Rail unions hold warning strikes in protest at closure of railway lines

In an attempt to reduce costs, the government is continuing to close underutilised rural railway lines. The trade unions representing railway workers strongly oppose such a reduction of services and held two warning strikes to demonstrate their position on the matter. Apart from saving jobs, the unions also draw attention to the general interests of underdeveloped communities served by rural railways. The industrial action was supported by the mayors of the localities concerned.

Government plans to close down more railway lines

On 15 October 2007, various Hungarian newspapers leaked information to the public indicating that the Ministry of Economy and Transport (Gazdasági és Közlekedési Minisztérium, GKM), having already closed 14 secondary railway lines (HU0710039I), planned the closure of a further 38 lines effective from 9 December 2007 – the beginning of the next railway timetable period. GKM argued that traffic on the secondary railway lines concerned was minimal and by closing these lines the Hungarian State Railways (Magyar Államvasutak, MÁV) would save at least HUF 4 billion (about €15.5 million as at 25 January 2008) to HUF 6 billion (€23.3 million) a year. The ministry added that the railway lines did not necessarily have to be closed, stating that the local governments could take over their operation but without any further state support. However, it is unlikely that cash-strapped local authorities would be able to run the various railway lines, despite the fact that these services are of particular importance for local communities, as they provide underprivileged regions with jobs or access to jobs and resources for economic development.

Trade union reaction

In response to the government’s plan, on 25 October 2007, the Hungarian Engine Drivers’ Union (Mozdonyvezetők Szakszervezete, MOSZ) held a two-hour warning strike nationwide. Following this action, the Trade Union of Railway Workers (Vasutasok Szakszervezete, VSZ) and the Free Trade Union of Railway Workers (Vasúti Dolgozók Szabad Szakszervezete, VDSZSZ) organised a joint warning strike for 7 November 2007. Such industrial action is the first of its kind in the Hungarian railway sector since 2000. On that occasion, the then right-wing government did not relent to trade union demands, with the result that after 329 hours of strike action the trade unions had to call off their action.

Process of warning strikes

Following the information leak in the media, MOSZ immediately initiated negotiations with GKM. However, a meeting between both parties on 24 October 2007 did not result in a compromise. Thus, MOSZ announced its intention to call a two-hour warning strike on 25 October. The Vice-President of MOSZ, János Borsik, emphasised that the trade union objected to the planned closure of the secondary railway lines and demanded that work safety for railway workers be improved. Although GKM and MOSZ concluded in July 2007 an agreement providing for greater safety rules at work – particularly in relation to the safety of train drivers, improving the monitoring of railway lines and increasing staff training courses – Mr Borsik claimed that the ministry had not implemented the agreement’s provisions.

VDSZSZ and VSZ then jointly announced another two-hour warning strike from 06.00 to 08.00 on 7 November. In total, these two trade unions have more than 20,000 members and represent 80% of the employees at MÁV. The trade unions demanded that the government should withdraw its latest proposal to close down certain railway lines. The President of VSZ, Dezső Simon, stated that the union had sent four letters to the Minister of Economy and Transport, Csaba Kákosy, in order to initiate negotiations on the issue; however, the minister failed to reply. The day before the strike, a brief discussion took place between representatives of GKM and VSZ, without reaching any successful outcome. The President of VDSZSZ, István Gaskó, pointed out that some of the railway lines to be closed or suspended have been recently renovated. He added, however, that the quality of most of the railway tracks and the trains running on these lines remains extremely low, in addition to the fact that the trains are slow. On the other hand, he argued that these lines still provide employment to these rural areas and help people living in these underprivileged regions to access employment. In the end, the strike action affected 600 train services. Several mayors of the local governments concerned also took part in the demonstration in support of the action taken by the trade unions.

Continuation of actions against government plans

The planned closure of the secondary railway lines, together with the government’s proposed reforms of the healthcare insurance system, are issues that VDSZSZ strongly opposes. Mr Gaskó, who is also the President of the Democratic League of Independent Trade Unions (Független Szakszervezetek Demokratikus Ligája, LIGA), promised to step up actions against these issues, particularly against the closure of the railway lines in case the November strike did not achieve the expected objectives.

Máté Komiljovics and László Neumann, Institute for Political Science, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

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