Strike arrives as unions and government fail to find consensus

Seřazovací nádraží v pražských Záběhlicích, foto: ČTK

After months of negotiations between the government and trade unions, and countless demonstrations against government reform measures, the long-feared nationwide transport strike has arrived. On Wednesday representatives on both sides continued to seek a last-minute agreement that might save the country from what is a very infrequent occurrence here – the closure of the rail, bus and municipal transit services. Despite the looming threat, both the government and the unions appeared almost unwilling to budge even hours before the strike began. Christian Falvey has more.

Trade unions' demonstration in Prague, photo: CTK
In Prague, the metro ground to a halt on Thursday for the first morning ever, and the city’s streets went surprisingly quiet, as much of the public took off work to avoid what was feared would be a traffic disaster. No such calamity has occurred so far, but the point is clear: transportation would belong to the transport workers for a day to make their point in the strongest terms available to them, that they will not concede to government reforms that will make their health care, pension and working conditions more difficult.

Those reforms, however, are the paramount issues that the centre-right government came to office to resolve. The final word on the strike from Prime Minister Petr Nečas on Wednesday, when final talks proved fruitless, was an adamant repetition that the unions had absolutely nothing to gain from their protest, and much to lose:

Petr Nečas, photo: CTK
“This strike brings nothing of benefit to the Czech Republic. It brings only increased tension, and primarily significant economic damages that will reach a billion crowns. For the railway system alone, it will mean hundreds of millions of crowns that would be much more usefully invested in maintaining job opportunities. This strike does not bring anything to the dialogue on social issues. The government has clearly stated its willingness to negotiate on all key reforms. We continue to discuss them with our partners in social affairs, and this strike will not advance those discussions in absolutely any way at all.”

A very sweaty Petr Nečas made his way into Parliament on Thursday, having walked three kilometres on foot. Though not usually a patron of public transportation, the Prime Minister has been set on suffering through the strike along with what he estimates are hundreds of thousands of other Czechs; he was also meant to attend a meeting of the Visegrad Four in Bratislava on Thursday, which he cancelled due to the strike. The main strategy the government has taken in wading through the strike issue has been to show that it will not allow crucial reforms to be ‘held hostage’, in a sense, by unions, which they say are unwilling to negotiate or offer useful counterproposals.

Photo: CTK
“This strike will not stop the essential modernisation of this country. What is going on is an exact indication of the fact that the Czech Republic must be able to compete, and we have to demand the modernisation of all key systems, including pensions, taxes and health care. The government of the Czech Republic will continue in these reforms, regardless of this strike. But we will also continue negotiating on social issues.”

That strategy is directly eschewed by union leaders, and so far public opinion has backed them. Fickle it may seem on the one hand, as it was strong public interest in reform that swept the current government into power with a strong lower house majority. But according to union leaders like Josef Středula, the brunt of reforms should rather be borne by cleaning house in other areas than affecting sweeping changes on workers.

“It is not our aim to damage the public in any way. But we think that under the circumstances, one day of discomfort could mean many years of better comfort. The tension in society is very serious, and certainly it has not been caused by the unions. Where hundreds of millions in losses are concerned, I think billions have been caused by improper practices in certain ministries, corruptions cases that have caused the taxpayers much more money.”

Josef Středula
The transport strike is not likely to be an end-game play. Among its concessions, the government has deferred a reading of the health care reform bill to allow more time for talks, which are set to continue on Monday. The decisive factor at stake may be how far such a strong protest can sway public opinion in a country not accustomed to strike action. While the union members cause is now forefront in the public eye, many people may likely be irked into sympathising with the government.