Czech Republic: Protests against austerity measures

On Saturday 13 September 15 to 20,000 Trade Union members demonstrated in Prague. The protest was against an austerity package proposed by the government. These reforms were renamed by trade unionists as "deforms” as they carried a coffin to Premier Vladimir Spidla adorned with slogans saying “Government manifesto” and “Spidla’s election promises”. Czech Railway workers blocked the Governments’ office with a railway buffer. The board attached to it read “The gift of the railwaymen’s union to the government of Premier Vladimir Spidla”.

The demonstration was organised by the two biggest Trade Union federations; the Czech-Moravian Trade Unions Confederation (CMKOS) and the Association of Independent Unions (ASO). The aim of the government’s austerity package is to cut the budget deficit which now stands at more than 100 billion crowns ($1= 29 crowns) by attacking public services and social security.

The Trade Union leadership has been very vocal in its criticism of the proposed budget since the beginning of 2003. That the Trade Union officials have not succeeded in building broader support against the government is entirely linked with their attacks on Trade Union democracy. They have been taking a top-down approach and are very closely tied to the Social Democracy (CSSD), which is the senior coalition partner in government. In fact most of the TU leaders are members of the CSSD. The position of the TU leaders therefore is to appeal and demand for negotiations while passively talking about the “possibility of a general strike”.

Workers from all around the country – miners, steel workers, rail workers, teachers, officers, even two police officers from their union – attended the demonstration and showed their hatred of the government plans. The general feeling was summed up by one worker who said: "We don’t want to be forced to work until we’re 63, we don’t accept cuts in health benefits, we don’t want less taxes for the rich while the prices of basic commodities are increasing”.

Members of Socialisticka alternativa Budoucnost, the Czech section of the CWI, distributed around 500 special leaflets with a call for the Trade Unions to organise a general strike. We explained that the next step for the Trade Unions should be to organise and mobilise for 24-hour general strike instead of hoping for some minor concessions from the government.

Many people supported our campaigning with donations and many bought our paper. The members of the Tram Drivers Federation welcomed our intervention as they remember our solidarity campaign for their strike last February.

The demonstration finished with vague declarations from Trade Union leaders and an appeal to MP’s to think before voting on the budget proposal. the Czech Prime Minister Spidla responded coldly to the news that some negotiations were starting between the Trade Unions and the government saying that the space for concessions was very small. The Minister for Labour and Social Affairs, a former leader of the Steel Workers Union, gave a perfect example of the arrogance by which the Social Democrats rule. When asked about the possibility of a general strike organised by the unions, Zdenek Skromach answered: “Let them try it”.

It is clear that government is not prepared to offer any important concessions. It is equally clear that the TU leaders put more hope in the possibility that a few dissident MP’s from Social Democracy could vote against the budget than in their members and the activity of the Trade Unions. The only speaker who openly spoke of the need to campaign and fight the budget was the vice-president of the Slovak Trade Unions. He warned, "If you will not fight the deform, you will lose". Reforms in Slovakia have meant that the unemployment rate has risen to 20%, one of the highest in Eastern Europe, as the social benefits, including for health care, have been slashed.

It is urgent to put forward the demand for a general strike. We have to explain to our colleagues at workplaces what government "deform" will mean and force the TU leaders to take action. We are actively working on bringing together the Trade Union activists and building a network of trade unionists to campaign for a general strike.

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September 2003