and appeal against the court’s decision.' ZSR evaluated its losses at SKK 60 million and it is expected that the losses of ZSSK could be even higher.

Commentary

Since the revolution in 1989 and after more than 13 years of building a democratic society, Slovakia's long period of social consensus has ended and trade unions have started to strike. According to a sociologist, Michal Vasecka: 'The demand for strikes is quite high. According to the latest public opinion polls, people are not satisfied with the behaviour of the trade union leaders but, at the same time, they are ready to participate actively in strikes' (quoted in the SME daily). This opinion has been confirmed by the two strikes organised on the railways. However, on neither occasion did the trade unions achieve any compromise with railways management and the Ministry. The strikes were against the closure of regional rail lines and cancellation of connections on the main lines, but nevertheless on 2 February 2003 the planned closures took effect. However, the rail unions succeeded in interrupting rail traffic across the whole country for three days and this both demonstrated their strength and gave psychological support to other trade unions which could be interested in organising similar protests. The strike caused quite substantial economic damage, estimated at tens of millions SKK. The strike has had an impact on employees too; the management of the two railway companies announced that the payment of planned bonuses for January 2003 had been postponed. The behaviour of the two companies seems to be problematic, as they did not take any initiative in order to resolve the problem. At the same time, the situation has shown that the idea of transferring regional rail line to the regional authorities is relevant. Two of the closed lines have recently been reopened in this way while ZSSK has now obtained the necessary resources and reopened nine others on 15 June 2002.

The ending of the strike by the decision of the Bratislava District Court has also raised questions for lawyers. According to some, Act No. 2/1991 on Collective Bargaining allows strikes only in relation to collective bargaining and the fulfilment of obligations arising from collective agreements, and thus the rail strike was unlawful. Some other lawyers have questioned whether the court's decision contradicts the Slovak Constitution, which guarantees to citizens the right to strike. Moreover, the Slovak Republic has signed the European Social Charter, which understands the right to strike in a wider context than the 1991 Act and, according to the Constitution, international legal standards take precedence over national law. Trade unions consider the court’s decision ending the strike as unconstitutional and they want members of parliament to launch proceedings in the Constitutional Court. The unions have also appealed against the Bratislava District Court’s decision, though the case has yet to be decided.

The strike has now become a reality in Slovakia and employers and the government must take into account such forms of trade union action and conduct the social dialogue in such a way as to keep similar radical actions to a minimum. (Mariana Munková, RILSAF)

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