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How strong is the Czech trade union movement?

The Czech government coalition is weak and disjointed; but so is an organization that could pose a major threat to the government--the Chamber of Czech and Moravian Trade Unions. The umbrella organization for most of the country's trade unions has recently been shaken by disputes over trade unions' property and by conflicts over formulating a common strategy in dealing with the government's plans to introduce severe austerity measures.

Richard Falbr, the Chamber's chairman, is a moderate, who, in general, prefers negotiating to radical protest actions, such as demonstrations and large-scale strikes. Some other trade union leaders, whose unions are members of the Chamber, are more radical. Jaromir Dusek, chairman of a trade union representing railway workers, captured the nation's attention in February when railway workers' strike brought the country's economy to a halt. Dusek and Cyril Zapletal, chairman of a major union representing coal miners, have been increasingly at odds with Falbr over his moderate policies.

Falbr joined only reluctantly calls by such radical trade union leaders to hold a major demonstration in Prague in November, at which trade unionists from around the country will protest against the government's economic policies. He did so in the end only because some unions, including Dusek's, threatened to leave the Chamber, unless it began pursuing more radical policies.

Trade union leaders say that the purpose of the demonstration is not to force the Vaclav Klaus government to resign but merely change its economic policies. But the besieged government could collapse, should the demonstration turn into a mass protest. The coalition Christian Democratic Union (KDU-CSL) of Josef Lux has repeatedly said it is not entirely in favor of some of the austerity measures announced by the government in April and May. Should the demonstration be followed by a series of other protest actions, the KDU-CSL would find it difficult to defend the government's program.

But the danger that the country's trade unions could stage a concerted series of protests is relatively small at this point. Different views on how to deal with the government's policies are only expressions of deeper conflicts within the trade union movement. First, both Dusek and Zapletal seem to want more than just possibly toppling the government; they would also like to topple the current leadership of the Chamber of Czech and Moravian Trade Unions, including Falbr himself. Being a shrewd tactician, Falbr knows that a collapse of the Klaus government, forced by radicalized trade unions, would probably result in radical trade union leaders' taking over the Chamber.

Another dividing issue are the assets controlled by the Chamber. The post-1989 trade unions inherited large assets from the Czechoslovak Revolutionary Trade Union Movement (ROH). Those assets consist mainly of many buildings and other pieces of real estate. The ROH received some of those assets from the state. But it was also able to accumulate assets because virtually every adult Czech and Slovak was forced to be an ROH member and, as such, had to pay membership fees.

The post-1989 trade union movement is much smaller than the ROH--partly because many Czech workers are still leery of trade union activities and partly because the government's economic policies had appeared to be, until last year, quite successful. The Czech economy was growing by more than 4%, while the unemployment rate was among the lowest in Europe--mere 3%. In other words, there was not much to revolt against. As a result, trade unions have not been able to raise enough money from membership fees.

Falbr threatened to resign in September, revealing that some trade unions were selling their assets in order to raise money. Some other assets and funds controlled by unions have apparently become targets of fraudulent schemes resembling those that have over the past year resulted in the collapses of some banks, investment banks, and companies.

It seems that in the background of the ongoing battle for assets between the Chamber and individual unions there is, once again, a struggle for the control of the trade union movement itself. The cracks appearing in the trade union movement represent, of course, good news for the government. The possibility of concerted pressure actions by trade unions represented a major threat to the weakened government. The fact that unions increasingly spend almost as much time on fighting the government as fighting each other provides the government with some breathing space.

Reuters - 16. 10. 1997