» Some notes on, but not limited to, the transit strike of June 16, 2011 in the Czech Republic

A short text analyzing the transport strike which took place on June 16, 2011 in a protest against health and pension reform in Czech and its context.

The government did not retreat – not surprisingly

1. In terms of immediate aims, the strike won nothing. At times, it was quite difficult to decode the particular demands from the official statements of the unions and from the speeches and interviews given by their bosses. The most oft-mentioned goal, though, was to make the government withdraw two of its reforms – those pertaining to the health care and welfare systems.

Neither of them was withdrawn. Five days after the strike they were sent to the Senate without any change.

2. There is no reason to feel surprised about that. In a situation when both reforms were passing a third reading in the House of Deputies, a far more massive strike and a more offensive protest would have been required to force the government to withdraw them. In other circumstances, the complete paralysis of the railways and the Prague subway, and to a great extent, the trams and buses in Prague, would have been a hard blow. This time it just wasn’t enough. Perhaps it would not even have been enough if the transit workers had been successful in blockading all the depots, in preventing the scabs from providing bus and tram transport, and in blocking the traffic arteries. Both reforms, sailing through parliament, were just too important.

Unions lagging behind, again

3. Why did the unions let things go that far? Why did they wait for so long? Such questions are completely justified.

And these were the questions actually asked last year, in the protests against cuts in public services, when the government tested how far it could go in its attacks. The first ones under the ax were the public sector workers. Unions organized a demonstration in late September which was surprising not only by its 40,000-strong attendance (including workers from Prague), but also because it did not look like the usual boring union demonstration. Many workers even brought their own homemade banners. However, immediately after the demo the unions acceded to the cuts. Moreover, at the beginning of December, they let off some steam in a wholly impotent (1) strike… which came only after the government had passed everything it wanted.

This year, the scenario was repeated. Again, 40,000 workers from both the public and the private sector attended a demonstration in Prague. As in September, their numbers were larger than the unions could hope for, and the mood was better than in a usual union demo.

Again, the unions only called the strike when it was too late.

Speaking about past union “activity”, it is worth remembering their reaction to the very first attack on workers connected with the crisis in 2008/2009. Especially in industrial companies, there were massive layoffs and wage reductions, as well as a general worsening of working conditions. At that time, the unions did not make a sound, stressing instead their constructive collaboration with the bosses. They explained that in times of crisis, belts just have to be tightened – in other words, that the workers should pay for the crisis. Meanwhile the crisis in industry faded away but the measures – like, for instance, precarious forms of work such as temporary hiring through agencies – remained.

Unfortunately, the government offensive remained unchallenged

4. The government pushed through the health-care and welfare reforms with the same self-confidence and calmness as in the cuts of autumn 2010. Another sign of this self-confidence was the preemptive measure in court which outlawed the strike called for June 13. The unions, in turn, showed just how much they are “willing” to fight by their acceptance of this ban. By postponing the strike, they precluded its effect: the state could prepare for it and minimize expected damage.(2) Never tell your enemy what you are about to do!

Of course, this does not mean that things cannot take a turn for the better through working-class self-activity. For now, however, a more formidable opponent for the government are its own corruption scandals and internal quibbles.

Did the transit strike strengthen people at workplaces?

5. Clearly, strikes cannot be judged just by the immediate material gains or losses they lead to. A victory can be of a political nature as well: When consciousness of the antagonism between our interests and the interests of companies or of the state budget is deepened by an experience of a collective conflict. When the strike opens the door to discussion and a general critique of capital. When it is shown that the workplace need not be the place where we subserviently take orders; when this encourages people to more battles; when the strike leads to new contacts among militants; when … when the action leaves us something to lean on in the future.

How shall we evaluate the transit strike of June 16 in this respect? As far as we know, many tram drivers in Prague invested a lot of energy in its preparation – by trying to persuade colleagues in depots, by organizing things during the strike, sometimes, perhaps, even by efforts to prevent trams driven by scabs from setting out – and were proud of how significantly they managed to paralyze tram traffic. Neither should we forget that many non-unionized workers joined the strike; nor that the subway drivers, who so far had kept their distance in all the previous struggles and bore a reputation as elitists, went on strike as well.

If the strike left some encouragement in the workplaces and strengthened the capacity of workers to collective resistance, that is really good. Of course, workers cannot avoid the confrontation with the fact that the immediate gains of the strike are nil. But hopefully they will not slip into resignation and passivity, and will use this experience in debates on what to do better next time, on the role that the unions have played in the protests so far, and on how to take matters into their own hands.

Anger. But what next?

6. During the strike, it was again evident that the government measures directed against working-class living standards – implemented at a time when the government keeps running into scandals, as do many municipalities – resonate within society. The anger is almost tangible. Most workers know what position to take on the reforms – which is quite a novelty in the Czech Republic. The transit strike had solid support from other sectors of workers.

On the other hand, anger is a good start but not much more than that. The important question being: will it lead to practical action, or will it end in a passive, symbolic support of those workers who decide to act, while the rest of the working class crosses their fingers and hopes for the minority to win the struggle on their behalf? This is now the most important question that will need to be answered in the following weeks and months. After all, this question had to be answered by some sectors of workers already in the strike of June 16. Unfortunately, not only in local transport did the workers chose passive support.

A general strike, presented as an ace up the sleeve by the “radical” left, is the wrong answer to this question. It is thought of as a panacea, as a sort of automatic “radical” alternative… to what? To a situation where working-class self-activity in most workplaces is still around zero? A general strike cannot be decreed – neither by union structures, nor by the “radical” or civil society left who like to pose as an advisor to the union bosses. It must grow from the balance of forces between the proletariat and the companies/the state. For the struggle to be general, it must be rooted in particular activity, most importantly at the point of exploitation. We are not in such a situation. The working class shows little willingness to take the risk and struggle.

We can still take money out of the companies’ pockets

7. We still have not felt the full impact of the reforms on our wallets – that is to come mostly in 2012 when most of the reforms will become operative. If we do not manage to fend them off, then the time will come to take what we have lost due to the reforms from the pockets of the companies. The struggle for higher wages may then be the only terrain where we can compensate for the losses. After all, the employers are well aware of this danger and are openly discussing it. We should engage with this chance seriously as well, especially in case we are unsuccessful in stopping the government offensive. The crucial question will be whether the workers in the car industry and other important sectors grab this chance, and if workers in general will succeed in breaking through the limits of collective bargaining managed by the unions and take the struggle for higher wages into their own hands.

Such a struggle would, of course, take place on a more advanced political terrain. It would be based on the consciousness that we are not just facing a particular employer, but capital in general. No matter if its parts are managed by the state, “my” boss, or “your” employer. When we strike against the government, we have to confront “our” employer as well, just like the transit workers did. And when we react to capital’s measures that make our reproduction more expensive through reforms, it is fully justified to ask for the money from the company we sell our labour-power to.

Kolektivně proti kapitálu (KPK, Collectively Against Capital) – Mouvement Communiste (MC, Communist Movement), June 22 2011.

Background

The engine behind the strike were the unions in the transit sector. It’s not that the drivers are a more militant part of the working class – generally, there have been no significant strikes or workers’ struggles in the Czech Republic for decades. Transit workers do enjoy a range of benefits, however, which were threatened by the reforms. For example, according to the Prague subway machinists unions, the workers of Prague Public Transit Co. would lose a yearly ticket worth 4750 CZK (195 €), a meal ticket subsidy of 10 080 CZK (415 €) per year, a “flexi pass” worth 1200 CZK (50 €), a pension insurance contribution of 6000 CZK (250 €) and other benefits. The participation of miners in the protests (but not in the strike!) was induced by the intention to abolish early retirement for hard-working professions. On Thursday, June 9, information surfaced that a strike was being prepared for next Monday. According to all the available sources, the call to strike was pushed for by the unions of Prague Public Transit Co. Union bosses were cautious in commenting on the strike on Thursday and did not confirm anything officially. The stoppage was only fully announced a day later, on Friday June 10.

The government did not falter, though. On the very next day, politicians invited the union officials to the government HQ, under the pretext of negotiation. There, union representatives were handed a court ruling banning the strike by police officers. According to this ruling, the unions did not call the strike appropriately in advance, thereby making it unlawful, which will enable the government to claim compensation for all the damage. The unions balked. In spite of tough words of “a scrap of paper”, they recalled the Monday strike and postponed it to Thursday June 16. Even though the unions of Prague Public Transit Co. initially insisted on having announced the strike last Wednesday and on taking strike action regardless of the ban, eventually they backed off as well.

When in 1997 railway workers went on strike for five days, the court also issued a sort of preemptive measure which banned them from continuing the struggle. Back then, the workers – along with the unions – trashed the ban and struggled to the victorious end. It is true that this ruling only came at a time when the strike was in full force. But in spite of that, the story tells quite a lot about the present situation. What secured the victory in 1997 was – apart from the unity of railway workers, of course – this uncompromising attitude.

One version of the current story is that many people were angered by the strike ban itself, which led even those who were not planning on striking to participate. If that was really the case, then the unions (but first of all the workers themselves!) have wasted a unique opportunity. During the two days before the strike, one form of struggle was being quietly replaced by another. At first, the unions canceled the road blockades, then in the Wednesday negotiations with the Prague and Brno mayors they agreed to keep the backbone lines running and not to prevent those willing to work from actually working. Thanks to the postponing of the strike, the municipalities and the government had an extraordinary chance to prepare.

Mass transit can be looked at from two points of view. The media and the politicians presented the civic side: people will not be able to get to work, to school, to vacation. This side only sees the individual, atomized “passengers” pursuing their own individual interests. The politicians and the media stressed this aspect as much as they could, because atomized passengers tend to be inconvenienced by a strike. (3)

The other point of view is much more significant in that it shows just why a transit stoppage is such a sensitive issue for politicians and bosses. Mass transit does not just transport atomized citizens, “passengers”, but employees, laborers, workers. If they do not make it to the workplace on time, capital faces a problem, as no one but the workers can keep it running. As such, mass transit is a major component of social production, because it ensures the presence of proletarians on the workplace. After all, the same function is fulfilled by important traffic hubs and roads. Of course people use mass transit to various other ends, too, but their proportion in the total number of passengers is insignificant, especially on workdays.

The course of the strike

At first, the unions along with the miners from the Ostrava region wanted to accompany the strike with blockades of key traffic arteries. Under the pressure of threats of police repression, they backed of from this intent, resorting to unspecified “blockades of big cheeses”, which turned out to be a mere demonstration. Its only result was the cancellation of Václav Klaus’ 70th birthday celebration at the Prague Castle.

Before its start, the strike enjoyed the most massive support in Prague and Brno. In Ostrava, for example, the drivers of the local transit company, who in the first half of June went on strike for several days to gain higher wages, had not initially intended to stop work. The drivers of Ustí nad Labem were initially similarly unenthusiastic, but after the banning of the Monday strike they announced that they would participate on Thursday. Similar information surfaced from other towns, including Ostrava. Eventually it turned out that in many towns, the workers eventually took part only in a symbolic way. Even in Prague and Brno many key tram and bus lines remained operative. In Brno, the unions agreed on a compromise with the city government, to ensure transit in the morning peak hours.

At first glance, the most militant participation in the strike came from the railway workers and those of the Prague subway. Railway transport was blocked all over the country, with not just machinists striking, but also the dispatchers and cashiers. In the Prague subway, for the first time in its history, not a single train left the depot all day. The situation in surface transit in the cities was different, though. In Prague, about a third of trams and a quarter of buses were at work.

The operation of the subway and railways is, in terms of technology and safety, more demanding than driving trams and buses. Therefore it is much easier to engage scabs in the latter. According to one of the strikers, part of the trams were operating mostly because managers and white-collar workers who possess a tram driver’s license – but do not usually drive – were engaged. Some tram drivers in Prague stated during the strike that they were willing to launch an unlimited strike. Such statements did not become reality. As in the drivers’ strike in Ostrava a few weeks before, the major weakness of the struggle was that the strikers did not manage to fully block all transit by means of pickets and prevent scabs from working. For a while, they attempted to stop scab trams in Praha-Vokovice and Strašnice, but the blockades were short-lived. Moreover, the unions vehemently denied that any of that ever happened, adding a proposal that the Prague Public Transit Co. should find any “culprits” on surveillance video recordings… In other cities and towns, like Brno and Olomouc, the transit was weakened but nonetheless operative.

In Olomouc, about 70% of the 415 employees participated. Of all the regional towns, the strike received the greatest support in Havířov, where 153 of 190 drivers of ČSAD Havířov were out. The company’s management at least secured transport for the workers of Hyundai (Nošovice) and ArcelorMittal (Ostrava), as well as for the miners. In the Bruntál and Krnov regions, most drivers of Veolia Transport Morava joined the strike, totaling 120. In Brno, the support for the strike was sizable, but the unions secured transport on backbone lines during the peak hours. It seems that in most towns, the problem was not that the workers from other sectors would be against the strike. Many just took a day off on Thursday, assuming it was better to have a day of paid vacation than a day of excused, but still unpaid absence due to the strike.

Notes

(1) The Czech union confederation ČMKOS went as far as to issue a formal guideline to the shop stewards not to agitate for the strike. See Třídní kniha KPK, no. 3. (Třidní kniha, “Classbook”, is an irregular bulletin published by Collectively Against Capital in Czech.)

(2) When the unions cheered at the statement of Prague Public Transit Co. that the strike helped save 3 million CZK (almost 125 000 € in unused electricity and unpaid wages of the strikers), they only showed their lack of understanding of what a strike is. The goal of a strike is precisely to hurt, to cause damage and to force the opponent into accepting the strikers’ demands.

(3) Paradoxically, this civic side was even able to express itself through collective activity – mostly young people protesting against the strike the night before it took place managed to block the Dejvická subway station for a couple of hours.