New Czech Labour Code mobilises trade unions into action after sixteen year slumber

The Czech Labour Code is to be amended - but the question is how? Will it serve the rights of the employer or the employee? The changes proposed by the senior ruling coalition party, the Social Democratic Party, and passed through the first reading in the lower house of Parliament, uphold the authority of trade unions. That, say the opposition Civic Democrats and the two junior ruling coalition parties the Christian Democrats and the Freedom Union, is unacceptable: by making it difficult for employers to let go of unproductive staff and employ new people, the proposed new Labour Code threatens the flexibility of the labour market and is unconstitutional.

Vlastimil Tlusty,  photo: Zdenek Valis
The three right-of-centre parties - backed by the country's employers - now have their own proposed changes, which they are determined to push through. Civic Democrat Member of Parliament, Vlastimil Tlusty:

"This aim of the Czech government goes completely against the tendency not only in Europe but all over the world. So, I think it is necessary to go in the opposite direction, which means to improve the flexibility of the Czech market."

The result of this suggestion: the biggest demonstration that the country has seen since the Velvet Revolution sixteen years ago. Over 25,000 members of 51 trade unions (representing coal miners, railway workers, steel workers, and others) flocked to Prague this Saturday to support the Social Democrats' version of the new Labour Code. They came to the city from all corners of the country in hundreds of buses and even a special train.

Milan Stech,  photo: Zdenek Valis
Milan Stech is the head of the Bohemian and Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions. He explains why over 25,000 trade union members from around the country were mobilised to Prague:

"Employers as well as the right-of-centre political parties are proposing amendments that grant employers the right to fire workers without giving a reason and extend the trial period within which a new employee can be dismissed from three months to twelve months. They also limit the powers of company trade unions to such an extent that the rights of the worker would no longer be guarded. They are trying to turn trade unions into insignificant institutions that would not be able to serve their members. We cannot let that happen."

Traffic was brought to a standstill when the crowd gathered at Prague's Letna plane. While whistling, drumming, waving the flags of various trade unions, and holding up banners with slogans like: "Serfdom was abolished in 1781" or "You didn't give, so don't take!", the mass of protesters - men, women, and even children - marched to the Old Town's Palach Square to voice their demands:

Photo: CTK
"Shame on those who support a law that allows workers to be fired while on sick leave and women while on maternity leave; we can't afford to hire lawyers to defend our rights; we will not allow employers to worsen our work conditions and introduce living standards of some parts of Asia and Africa - our message to them is: 'if you want another China then leave the country and go and live there!"

This protesting trade union member came from the east Bohemian town of Hradec Kralove:

"The amended Labour Code should either stay the way it is or should extend our rights further because, after all, from our point of view, it is a compromise solution. The state needs to show that it cares about its labour force."

This man works at a coal mine in northern Bohemia:

"We are here to tell all politicians that they should appreciate the country's workers because they are actually working for them - without us, politicians would not lead such a good life."

Photo: CTK
Professor Erazim Kohak was delighted to see workers - ordinary citizens - go out onto the streets to fight for their cause:

"They need trade unions desperately and most of all the country needs trade unions as a counterweight to the incredible overpowering power of capital. I know the conditions in the factories, where there are no trade unions. This is the case in most factories - people are often working for a minimum wage because there is no other means of employment in the region and the law does not provide adequate protection. It seems to me that the great weakness of all post-Communist democracies is that they have no viable trade union movements. So, I think that trade unions are needed both for the protection of individual workers and to make democracy work."

The current Labour Code dates back to 1966 but has undergone a number of amendments in the last fifteen years. Experts agree that it needs to be replaced with a new law that's more transparent and less complicated. The lower house of Parliament is expected to pass the new Labour Code before the end of the year. The Communists have agreed to back the Social Democrats' proposal in Parliament. Since the country's two left-of-centre parties enjoy a majority in the lower house it is very likely that the current form of the amendment will be passed.

But Mr Kohak believes trade unions will never gain enough power to threaten the stability of the country's labour market:

"I can imagine it theoretically but I think it will be a cold day in June before that happens in the Czech Republic."

...especially when latest opinion polls suggest the country's right-wing opposition Civic Democrats will be getting a large share of the pie in the parliamentary elections next spring. So, as the country's workers awake from a sixteen year slumber, they may have won this battle, but they will certainly have plenty more to come.