Annual wage negotiations spark wave of warning strikes

In the spring of 2006, trade unions representing employees in a number of Hungarian companies threatened to take strike action or staged warning strikes, largely in response to the annual wage negotiations. The increased threat of strike action takes place in the context of Hungary’s decentralised collective bargaining system, where local unions, sometimes with the support of sectoral unions, often try to make uniform wage demands; management, on the other hand, often refuses these demands, pointing to the particular economic conditions of the company or organisation.

Warning strikes

On 2 March 2006, employees at the state-owned Hungarian Radio staged a two-hour warning strike. Since the broadcast was not interrupted during the strike, listeners were unaware of it. According to András Lázár, President of the Trade Union Federation of Postal and Telecommunications Workers (Postai és Hírközlési Dolgozók Szakszervezeti Szövetsége, PHDSZSZ), the main reasons behind the warning strike were the planned dismissals and the closure of the radio station’s regional studios and foreign language editorial office. The trade union demanded a pay rise of 4.8% backdated to 1 January 2006 and an increase in the programme budget.

Meanwhile, unsuccessful negotiations between DAM 2004, a major Hungarian steelmaker, and the Metalworkers’ Union (Vasasszakszervezet) resulted in a 32-hour strike on 13 and 14 June 2006. Approximately 70% of the company’s 1,000-strong workforce fully agreed with the strike. In the previous month, on 11 May, metalworkers had already staged a two-hour warning strike, in support of the union’s demands for a 7.8% wage increase and an increase in company welfare services; however, DAM refused to concede to the demands, referring to the company’s losses in the previous year.

On 20 May 2006, employees at the Hungarian State Opera (Magyar Állami Operaház) staged a 20-minute warning strike, delaying one performance by 30 minutes. The employees were protesting against the drop in state subsidies and against planned redundancies. According to the director of the opera company, the strike was unlawful because the trade union had failed to give appropriate warning prior to the event. However, the Metropolitan (Budapest) Labour Court (Fovárosi Munkaügyi Bíróság) ruled that the strike was legal.

At Paks Nuclear Power Plant (Paksi Atomeromu, PA), the Shiftworkers’ Interest Representation Organisation (Muszakos Dolgozók Érdekvédelmi Szervezete, MÉSZ) called for a two-hour warning strike on 13 March 2006 in a non-operating block; this was later repeated on 27 March (HU0604019I).

Threats of strike action averted

The Oil Industry Trade Union (Olajipari Szakszervezet) representing employees at the Hungarian Oil and Gas Company (Magyar Olaj és Gázipari Rt, MOL) called for a 72-hour strike starting on 23 May 2006. The union’s demands included a request for a 7% wage increase for 2006, in addition to a profit-sharing scheme whereby MOL would spend 1% of its after-tax profits on pay increases every year. The company, which employs some 5,200 workers, has three representative trade unions; of these, the Oil Industry Trade Union has 1,150 members. Eventually, the strike was called off; according to management, this was due to the lack of electoral support for the union. However, the union referred to breaches of the law on the part of the employer, which would have turned the strike into a high security risk for the operation of the company.

Earlier in the year, the Trade Union of Meat Processing Industry Employees (Húsipari Dolgozók Szakszervezete, HDSZ), which represents over 50% of workers in the sector, failed to reach agreement about wage increases for 2006 at several companies until 1 April; as a result, it decided to form a strike committee. Subsequently, the trade union declared a strike alert at Gyula Meat Works (Gyulai Húskombinát), Kométa, Kaposvár Meat (Kaposvári Hús Rt) and Kapuvár Meat (Kapuvári Hús Rt), due to the failure to reach wage increases of at least 3.54% in these companies – a level that had been achieved in other major companies in the sector. However, HDSZ eventually reached a wage agreement in the companies.

At Auchan (Auchan Magyarország), the Trade Union of Commercial Employees (Kereskedelmi Alkalmazottak Szakszervezerete, KASZ) formed a strike committee on 25 April 2006. During the bargaining round, KASZ demanded higher wages, along with additional remuneration for work clothing and late night travelling. Although Auchan employs about 5,000 workers, the trade union only has 220 members. According to István Mátraházi, Vice President of KASZ, Auchan’s management does not provide the trade union with exact data about average wages. In the end, however, the strike was called off because the French owner agreed to higher wage increases than originally planned.

At the Budapest Transport Company (Budapesti Közlekedési Vállalat, BKV), the annual bargaining round lasted two months between the five major trade unions and company management. Following a threat of strike action, the parties signed a wage agreement on 13 February 2006, stipulating an average gross wage increase of at least HUF 17,000 (about €65) and a premium of of HUF 2,000 (about €7.40), dependent upon employee performance.

Dávid Jancsics and László Neumann, Institute of Political Science, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

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