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Lessons of Czech rail workers strike

Following the five-day rail workers strike that ended on 8 February, the Czech Republic is a changed country. One group of workers has won a battle with the government; others may want to try their luck too. It is probably no accident that the strike came at a time when Czech political parties have for months practiced highly confrontational policies, rather than consensus seeking. The strike was an expression of an overall radicalization of Czech political and social atmosphere. The government, which has neglected the public sector, may not have good and quick solutions at hand. What it will have to do from now on, it seems, is to listen more carefully to what employees in various branches of the public sector have to say and seek compromises rather than confrontation.

The strike of Czech rail workers, that started as a 48-hour warning strike, ended only 5 days later following difficult negotiations. It was the most serious instance of labor and social unrest since the velvet revolution in 1989. The most important message that emerged from the strike is that the long period of social peace that has existed in the country may be over. Czech teachers have been striking in selected schools for almost two weeks; and trade unions representing doctors have repeatedly threatened to call a strike. The country's public sector is plagued with problems, which the government has either underestimated or not been very competent at dealing with.

Prior to the rail workers strike, trade unions representing rail workers had repeatedly asked both the government and the management of the Czech Railways to deal with bad management practices, waste, a lack of restructuring, and other problems. Wage demands were of secondary importance. The government, however, failed to address the problems--just like it has failed to do so in the educational system, the health care system, the energy sector, or the housing sector. The strike was, therefore, more an expression of accumulated frustration than anything else.

This is also one reason why the strike took the course it did. The government charged that trade unions' demands were too vague and that the strike was just a provocation aimed at increasing the visibility of some trade union leaders. It claimed that trade union representatives were irresponsible and should have attempted to negotiate with the government longer before going on strike. Trade union representatives claimed they had exhausted all peaceful means of dealing with the government.

Clearly, mistakes on both sides caused the strike to last longer and to be more confrontational than it needed to be. The government, unused to dealing with labor unrest pursued a confrontational strategy, forcing the unions to transform what was supposed to be just a warning strike into a five-day nationwide labor stoppage that paralyzed the country and cost about 1 billion crowns. The unions, on the other hand, were unable to formulate their demands clearly. In particular, they did not say clearly enough which specific demands needed to be met in order to end the strike.

This shows a lack of experience on both sides. In Western democracies, strikes can grow into tense confrontations, but it usually happens over layoffs or unreasonable wage demands. In the Czech case, the strike escalated because the two sides were unable to talk to each other. No permanent negotiating teams, that would talk to each other non-stop until a solution was found, were formed. Instead, the government, following a Prague court ruling that declared the strike illegal, threatened to dismiss rail workers, unless they returned to work. Negotiating teams met irregularly. In the end, the confrontational Transportation Minister, Martin Riman, had to be replaced as chief negotiator by Deputy Prime Minister Josef Lux, an advocate of consensus-seeking. Lux was able to negotiate an agreement in six hours.

Lux emerged from among Czech politicians as the only winner from the strike. He rejected disparaging statements and threats made by government officials, realizing that the only way to end the strike was to look for compromises. He is responsible for making the government not look like a complete loser in what in the end was a lost war with the unions. Under the agreement signed by Lux and trade union representatives, the government will present by 31 May a blueprint for reforming the Czech transportation system and will run an in-depth inspection of the wasteful railway system. The trade unions will be consulted. Those were, more or less, the original demands of the unions. The unions, on the other hand, did not manage to force the government, represented by Lux, to fire immediately Czech Railways General Director, Rudolf Mladek.

Some of the flawed strategy applied by the government in the first days of the strike can be blamed on the fact that in the past the government slmost always got its way or was able to avert strikes by making wage concessions in the last minute. In the fall of 1995 Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus made last-minute wage concessions to rail workers who had threatened to call a strike. However, the situation in the country is different now. The minority government is weaker than the government was a year ago. And the government's passivity in dealing with the public sector has now lasted too long.

Reuters - 16. 2. 1997