Unions protest policies of former centre-right government

Photo: CTK

Some 23,000 union members from several countries descended on Prague on Saturday to protest against steps taken by the former Czech government to tackle the economic crisis. Parallel events took place in Madrid, Brussels and Berlin. The unions have warned that more protests will follow, if governments, including the Czech Republic’s, fail to listen.

Photo: CTK
Six weeks ago Hradčany Square outside Prague Castle was filled with visitors to see US President Barack Obama; this time it was packed for a different reason: to blast the country’s former centre-right government for steps taken in the face of the economic crisis. Some 23,000 gathered, charging that the government had underestimated the severity of the crisis and primarily helped firms and not workers. They also warned employers not to continue to shift the burden of the crisis onto rank-and-file employees once the economy began to recover. Trade unions leader and Social Democrat Senator Milan Štěch:

“There is a very real danger that employers who have cut wages to be able to maintain a higher number of employees, will not raise them again even after the crisis has ended. We have to make sure this doesn’t happen. This would lead to a terrible drop in the standard of living.”

Others, such as teachers’ unions leader František Dobšík warned that in a time of crisis, investment – not cuts – was needed in education.

Photo: CTK
“There is no doubt in my mind that given the drop in real wages that we saw in 2008, any further worsening of wages is unacceptable. On the contrary, investment in education can help re-start the economy. If we are going to see cuts, they will only have a negative long-term impact on the quality of education.”

The lower house of Parliament has just passed an extensive anti-crisis package drafted by the former government. Worth an estimated 40 billion crowns, the measures include increasing personal income tax deductions, raising unemployment and child benefits, lowering social insurance, as well as introducing a scrap subsidy for car owners. But it remains to be seen how soon they’ll be implemented as well as how effective they’ll prove. Meanwhile, the country’s unions clearly want more assurances or their members could soon again take to the streets. Trade unions leader Milan Štěch made clear he hoped Saturday’s “warning” would be heeded:

“The question now is whether politicians will take the warning to heart. I hope that reason will triumph over ideological clichés which have surfaced lately. It’s a warning but there’s hope that it won’t fall on deaf ears.”