100,000 set to strike Wednesday against cuts in public sector salaries

Illustrative photo: CMKOS

The Czech Republic is bracing itself for what is being billed as the biggest protest since the Velvet Revolution. On Wednesday, around 100,000 public sector workers will hold a day-long strike to express their opposition to government plans to cut their salaries next year. The strike will primarily affect schools and hospitals, but other institutions are expected to join as well.

Czech trades unions say it will be the biggest protest by public employees since the fall of communism. They expect 100,000 people to go on strike, and another 100,000 to support the action in one way or another. That mainly concerns hospital staff and other workers who cannot go on strike; they will wear some sort of badge in support of the protest. Meanwhile, some 40,000 people are also expected to show up for rallies that will begin at noon in some 20 cities and towns around the country.

The strike will affect most public services. Hospitals will be running a weekend service, as doctors have made no appointments for incoming patients for Wednesday. However, union leaders promise no one will be turned away should they seek medical assistance.

Some 500 schools will be closed while around 2,000 will provide limited service. That basically means children will have to do without lunch, and parents will have to pick them up because there will be no after-school care.

Trades unions also advise people to keep any errands at state offices and institutions to a minimum, as it is not quite clear which offices will work and to what extent. For example, the labour and social affairs minister banned all the employees in his sector from joining the strike. Workers’ leaders are calling that a breach of the Constitution, and say they are considering legal action.

Jaroslav Zavadil,  photo: CTK
Generally speaking, Czechs don’t seem to be too annoyed at the prospect of the strike. At a news conference on Tuesday, union leader Jaroslav Zavadil quoted a recent survey by the SC&C agency which suggests most people support the action.

“According to the survey, some 60 percent of people agree with tomorrow’s strike, while perhaps more interestingly, some 54 percent of people would support a general strike. So you can see that things are beginning to move in the society and many people think it’s not just a wilful strike, as the prime minister said, which I think is absolutely nonsense.”

The reason things have come to a head is that the centre-right Czech government aims to balance the country’s budget by 2016. Among austerity measures planned for next year is a 10-percent cut in the total amount paid to public employees.

The cabinet also wants to change the way these employees are paid. Whereas now salaries reflect length of service, in future they should be performance based.

Trades unions argue that this will in some cases mean even bigger cuts than 10 percent, and will also leave salary levels at the whim of bosses.

PM Petr Nečas and other ministers have been saying time and again they are ready to sit down with the unions and negotiate, but they have not really agreed to any softening of these measures.

The government did make some minor concessions after 40,000 people first protested the plans in September, but Mr Nečas has been rather firm in both the 10 percent cut and the changes to the system as such.

The cabinet is in fact meeting on Tuesday night to talk about possibly increasing teachers’ salaries. The prime minister said the timing had nothing to do with the strike tomorrow, although it is difficult not to see a connection.

The coalition has more reforms on its agenda, including the sensitive pension and health care, so we might be hearing people talking about a general strike more and more in the coming months.