Dispute hits mining industry

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In February 2004, bargaining over a new collective agreement for the Romanian mining industry resulted in trade unions organising a two-hour warning strike. As well as demanding a pay increase much higher than offered by the government, the unions also raised concerns about the perceived lack of a sectoral strategy, large numbers of impending redundancies, and the inconsistency of social assistance programmes. The government eventually gave a favourable response to the majority of the union claims and a settlement was reached. However, a government decision to split up the National Lignite Company then sparked an indefinite strike in the industry.

The current two-year collective agreement for the mining industry (for 2002-3) was due to expire in February 2004. From January, dissatisfied by the government’s proposals for a new collective agreement, the leaders of the Mining Trade Union (Uniunea Sindicatelor Miniere, USM) in Oltenia, Maramures, Rodna and Baia Mare (major mining areas in Romania) announced that they were in dispute to the local offices of the Ministry of Labour, Social Solidarity and Family (Ministerul Muncii, Solidaritatii Sociale si Familiei, MMSSF) and threatened a warning strike, followed by a general strike in mining.

Main reasons for discontent

Union leaders met at Baia Mare and made public the main reasons for their discontent: the absence of a clear strategy for the mining sector; the inconsistency of existing restructuring programmes; the lack of an adequate social assistance programme addressing both the redundancies that are to be made in 2004 (7,100 employees) and the previous ones; and a pay increase of only 9% proposed by the government for 2004. They also announced they would not accept any redundancies until the following claims were met:

  • the establishment of a governmental commission, under the direct coordination of the Prime Minister, with the task of elaborating a strategy for the mining sector;
  • restructuring and social assistance programmes to be agreed with the Ministry of Economy and Commerce (Ministerul Economiei si Comertului, MEC); and
  • the adoption of a government ordinance providing financial resources for alternative policies of sustainable development and job-creating measures in the mining areas, including by granting interest-free loans to miners to start up small businesses.

Moreover, the trade unions requested that the proposed government ordinance provide for a five-year so-called 'stand-by vacation', during which redundant miners would receive monthly pay equal to 80% of their last wage This 'vacation' should be considered as time worked when pension rights are calculated.

A poll was carried out among union members at the National Lignite Company (Compania Nationala a Lignitului, CNL) and the outcome was that 88% of members were in favour of a general strike. Furthermore, 31% said that they wanted compensatory payments, 56% wanted a new job and 13% would prefer financial support to start an independent business. When asked about the opportunity of negotiating a mining sector strategy with the political parties currently in parliament, 58% of members considered that those negotiations should be carried on with all political parties, while 19% mentioned only the governing Social Democrat Party (Partidul Social Democrat, PSD). The miners in Oltenia were asked supplementary questions linked to a forthcoming split-up of CNL. According to the poll, 80% of miners are against it, but only 49% of them claim to understand what the split will really involve.

Negotiations and warning strike

On 26-27 January, no progress was reached in negotiations at CNL, assisted by the local office of the MMSSF. On 28 January, Marin Condescu, the president of the National Mining Central Office (Centrala Nationala Miniera, CNM), announced a two-hour warning strike on 3 February, involving miners from Baia Mare, Ploiesti and Oltenia. Soon, miners from Deva and from the rare metals sector announced they would join the strike. The plan was that, if negotiations with the MEC failed, a general strike throughout the mining sector would take place on 5 February.

In an attempt to stop the protests, the local PSD leader in Gorj county ( in Oltenia) threatened to expel trade union leaders from the party, mainly because of their 'exaggerated' claim for a pay increase (40% in 2004). Union leaders (who were then members of the PSD) reacted promptly and, on 29 February, the vice-president, the general secretary and six other leaders of the USM union resigned from PSD. They continued to request a pay increase of at least 26% in 2004 (of which 9 percentage points would cover the forecast inflation rate and 17 points would reflect the increase of the labour productivity), while the government slightly increased its offer from 9% to 10.5%.

The day before the warning strike was due to take place, the trade unions estimated that there would be 60,000 participants. On 3 February, the two-hour warning strike took place as scheduled. According to the unions' own estimations, the strike involved 4,000 employees of SC Remin Baia Mare, 13,403 from the coal mining area of Oltenia, tens of miners from Rodna and 100 miners from pit of Lesul Ursului pit in Suceava.

Outcomes of further negotiations

Negotiations were resumed the same day and agreement was reached on several issues:

  • a mining industry restructuring strategy for the periods up until 2010 will be concluded and receive government approval in the form of an emergency ordinance, no later than 28 February. In each mining company negotiations with the trade unions will begin, with the main purpose of introducing the restructuring programmes, as well as discussing the number of redundancies;
  • the government will adopt legislation aimed at aiding the redundant miners, establishing social assistance programmes in localities where the mining industry is dominant. These programmes will cover job-creating measures and compensatory payments for those unable to find new employment. Initially, the redundant workers will receive ROL 160 million, and over the next two years monthly pay of ROL 6 million (approximately EUR 145, or EUR 30 more than the monthly national average wage), apart from statutory unemployment benefit. When pension rights are calculated, the two-year period will be considered as time worked, and for those miners who have been working underground additional pension rights are to be considered; and
  • miners who keep their present jobs will receive higher pay - a 9% raise, equal to the inflation rate, and a supplementary increase related to labour productivity growth. In total, pay should go up by approximately 24%.

On 9 February, the collective agreement between the USM union in Oltenia and the CNL company was finally concluded and a development, efficiency and social assistance programme for 2004-7 was already under re-examination.

However, on 19 February 2004 a Government Decision was issued (no. 103) which will divide the Oltenia CNL into five companies. The decision will come into force by the end of March 2004 and is motivated by a need to restructure the electrical power industry. As a result, the next day, the miners announced they would start an indefinite strike. In late February, the conflict was under way.

Commentary

The history of the Romanian mining industry has been particularly tense and has periodically led to major conflicts over the last century. This may be illustrated by a 1929 strike, or, during the communist regime, by a 1977 rebellion during which, at the Petrosani pit (the one with the longest history), an important leader of the Communist Party was held captive. After 1989, in order to sustain their own economic interests, the miners were involved in some political events. A 'miners' rebellion' (mineriada) took place on 13-15 June 1990 and its political background was subject to considerable comment. In 1991, after another rebellion, the Prime Minister, Petre Roman, was forced to resign. In January 1999, the miners' protests, under Miron Cosma's leadership, again became a violent struggle and were considered as an 'attempted coup d’état'. Two violent incidents took place, one in Costesti, where miners overcame the police, and the second in Stoenesti, when the police retaliated. The protests came to an end, Miron Cosma was sentenced to 18 years in prison and other miners’ leaders were also incarcerated, but the problems still persist.

The power of the miners’ trade unions is declining in line with the fall in employment. The number of employees in the whole extractive industry was cut from 267,000 in 1990 to 140,000 in 2001. In coal mining and preparation, employee numbers fell from 90,000 to 40,000, whilst the extraction stood at 38.2 million tones in 1990 and fell to 30 million tones in 2002. (Luminita Chivu, Institute of National Economy)

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