Trade union and civil protest rally over government response to economic crisis

In June 2009, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria called a national protest over the government’s response to the economic crisis. Workers from 34 sectoral trade union organisations and representatives of various non-governmental organisations took part. They called for urgent measures to deal with the crisis, maintain jobs and protect incomes, as well as the withdrawal of the government pay freeze in education, health care and the state administration.

Following the European Days of Action in mid May (EU0906029I), on 16 June 2009, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (Конфедерация на независимите синдикати в България, CITUB) organised a national protest rally in Bulgaria’s capital city Sofia. Trade unionists and other civil society members protested against the government’s failure to tackle the economic crisis efficiently and to protect the most vulnerable groups of workers. Over 10,000 protestors from across the public and private sectors joined the rally, according to CITUB’s estimates. These included teachers, healthcare workers, miners, metalworkers, foresters, workers in the transport, construction, energy and light industry sectors, young scientists, hauliers, farmers, pensioners and representatives of other civil society organisations. The protest participants demanded a more ‘people-oriented’ approach from the government to fighting the economic recession.

Call for change in government policies

The demonstrators demanded that the government should take emergency and appropriate measures to combat the economic crisis, including abandoning its decision to freeze salaries paid by the state, as well as plans to outlaw demonstrations near public and government buildings. According to the President of CITUB, Zheliazko Hristov, ‘although the government believes that the economic crisis is expanding, the country has not entered into recession’. However, Mr Hristov warned that unemployment will continue to rise in the coming months. He added:

The cup brimmed over with the government decision to freeze the salaries funded by the state budget taken without consultation with the social partners. We turn on the ruling politicians with the explicit demand to put the people first in the struggle against the crisis. Our protest is a warning also to the politicians to be elected at the forthcoming elections in July.

CITUB’s Vice-President, Plamen Dimitrov, stated that CITUB calls for more adequate government actions, as well as new national and sectoral anti-crisis programmes, which should be coordinated with the social partners.

Other speakers at the protest highlighted specific problems in their sectors of activity as a result of the crisis, including wage arrears, rising dismissals and an insecure economic future.

The demonstrators urged the government to withdraw its decision to freeze the planned 10% pay rise funded by the state budget as part of its public spending cuts – a step that will affect some 400,000 civil servants and employees.

Main demands of demonstrators

CITUB’s main demands are set out in its Appeal to the citizens of Bulgaria and to trade union members and in the declaration to the Bulgarian cabinet. CITUB urges the government to:

  • withdraw the draft Law on meetings, rallies and demonstrations, which bans rallies in front of the state and government institutions;
  • withdraw the draft Law on temporary agency work (BG0904029I), which does not guarantee the rights of temporary agency workers;
  • guarantee the protection of domestic production in order to preserve jobs and income;
  • guarantee the funding envisaged in the state budget for the normal functioning of the pension, health and educational systems;
  • withdraw the decision to freeze the planned rise in salaries funded by the state budget as of 1 July 2009;
  • increase unemployment benefits;
  • assist with the payment of interest on mortgages of families worst hit by the economic crisis;
  • increase the minimum monthly wage from BGN 220 (about €112 as at 11 July 2009) to BGN 340 (€173) in July and to BGN 400 (€204) in October 2009.

Employers’ reaction

No specific reaction to the trade union demands came from the employer side. It is worth mentioning that, for some months, the employer organisations have insisted on freezing salaries in the state administration, as well as reducing staff. In addition, they warned that Bulgaria was yet to see the biggest wave of job cuts, which is expected to sweep the country in the autumn of 2009 and will raise the need to decrease wages with a view to preserving jobs.

Government response

At the time of the protest, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, Sergey Stanishev, was on a business trip. He stated: ‘The calls of the protesters are “falling on deaf ears” as the parliament is in recess now.’ ‘The cabinet is doing everything possible to cushion the negative effects of the crisis on the Bulgarian economy’, he added. According to the prime minister, the new cabinet was to reconsider the ban on public rallies. A few days later, the Minister of Labour and Social Policy, Emilia Maslarova, also stated that she was considering proposing a minimum wage increase.

Commentary

Since late 2008, trade unions have repeatedly voiced their concerns regarding the impact of the economic crisis on the country’s labour market and economy, and discussed joint actions to counter the effects of the crisis (BG0812039I). However, the two trade union confederations in Bulgaria – CITUB and the Confederation of Labour Podkrepa (Страница на КТ Подкрепа, CL Podkrepa) – did not manage to reach a consensus over their respective demands and held two separate protest rallies, the latter of which was held by CL Podkrepa on 26 June 2009.

Nadezhda Daskalova, Institute for Social and Trade Union Research (ISTUR)

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