Amended strike law one year on

Hungary’s law on the right to strike was amended in December 2010 and came into force in January 2011. The main changes concern the ‘minimum services’ that have to be guaranteed before workers or unions planning industrial action can go on strike. If employers and workers fail to agree, employers and governing bodies can ask the Labour Court to overrule a strike if it is believed that public services are likely to be affected. Trade unions say this undermines their role.

Background

Hungary’s strike law was amended in December 2010 after a long debate among political parties and after a series of strikes in 2009 and January 2010, in particular at a number of public companies in the public transport sector. Parliament decided to amend the existing legislation governing industrial action, Strike Law 1989.VII.

Employees at the Budapest Transport Company (BKV) had been on strike for two weeks in January 2010. Ferenc Dávid, President of the National Association of Entrepreneurs and Employers (VOSZ), which represents the interests of employer organisations, spoke at the plenary session of the National Interest Reconciliation Council (OÉT) in December 2010, claiming that employees had misused the existing strike law during this action.

The employers wanted a more detailed definition of the ‘minimum services’ that should be guaranteed by potential strikers, and a requirement that they set out clearly when a proposed strike will start and finish.

As it stood, industrial action legislation required the parties involved to cooperate on the terms and conditions of minimum services that should be put in place during strikes for utilities such as electricity, gas, water supply, public transport and communication (1989.VII 1(3); 1989.VII 4(2), in Hungarian, 62.5Kb PDF). ‘Minimum services’ were not, however, clearly defined. Where the parties could agree, a minimum service was provided; if not, there were limited or no services.

In January 2010, during the BKV strike, metros and suburban railways did run, but buses and trams did not.

As a consequence, legal proceedings were launched by BKV management against the striking employees, but failed because there were no clear regulations, agreements or contracts for the courts to rule on.

The Constitution allows the government to define ‘minimum services’. However, the government had not altered the Strike Law since its introduction in 1989 even though parts of it, including phrases such as ‘illegal strike goals’ or the ‘principle of proportionality’, were open to misinterpretation. It was clear the existing legislation needed some correction, and the new government took this into consideration when it introduced the new strike regulations.

New strike law

Under the new act (see 2010. évi CLXXVIII. törvény), industrial action such as strikes will only be lawful if employers and trade unions agree in advance on the minimum level of services to be provided. Should they fail to agree, the Labour Court shall have the final say.

No strikes will be allowed at judicial bodies, by the Hungarian Defence Forces, at law enforcement bodies or civil national security services. State administration employees may only strike if the government and relevant trade unions agree on special rules and circumstances, but the professional staff of the National Tax Office have no right to strike.

New law in practice

At a press conference (in Hungarian) held by union leaders in July 2011, László Kiss, President of the Hungarian Engine Drivers’ Union (MOSZ), said that nine strike initiatives had been launched in the first half of 2011 after the amended legislation was introduced. All were referred to the Labour Court for a ruling on the nature of ‘minimum services’ and none were able to proceed.

One of the nine initiatives was a strike in the public transport sector against the withdrawal of early retirement schemes, which had already been approved. As there was no agreement on what constituted a minimum service, the strike initiative went before the court, and it ruled that under the new regulations work stoppages are only permitted if they are related ‘to collective economic and social interest’.

The higher court ruled that strikes against government measures could not be deemed lawful.

In the case of a strike planned at Hungary’s only nuclear power station in Paks in 2011, no court would take responsibility for delivering a ruling. Each court referred the case to a higher level, and the highest court referred it back to the local court where the process had started almost a month before. As a consequence of these delays, the scheduled date for the strike passed, so it had to be called off.

Mixed reaction from social partners

Pál Kontur, a member of parliament and one of the initiators of the amended strike law, called on the government not to ignore the right of citizens to receive services. He believes the new strike regulations are necessary to give citizens a guarantee that they will continue to receive essential services whatever happens.

The trade unions complained at the July press conference about the ‘chaotic’ interpretation of the new law and said they feared the ‘unpredictable consequences of industrial action’.

‘Legal certainty, which the new strike law promised, has clearly not been achieved’, said Rainer Grindt, one of the Hungarian trade unions’ most respected external consultants.

The new regulations have had a major impact, especially on workers in the public service sectors such as energy, waste, public transport, postal services and water supply companies. These employees provide essential public services, so agreeing on a level of minimum service could be difficult.

These sectors were previously among the few allowed to strike, so they have effectively lost their bargaining power due to the introduction of the new law.

Employer organisations, however, agree with the new law. Ferenc Rolek, Deputy President of the Confederation of Hungarian Employers and Industrialists (MGYOSZ), welcomes the changes to the law because they mean trade unions cannot ‘infringe on citizens’, consumers’ and owners’ rights’.

Trade unions say the centre-right government has listened only to the demands of employers, and they want a more balanced solution that will still allow the employees of public utilities ‘to exert pressure on their employer without disturbing the life of citizens’.

Leaders of several trade unions, such as MOSZ, the Trade Union of Railway Workers (VSZ) and the Association of Autonomous Trade Unions (Autonómok), have suggested in a press article (in Hungarian) that the new strike law is a final attempt by the government to eclipse trade unions, because it undermines the bargaining power of (mainly) public service employees.

Commentary

András Bozóki, political scientist lecturing at the Central European University in Budapest, summarised this briefly as follows: ‘The traditional forms of reconciling the interests of employers and employees were abolished, and trade unions were given the opportunity to become integrated into existing corporate structures. The reduction of trade union rights made it difficult to call lawful strikes.’

The centre-right Fidesz party won an overwhelming two-thirds majority election victory in 2010. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, it has become far less willing to enter into dialogue with organisations representing social interests, or to allow them to participate in the decision-making process (HU1107021I).

Zsuzsa Rindt, Solution4.org

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