Trade union protests against government austerity measures

In October 2006, sectoral unions affiliated to the Democratic League of Independent Trade Unions (LIGA) staged protests against the government’s austerity measures, which are aimed at eliminating the substantial budget deficit. In the already divided Hungarian trade union scene, the protests have further intensified political divisions among the unions. At the same time, they have increased the pressure on the government to alleviate the stringent economic measures outlined in its convergence programme.

In October 2006, demonstrations organised by the government opposition continued in front of parliament, with demands that the Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, should step down and that the government should abandon the economic measures stipulated in its convergence programme aimed at meeting the Maastricht criteria for joining the euro-zone (HU0609029I). At the same time, unions affiliated to the Democratic League of Independent Trade Unions (Független Szakszervezetek Demokratikus Ligája, LIGA) also staged demonstrations against specific sectoral measures proposed by the government.

Teachers’ protest

In the education sector, the Democratic Union of Teachers (Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete, PDSZ) organised a demonstration near parliament buildings on 13 October 2006. The demonstration, referred to as a ‘national parents’ meeting’, was organised in conjunction with a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and smaller trade unions in the education sector. PDSZ warned the government that it would have to face nationwide strikes if it failed to initiate proper negotiations with the unions over the proposed reforms. The trade unions were protesting against the government’s plans to reduce the number of teachers by 15,000–20,000 teachers, while at the same time increasing the number of working hours for remaining staff. PDSZ also rejected the planned reduction of real wages in 2007.

At the rally, the President of LIGA, István Gaskó, demanded a comprehensive social pact in relation to the public sector reforms. On the same day, PDSZ held a parallel demonstration in Szeged, one of the major cities in southern Hungary. However, the prominent trade union in the education sector – the Union of Teachers (Pedagógusok Szakszervezete, PSZ), belonging to the more left-wing National Association of Hungarian Trade Unions (Magyar Szakszervezetek Országos Szövetsége, MSZOSZ) – declined to participate in the demonstration, stating that it prefers to engage in negotiations rather than demonstrations.

PDSZ announced that it would coordinate strategies with several organisations in its attempt to demand proper negotiations with the government over the proposed reform programme; these organisations include two NGOs (one environmental organisation and one organisation representing families with children), two chambers (the Chamber of Pharmacists and the Chamber of Physicians), and the National Self-government Body of University Students (Hallgatói Önkormányzatok Országos Konferenciájának, HÖOK).

Demonstration by armed force personnel

Following the teachers’ protest, on 14 October, the Independent Trade Union Association of Military and Police Employees (Fegyveres és Rendvédelmi Dolgozók Érdekvédelmi Szövetsége, FRDÉSZ) held a demonstration in front of parliament buildings, involving almost 800 people. The union demanded that the ‘across the board’ type staff reduction measures, whereby there is an automatic percentage-based cut in each unit, should be stopped (HU0611019I); instead, it called for a better prepared strategic reorganisation plan. The demonstrators argued that the current staff reduction policy would lead to inefficient state agencies, which would be unable to fulfil their statutory tasks.

In relation to wages, the trade union demanded that real wage levels be maintained in 2007, and increased from 2008 onwards in line with gross domestic product (GDP) growth, to ensure the harmonisation of living standards with other EU countries. In order to achieve greater stability for the armed forces, FRDÉSZ demanded that the regulation of the sector be elevated to constitutional level and that a two-thirds qualified majority in parliament should be required for any amendment to legislation affecting the armed forces.

Proposal for second chamber of parliament

Finally, LIGA proposed changes in the Constitution to ensure that the government takes into account the demands of interest groups and NGOs. Specifically, it raised the idea of a general election to establish a second chamber of parliament to complement the existing structure. This second chamber, LIGA suggested, should consist of representatives of the social partners, NGOs and churches, and would ensure appropriate control over party politics and the government.

Commentary

The increasing level of activity by LIGA and its affiliated organisations highlights the political divisions between Hungarian trade unions. Although many unions affiliated to other major union confederations, especially MSZOSZ, are also critical of the government’s new policy line, they have refrained from staging demonstrations – particularly in the current politically tense climate, where government opposition parties and movements are also organising street rallies, aimed at forcing the prime minister to resign and to abandon the convergence programme (HU0610039I).

The demonstrations of LIGA-affiliated unions signal a very different political stance. Although the low level of membership support still restricts the level of pressure that these unions can put on the government, initiatives such as those of LIGA – provided that they meet with mass support – could certainly threaten the government’s ability to implement its proposed convergence programme.

András Tóth and László Neumann, Institute of Political Science, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

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