Role of protest campaigns increases
Growing unrest in Latvia has prompted workers to launch a series of protests and strikes, flying in the face of traditional prejudices against public demonstrations. In May 2012, both trade unions and employer organisations made several announcements about planned protests, with such diverse groups as farmers, metalworkers, opera choir singers, educators and prisoners showing they were willing to stand up for their rights by staging public demonstrations.
Latvian society’s reluctance to use public demonstrations to protect workers’ rights is gradually fading, with protests and strikes being held on both the sectoral and individual enterprise levels. Previously, protest campaigns to express public dissatisfaction were held only on rare and extremely important occasions, and were mainly in the spheres of education and healthcare, both of which have powerful trade unions. In recent years, however, demonstrations have also been held in other areas.
Metalworkers strike over unpaid salaries
Forty-two employees of the Jelgava enterprise Nordic Metalplast announced that they would go on strike on 4 June 2012 because their salaries had not been paid. The dispute between the employer and employees began at the end of 2011, when workers first failed to receive their salaries.
The company’s trade union organised industrial action, which was supported by the Latvian Trade Union of Public Service and Transport Workers (LAKRS), and after unsuccessful attempts to reach an agreement with the employer about the unpaid salaries, a strike was announced.
The State Employment Agency (NVA) reported that Nordic Metalplast had been the largest violator of labour laws in Jelgava, having regularly delayed paying workers their salaries, leaving them without a regular income. Before the scheduled strike date the company paid part of the owed salaries, but the strike still went ahead.
On 5 July, local media Zemgales Zinas reported that Nordic Metalplast had promised, during a meeting with LAKRS, that 30% or 40% of salary due to have been paid in May 2012 might be paid on 6 July or 9 July, and the rest might be paid on 13 July. LAKRS representative Inga Cinite told the press that, regardless of the promise, the trade union was preparing a termless strike that would go ahead if the employer did not fulfil its obligations.
During the dispute, it was revealed that the management of Nordic Metalplast had not transferred union fees deducted from the wages of trade union members to LAKRS. The management promised to hand over the money to the union.
But on 13 July, with no agreement reached between the workers and the company, the trade union started to prepare for a strike scheduled to begin in mid-August.
Choir trade union ready for strike
In a separate dispute, members of the trade union representing the choir of the Latvian National Opera (LNO) announced that the singers would go on strike on 8 June 2012 at 19.00, when an opera performance was scheduled to start.
The workers’ dispute with the LNO board and administration was over a decision not to restore the singers’ salaries to pre-crisis levels, and because earlier salary reductions had been based on a formal reduction of working hours. The trade union also justified the strike by pointing out that the LNO board and administration had reneged on a deal by replacing collective agreements with short-term contracts or with service contracts. The LNO was also accused of violating Paragraph 46 of the Labour Law by requiring a probation period in repeatedly issued short-term employment contracts.
The LNO administration opened negotiations with the trade union, but agreement was not reached. LNO orchestra staff then announced that they were ready to join the choir in protest action. Meanwhile, the opera company’s bosses challenged the legality of the strike in court, but the choir refused to call off the industrial action.
On 15 June 2012, the Riga Central District Court upheld the LNO’s claim that the proposed strike was not legal. The court ruling was final, and according to Latvian legislation could not be challenged.
There were two reasons for the success of the LNO challenge; the dispute between employees and administration was not taken to conciliation before the strike was declared, and the strike was not called by a trade union that represented the entire sector.
The court relied on Paragraph 6 of Section 1 of the Strike Law (73Kb MS Word doc) establishing that the ‘declaration of a strike is an announcement regarding the decision to strike made by an employee trade union of an undertaking or branch, or by employees of an undertaking or branch, or by the representatives of the employees referred to’.
It was decided that the declaration should have been submitted on behalf of all employees at the opera company, not just singers, because workers at the LNO were represented by five different trade unions.
Representatives of the choir’s trade union said the court had applied its own interpretation of an inexact rule in the law. It insisted that ‘bossing and mobbing’ remained a problem at the LNO.
The union did not rule out the possibility of organising another strike that complied with the law. The LNO’s Head of Law and Human Resources, Beata Galzone, said company bosses had agreed to continue negotiations with the union, but members of the choir needed to be more open to their proposals.
Educators reach agreement
By contrast, after lengthy discussions, the Latvian Education and Science Employees Trade Union (LIZDA) reached agreement over increases in teachers’ salaries with the Minister for Education and Science.
At the beginning of May, LIZDA announced that if the government was unable to offer a real increase in salaries, educators would hold a demonstration in June, and at the beginning of September they would strike. After several unsuccessful rounds of negotiations, Education Minister Roberts Kilis offered to sign a memorandum on cooperation with the three largest educators’ NGOs: LIZDA, the Association of Latvian Education Leaders (LIVA) and the Latvian Teachers’ Council (LPD).
This offer convinced the trade unions that the government was serious about improving the pay system for educators. Ministers announced the formation of a working group in which trade union members participated, and a definitive schedule was set for completing its tasks. The planned strike was cancelled.
In July, when the economic situation improved and the government was able to start negotiations on increasing funding from the surplus of the state budget, Kilis defended his agreement with LIZDA, and promised to resign if his proposal to increase educators’ salaries did not get the go-ahead. Indeed, additional money for educators’ salaries was found and the decision to review educators’ salaries was announced by the Cabinet of Ministers on 11 July 2012.
Farmers’ readiness to protest is effective
In May 2012, the Cooperation Council of Agriculture Organisations (LOSP) announced that farmers were ready to hold protest campaigns if, at its plenary session on 29 May 2012, the government failed to adopt a decision on granting farmers loans for purchasing farm land. LOSP leaders acknowledged that specific forms of protest had not been discussed in the dispute over the introduction of a land loan programme.
The government adopted a policy on the land loans programme under Regulation No. 381 on 29 May 2012. However, how the programme would be implemented was not fully clear at that time. LOSP felt the policy did not answer all their questions on the issue. The Ministry of Agriculture was set to prepare an information report to be adopted on 26 June 2012, explaining the process and announcing the launch of the programme.
The creation of a list of people interest in the loans was instigated in June, and applications opened on 2 July 2012, with €14.23 million being initially allocated for loans.
Interest in the programme appeared to be high and according to information from the Mortgage and Land Bank of Latvia (LHZB), which manages the programme, 431 people had come forward to ask for land loans up to 19 June 2012, these requests amounting to €22.34 million.
An increase in protest campaigns seems to indicate that Latvians want a greater involvement in society and a strengthening of democratic principles. The prejudice against using public demonstrations to defend workers’ interests is gradually fading.
Although both employees and employers are increasingly turning to public protest to make their views known, these protests are not always organised by both social partners simultaneously. Demonstrations by trade unions are carefully planned, and generally follow a period of unsuccessful negotiations and involve social issues. Demonstrations by employers’ organisations and other NGOs tend to be more spontaneous, and deal with financial and economic matters.
More mundane problems are also a basis for holding protest campaigns. Such demonstrations are increasing partly because while the Latvian government is declaring that the economic situation has improved, the increased resources are not being sufficiently used to resolve significant social problems.
Nevertheless, the improving economic situation seems to mean there is a greater chance of a positive outcome to protests, and gives the impression of successful actions. Apart from educators, medical workers’ demands were also partly satisfied by amendments in the state budget that allocated them an additional €99.6 million from the budget surplus. A little more than €34.1 million of this sum was added to funding of health care infrastructure.
The government has tried to avoid saddling itself with long-term fiscal obligations by increasing staff numbers or salaries, but providing additional funding has brightened the situation after a harsh period of austerity measures. The Ministry of Finance has calculated that the total amount of money saved from the five-year budget consolidation programme has exceeded 17% of gross domestic product (GDP), and added that some measures would give additional economic stability in coming years.
Raita Karnite, EPC Ltd