Recent unrest in transport sector raises questions about strike regulations

In December 2008 and January 2009, considerable strike activity took place in the public transport sector, involving railway workers at the Budapest Transport Company and at Budapest Airport. Furthermore, the government’s plan to cut employees’ ‘13th month’ wages mobilised public sector unions to reactivate their strike committee. This wave of industrial action put strike regulations with regard to essential services and other issues back on the agenda.

The public transport sector has experienced a number of strikes in recent months. In addition to railway workers resuming their strike, employees of the Budapest Transport Company (Budapesti Közlekedési Vállalat, BKV) issued a strike call and a series of work stoppages paralysed Budapest Airport. Public sector trade unions also became active when it was announced that their annual bonus payment was to be cut. This wave of industrial action and the subsequent debate is outlined in more detail below.

Railway strike

The Hungarian Railway Company (Magyar Államvasutak, MÁV) and the Free Trade Union of Railway Workers (Vasúti Dolgozók Szabad Szakszervezete, VDSZSZ) had been in dispute, underpinned by strikes, since the beginning of 2008. VDSZSZ demanded a share for employees of the revenue from the privatisation of one of MÁV’s services, as well as a higher pay increase for 2008 (HU0802069I); furthermore, the trade union opposed the closure of underutilised secondary railway lines (HU0711029I). The parties held 70 negotiation rounds from 1 February 2008 but failed to make any progress. Consequently, VDSZSZ organised a staggered strike in six sequences, totalling 338 hours. The last action, lasting one week with some interruptions, was suspended at midnight on 22 December 2008.

Although the estimated number of strike participants was relatively small (600 persons), all of the protests practically paralysed the country’s rail transport. The Hungarian Labour Mediation and Arbitration Service (Munkaügyi Közvetítői és Döntőbírói Szolgálat, MKDSZ) was engaged in resolving the dispute; however, agreement was not reached even on essential services. While a court decision declared that the strike for higher wages was against the collective agreement and ruled it unlawful, it considered that the strike related to the distribution among employees of the revenue from privatisation was legitimate.

Strike at Budapest Transport Company

Some trade unions at BKV initiated strike action in order to prevent job losses and with the indirect goal of demanding settlement of the company’s financial situation, given that BKV was to reduce the number of service lines in an attempt to cut costs. Earlier in 2008, two strikes had already been held (HU0804039I). The agreement concluded after the second strike stipulated that no further protest was to be organised until 15 December 2008 and that BKV would involve trade unions in preparing the new schedule of services and in efforts to resolve the company’s financial situation.

At the beginning of December, two trade unions announced a strike for 18 December, which was later cancelled, as on the previous day the local government of Budapest – as the owner of BKV – decided to provide a substantial subsidy to the company. This, however, brought only temporary relief to BKV, as at the beginning of 2009 trade unions threatened strike action over plans to outsource suburban train services. For trade unions, outsourcing is primarily an employment issue; in addition, such a strategy posed the risk that BKV’s collective agreement would not cover its employees beyond one year, which could result in the deterioration of their working conditions. The main cause for concern, however, is that trade unions are still doubtful of receiving the promised government subsidy, as it is now endangered by the severe effects of the global economic crisis on Hungary.

Conflict at Budapest Airport

Conflicts had previously arisen at Budapest Ferihegy International Airport between the company operating the airport and ground services and the craft unions (HU0707019I). The Allied Trade Union of Air Transport (Légiközlekedési Egyesült Szakszervezet, LESZ) and the Trade Union of Airport Workers and Service Providers (Repülőtéri Dolgozók és Szolgáltatók Szakszervezete, RDSZSZ) organised a recent strike for 10–23 December 2008, with 80 to 100 participants daily. It was called because the employer unilaterally terminated the collective agreement, thus threatening working conditions. While trade unions suspended their work stoppage during the Christmas holidays, they resumed it for the period between 16.00 on 19 January and 06.00 on 21 January 2009.

Negotiations were slow to begin, with the trade unions claiming that the employer was not open to substantive talks. The demands changed several times in the course of the dispute, and eventually the envisaged 15% cut in wages stood at the centre of the negotiations. In the meantime, the employer brought in strikebreakers from abroad, which in this form is not prohibited by Hungarian strike law; this of course added fuel to the fire. In the January 2009 phase of the strike, similarly to the railway workers, trade unions applied the technique of interrupted ‘surprise strikes’ – in other words, without announcing the work stoppage in advance. The negotiations came to a halt at the beginning of February 2009 without the trade unions succeeding in concluding a new collective agreement. Thus, tension between the parties persists and a continuation of the strike may be anticipated.

Strike call in public service

In February 2007, the government signed an agreement with the joint strike committee of the public service trade unions, which stipulated a significant (at least 4%) pay increase for public sector employees for 2009 and the restoration of the ‘13th month’ bonus remuneration to be paid in December each year (HU0703029I, HU0808029I). Although the government had complied with the agreement up until the second half of 2008, at that point it became clear that – due to the high state budget deficit – the administration would be unable to adhere to these wage increments for 2009. Following the loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), concluded owing to the country’s currency crisis, the government planned to cut the 13th month remuneration in the public sector (HU0901019I). As a consequence, the Unified Public Service Strike Committee (Egységes Közszolgálati Sztrájkbizottság), which was monitoring the implementation of the 2007 agreement, announced a strike alert. The committee demanded that the agreement be adhered to but did not exclude the possibility of negotiations.

The strike committee organised a mass rally for 29 November 2008 on a scale unprecedented in previous years, in which 10,000–12,000 people took part. Negotiations then resumed and the committee announced in advance that a strike would be scheduled for 12 January 2009. Eventually, negotiations concluded on 19 December with the parties putting on record their shared standpoint and the strike committee abandoning the envisaged January strike. As a result, there will be practically no pay increase in 2009; however, the entire amount of the 13th month remuneration will be paid to those employees who earn less than HUF 180,000 (€608 as at 5 April 2009), which is equivalent to 82% of the average pay in the sector, while the better-paid workers will receive a reduced bonus.

Debate over strike regulations

Improved regulation is necessitated by the fact that, in recent times, strikes in Hungary have displayed features that legislators formulating the strike law, in force since 1988, could not have anticipated. Based on professional debates and the proposals of the Ombudsman or Parliamentary Commissioner for Civil Rights (Állampolgári Jogok Országgyűlési Biztosa), Máté Szabó, more precise regulation is deemed necessary in the following areas.

  • In the absence of an agreement on essential services, it is necessary to draw up some form of forcing mechanism – for example, compulsory arbitration – in order to protect the interests of third parties, such as consumers and the public, during strike activity. Experience shows that the two sides of industry are unable to agree on this issue either in advance in the collective agreement or during the negotiations following the outbreak of the dispute, since this matter is linked to the main issues of the negotiations. Given that, in Hungary, most strikes have been organised in relation to public services – healthcare and public transport – an alternative solution proposed is to give a detailed prescription of definite service levels in the laws that regulate those activities.
  • With regard to the start of the strike, advance notification should be prescribed as well as a more precise definition of the cooling period preceding the strike. In 2008, several lengthy strikes affecting the general population were not preceded by a warning strike in the cooling period. The principle of gradualism, assumed in labour law, was thus ignored by the strikers. This problem was underlined by the increase in surprise strikes, where in prolonged disputes the public was informed of the industrial action only a couple of hours before the strike began.
  • Legislative changes should prevent workers from occupying the workplace and/or from unlawfully locking them out, according to the regulations determining the place of stay for the duration of the strike. This was deemed necessary because, for instance, during the strike at Budapest Airport, the employer separated the strikers from those working at the airport, and the strike participants claimed that this was a restriction of their personal freedom. In addition, during previous railway strikes it was commonplace to refuse to hand over the shift, which is equivalent to occupying the place of work.
  • A broader prohibition of using strikebreakers should be introduced. Regulations currently in force only prohibit the hiring of new workers through private employment agencies and temporary work agencies; otherwise, the employer has discretion over how it chooses to proceed. However, new legislation should be drafted in this regard, with attention being paid to the provision of essential services.
  • In a system of collective agreements, it is necessary to settle the legal status of the agreement with the strike committee. Its force should be equivalent to that of the collective agreement; see, for instance, the government’s non-compliance with the 2007 agreement concluded with the public sector strike committee (above).
  • A revision is needed with regard to the unjustified restriction of the right to strike and the legal status of collective disputes in the case of civil servants and the armed forces. The latter issue was not raised by the strikes during the period in question; however, Hungary was reproved in this respect by the professional commission monitoring the implementation of the European Social Charter.

Commentary

Although the individual strikes organised in the transport sector cannot be considered as a general transport strike, the disorganised services provided during the strikes, compared with previous railway strikes, turned the media and the public against the striking workers. Thus, the issues highlighted by the Ombudsman – such as informing passengers, the responsibility of the state and local governments for safety in transport, as well as essential services – became central questions. The strikes also divided the trade unions, as actions were predominantly initiated by the company organisations belonging to more radical confederations, such as the Democratic League of Independent Trade Unions (Független Szakszervezetek Demokratikus Ligája, LIGA) and the National Federation of Works’ Councils (Munkástanácsok Országos Szövetsége, MOSZ). These unions did not foster solidarity among other trade unions in the companies concerned.

According to the viewpoints in expert debates, the task of modifying the regulation is a matter of legislation, since it is an unrealistic expectation that anomalies would be settled by collective agreements. It does not seem likely either that trade unions organising strikes or the employers concerned would resolve the issues. In order to change the legislation, however, two thirds of the parliament must agree, as stipulated by the Hungarian Constitution. Employer organisations have repeatedly expressed their readiness to negotiate on potential legal amendments, while national trade union confederations were against such amendments. The stand taken by the trade unions may be modified somewhat after the issue of strikebreaking was exposed during the protest at Budapest Airport; as a result, trade unions may also acknowledge that some advantageous modifications may be achieved by compromise. Another new development was that the Ombudsman for Civil Rights, Dr Szabó, expressed his opinion on labour issues, urging amendment of the law in an attempt to prevent the infringement of the rights of third parties.

Erzsébet Berki and László Neumann, Institute for Political Science, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

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