Renewed threat of general strike at Metrorex underground

In February 2010, the Underground Free Trade Unions warned of a renewal of conflict unless bargaining over the new collective agreement began. The unions have reduced their original demands for a 25% pay increase to an annual 3.7% growth of the wage fund. Management has attributed its refusal to start negotiations on a new agreement to budget considerations and the fact that it is one of the companies earmarked for financial surveillance and wage fund freezing.

Prolonged strike activity at Metrorex

The Bucharest underground train network, managed by Metrorex, provides daily public transport services to some 700,000 persons. It employs almost 4,300 workers for four main routes, totalling 70 kilometres, and has 108 train carriages currently in operation.

The Underground Free Trade Unions (Uniunea Sindicatelor Libere Metrou, USLM) puts pressure on the management of Metrorex to meet its demands, by highlighting its number of members and the importance of the public transport services that it provides. From 1996 to 2009, USLM staged six general strikes, the protest on November 2009 being the sixth in the history of the Bucharest underground train network.

In October 2009, the USLM leaders threatened a general strike for 1 November, the date on which the collective agreement was due to expire. However, the management showed no intention of entering into negotiations with the unions, explaining that the revenue and expenses budget for the current year had not been approved. The 2009 budget had already undergone successive downward adjustments as a result of the economic crisis. At the time, the trade unions were asking for a 25% salary raise for all workers under the new collective agreement.

Prior to going on general strike, the trade union members picketed the government headquarters for two days, and held a warning strike on 12 November, finally calling the general strike on 17 November. On the second day of the protest – which affected services between 06.00 and 16.00 – the Bucharest Court of Appeals (Curtea de Apel Bucureşti), petitioned by the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure (Ministerul Transporturilor şi Infrastructurii, MTI), ruled that the strike was illegal.

Second phase of conflict

The Romanian government (Guvernul României) issued two decisions – one in November 2009 and the other in February 2010 – approving the budget of revenue and expenses of Metrorex for 2009. Meanwhile, Metrorex was added to the list of state-owned companies earmarked by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for financial monitoring and wage fund freezing. IMF attributed this decision to Metrorex’s debt to the Alstom group in France, a provider of maintenance services for the underground train network.

However, the trade unions claimed that the debt to Alstom was incurred by the government, arguing that Metrorex does not generate a loss. The General Secretary of USLM, Florin Crişu, insisted that the ‘underground workers cannot be blamed for the debt, and they deserve a salary rise because the underground works for profit’.

Mr Crişu also stated that, if the new collective agreement is not secured, a new strike may be called in March 2010, with due observance of all preliminary phases provided by law. Compared with their claims last November, on this occasion the trade unions only demanded an increase in the wage fund of 3.7%.

Commentary

According to the latest budget approved for 2009, the monthly average gross salary for the 4,223 workers of Metrorex was RON 3,853 (about €950 as at 24 March 2010), which is twice the national average salary.

The current conflict is being fuelled and worsened by Article 30 of Law No. 329/2009 regarding the reorganisation of some public authorities and institutions, approved by the government under its own responsibility and without any parliamentary debate. This law provides that ‘collective agreements shall be negotiated according to law, after the approval of each company’s budget of revenues and expenses, within the limits and subject to the terms of such budgets’.

The entire process of collective bargaining for state-owned companies seems to be in a stalemate at present due to this provision and because of the conditions imposed by the IMF loan agreement. If the budget for this year is once again approved as late as November 2010, or even February 2011, it will be difficult to predict the course that the collective bargaining will take.

Luminiţa Chivu, Institute of National Economy, Romanian Academy

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