National strike: a demonstration of power or weakness by Czech unions?

Illustrative photo: CMKOS

Wednesday’s strike organised by unions to protest government plans to cut the public sector workforce and wages is set to be the biggest demonstration of organised labour since workers’ protests in 1989 helped topple the Communist regime. But away from this show of force, Czech unions have been inexorably haemorrhaging members with some suggesting the strike is actually a demonstration of weakness.

Petr Nečas
Prime Minister Petr Nečas in a television interview over the weekend accused unions of staging Wednesday’s strike to draw attention to themselves. He said workers had already voted with their feet and left the ranks of organised labour in the Czech Republic in droves.

While the prime minister’s assertion that Wednesday’s action is just a sort of tactical advance by the unions to hide their weakness is questionable. But the figures for union membership in the Czech Republic does not make happy reading for labour leaders in the country.

According to the biggest trade union grouping and the organiser of Wednesday’s action, the Czech and Moravian Confederation of Trades Unions, its affiliated membership fell by more than three quarters between 1995 and 2009. Membership of the 32 affiliated unions came to 470,000 in mid-2009 in a country of 10.5 million. The next biggest union grouping in the country, the Association of Independent Unions, claims just 100,000 members.

The sharp drop in membership is typical across the whole of Central and Eastern Europe. In fact, Czech unions are far from the worst hit over recent years. Between 2005 and 2008 the biggest Czech workers’ organisation suffered a 15 percent fall in members; the equivalent body in neighbouring Slovakia saw membership slump by more than a third.

Overall, Czech unions have over the last years hardly taken much of a militant stand compared with much the much more hands on, tools down attitude of organised labour in, for example, France. The strike rate is one of the lowest in Europe. But powerful unions, such as at carmaker Škoda Auto, have shown they can win concessions from bosses without striking.

So are Czech unions belatedly seeking to grab headlines and attention to stave off a relentless decline? Are they dinosaurs in a new more dynamic world? Aleš Kroupa, deputy director of the Research Institute for Labour and Social Affairs, says many trends in society have been working against the unions.

“I think there is a greater individualism in society; people are more reliant on themselves. In parallel to that, there is a more general transformation of working conditions and organization of the labour market. There is the shift from factory work and traditional organization to employment of much fewer workers. There is the change in organization to something which is much less vertical and has a more level structure and such like.”

But he says that unions should not be written off and there could already be indications that they are making a comeback.

“There are signs that some union associations can get or are attempting to get more members. There are also new types of organizations that have evolved. This is in part due to the fact that foreign companies have come to the Czech Republic which have a stricter attitude towards unions at home. But this has not prevented organizations being formed here. So it is possible to more or less stop this decline.”

Mr. Kroupa says it’s too early to say whether that has happened. But even before Wednesday’s action, polls have shown the public to be more on the side of the unions than the government.