Ever since the first days of this government’s term in office it has been clear that it will attack working-class living standards (the coalition parties promised this even before the election). The employees of the public sector were just the first ones in line. According to the government plans workers as a whole are soon to become the victims of cuts and reforms. The results of the beginning of the government offensive were therefore of great importance to all workers. What were they? The defeat of public sector employees has shown once again the impotence of union-led protests. Let’s review this defeat to draw some conclusions.
What were the stakes?
Not negligible. Two aspects of public sector wages were at stake – their level and their structure. Both are essential to the workers.
The most visible and comprehensible assault by the government was the decision to cut the total amount of money paid out as public sector wages by 10%. The bosses of particular offices and organisations funded by the state would then decide themselves how they implement this reduction: by large-scale pay cuts, layoffs, or a combination of both. This at a time when the government is preparing more price increases.
The intent of the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Drábek, to change the structure of the wage, was a similarly significant threat. According to the previous system, the basis for the computation of a public sector wage was the type of work (determined by the so-called tariff class) and the amount of years of experience (the so-called wage grade). Combined, they formed a basic wage, to which every employee was automatically entitled. Apart from that, the employee could receive a bonus for working in difficult conditions, as well as a personal bonus, with the latter, however, depending solely on the bosses‘ will.
So what was the problem? According to the Minster, this “table system” granted too much certainty to the employees. The goal was to eliminate the part of the wage to which workers were legally entitled, and to give more power to the bosses in setting the wage of a particular worker by means of the personal bonus.
Where would that lead? To a further decrease in wages, of course, but equally importantly, to the deepening of workers‘ financial dependency on the whims of the bosses. If my wage (and thus my existence) depends on the level of my personal bonus the boss gives me (if at all), his power over me is much, much greater.
Letting off some steam
The beginning of the protests was quite promising. Forty thousand people who gathered on September 21 at a demonstration in Prague were a sign of hope. Despite the typical phraseology of the team of union speakers, this was not your typical union-led demonstration, to which the union buses people from all over the country to play the role of cheering extras. This time, people had their own homemade banners. There were many young people, and rather unusually, many workers from Prague itself.
Everyone was encouraged by the massive attendance. Perhaps that was also the reason why the demonstration was not angry and exasperated, but quite festive: If there are so many of us, the government has got to take us seriously! We’re a good way to making our protest persuasive. Such hopes were in the wind.
But while huge demonstrations can encourage and show strength, they are not enough on their own – as we wrote in a leaflet we distributed at this demonstration. If workplace mobilizations do not follow (as work stoppages are something that the employers, including the state, take very seriously!), encouragement turns into disappointment and mass protest becomes a valve used by the unions merely to let off some of the steam of workers anger… so that nothing changes.
Unions: Thinking ahead, staying behind, but not even that
The hopes brought about by the September demonstration gradually began to fade. Plans to decrease wages by 10%, which the government announced in August and which were the main force driving people to the streets of Prague in September, were not withdrawn. On the contrary, the very night before Thursday September 23, the government passed the state budget draft which included a decrease of the sum of money dedicated to public sector wages. Right after that, the Labour Code amendment, which cancelled the old system of determining wages, was passed.
What was in the amendment?
The wage tariffs remained in place, but lost any practical significance. According to the amendment, the employer can disregard the amount of years worked, and can therefore assign the employee to any wage tariff he likes. This so-called “zonal compensation” does not have to be negotiated in collective bargaining or in internal guidelines. Moreover, the amendment cancels the rule that the ratio of money paid in the lowest and the highest tariff class has to be 1:3.4 and that the ratio between the lowest and the highest tariff grade has to be 1:1.5.
When the unions saw the government would not give up on the wage cut, they shifted ground. More precisely, they gave up on any effort to preserve the 10%. We accept the ten percent decrease, but a new battle is ahead – the one for the structure of compensation, which we will not let the government even touch!, yelled the union boss Zavadil. No changes in the wage tables! And the union bosses… make a few scathing press releases and announce an upcoming strike on October 11.
Unfortunately, the unions were the only ones on the scene who were there just to mess around. The coalition was not afraid to fight for its objectives, and it fought mercilessly. After passing the House of Representatives, the Labour Code amendment passed the Senate on November 12. Moreover, only a few hours before the “all-day protest strike” on December 8, the government vehemently expressed its self-confidence. It issued an edict determining who will be targeted by zonal compensation (which effectively cancels the old table-based system) in 2012 – that is, medical personnel and all state and public sector employees, with the exception of teachers. This zonal compensation will allow employers to cope with the tighter budget from the state by restructuring the wage tariffs of their employees, without having to pay any regard to the years they’ve worked.
Thus the strike of December 8 itself took place in a situation where the game was practically over. The decrease in wages and the introduction of zonal compensation (which practically equals the elimination of wage tables, as admitted by Zavadil himself) had already passed. Not that working class activity should be bothered much by whether this or that decision had already been signed by the Prime Minister or passed by either of the Houses of Parliament – a determined struggle can still abolish a law even if has been passed five times over. But a protest as lifeless as the one put up on December 8 by the unions could in no way have such ambitions.
(By the way, the unions were already familiar with a situation like this: for example, on July 24 2008 the Czech union confederation, ČMKOS, pompously organized a strike against the pension reform which had been passed in the House of Representatives long before. The Senate merely confirmed this decision immediately on the day after the strike.)
But even then the unions figured out a way of turning attention away from a defeat which the workers will pay for dearly. “Let us think ahead!” they called. Suddenly, the cuts in the public sector were not the point of the strike anymore… the unions were expecting the government to launch a health care and pension reform, and wanted to send a “warning signal” to the government.
If we understand it correctly, this warning signal was supposed to be a failed strike.
There will be strike at your job, but please do not mention it!
The truth is, the unions have their own way of seeing and doing things. Take, for example, a strike. If you want to organize a strike, you know that if it is to be successful and bring any results, it has to hurt the bosses: it must stop the factory, paralyze the bureau, close down the post office or supermarket. And you realize that if that is to happen, you have to make sure that the greatest number of your colleagues take part in the strike. Therefore, you try to gain support for the strike by leaflets, assemblies, discussions, persuasion. That is at least how you would think.
But not the unions. Sharp-sighted and cunning, they purposely organize a strike so that the least number of workers know about it! Truly original and impressive.
But that’s enough irony. Let’s see it in black and white:
“In case the base organization organizes gatherings of employees to explain the objectives of the strike mentioned above – in preparation for the strike, in the interest of motivating the unpersuaded employees to take part in the strike and gaining the support of the public – we recommend limiting the cases in which this is done in the workplaces or in the employer’s premises (…) This also applies in the event of distributing leaflets.”
No, this is not a regulation issued by an employer – this is union talk (“The Methodical Guidelines on the Announced All-Day Protest Strike of December 8 2010 Against the Austerity Measures and the Change in Employee Compensation in the Public Sector”, issued by the ČMKOS on November 24 2010).
These guidelines sent by the high-level union bureaucracy to the workplace representatives in the public sector look almost like a caricature, though a poignant one. They speak volumes about the unions‘ relationship to the workers and workplaces.
The workplace… Where we don’t have to be reduced to stepping stones
Our workplace need not be just the site where we do badly paid, useless or boring jobs. Potentially, it is a place where we can apply pressure and develop our collective power. For it is us who produce profit for the boss by our own labour and who reproduce all of society through this labour. And it us who can disobey, jamming up the whole engine which produces surplus-value for the bosses. This is the only way of achieving anything at all.
Against the rule of capital we can only put forward our own power resting on the conscious awareness that our interests and the interests of our bosses have nothing in common.
Can the unions help us on the way to collective power and class-based critique? Hardly. They indulge in an illusion that our bosses and employers are “our social partners”. They prefer negotiation and compromise over any action that could actually hurt the employer. They always tie the satisfaction of our interests with a sensitivity towards the bosses and a regard of the needs of a capitalist economy.
Unions do not favour workers‘ self-organization and independent politics which do not pay attention to the wishes or possibilities of the bosses and the economy. If matters in the workplaces began to develop outside their channels, the unions would lose their status as the Great Mediator and Facilitator.
After the September demonstration which energized and encouraged people, the unions let the workers disperse into their jobs and did not care about them at all anymore. The energy that flashed at the demonstration faded away. Things went back to normal, to passivity. This was only strengthened by the unions with their methodical guidelines in their hands: first and foremost, do not let people rebel at work and take matters in to their own hands!
The two-month period of so-called “strike emergency”, a lifeless gesture for journalists and ministers, and certainly not an attempt to get the workplaces moving, went completely unnoticed by anyone in the workplaces. The strike that came after that was simply another vent for the unions to blow off steam.
It was a mere gesture which did not strengthen the workers‘ position in the workplaces in the least. No trace of it remained after it was over.
Dear Manager… Yours sincerely, the union
Of course, a part of the answer to the question of why the unions were trying so hard to avoid any activation of the workplaces, can be that they simply did not want to taunt the bosses of the public sector. After all, they never miss an opportunity to emphasize that they agree with the employer’s critique of government plans discussed in the tripartite negotiations. But more importantly, unions favour benevolent, considerate employers over militant employees.
Perhaps the “union logic” was this: because wage tables are a lost cause anyway and starting with January 1 2011, wages will fall under a greater control of the employers, the employees should preventively not irritate their bosses. This would correspond to the overall logic of their behaviour. “Let us show that we are pro-dialogue, that we understand the trouble our economy is in, as well as the troubles of our bosses and government… and our social partners will certainly respond with an accommodating treatment!” – that really is the lived practice of the unions.
A practice which can bring nothing to the workers. The relationship between us and “our” bosses is not one of harmonious social partnership, so movingly described by the unions. It is a relationship of antagonistic, hostile interests. If we fall for the talk that the bosses and the state can be dealt with on good terms, we let the other side wipe the floor with us. The employer will not give us anything for free, for complaisant helpfulness and concessions. If we just keep on bowing in front of them, we will be the weaker ones.
And that is why, with regard to the fact that from January 1, bosses will have greater control of our means of existence, it would have been more apt to use the strike as means of showing that we will not let them wipe the floor with us. Preventively.
The “We were so compliant and now the government is using it against us!” shocker
After all, the servility of the unions sometimes charmingly boomerangs back at them. When the government tried to divide the workers and pit people from the private sector against workers in the public sector, it said: “Private sector employees tightened their belts last year due to the crisis, and now, when employees of the public sector are supposed to do the same, they selfishly cling on to their money!”
Let us remind ourselves that the government found this stick to beat the workers with partially thanks to the unions: it was them who boasted of their patriotism and their acceptance of the needs of the economy and the private sector bosses! The government merely expected them to do the same in the public sector.
Scandalous? Not really. More of a confirmation that concessions never do any good. The government’s expectation had its logic, after all: if the unions could meet the needs of the economy during the crisis in the private sector, logically they should do the same in the public sector.
(For the record, the union boss Zavadil had an explanation: the employees of the private sector deserved a tightening of belts, as during the crisis there were less orders and therefore less work! A remarkable confession: the unions think, it seems, that the crisis which caused a decrease in orders, was not a result of the capitalist economic cycle, but the workers‘ own fault – which they should pay for!)
One more note: clearly, the economic weight of a strike in, say, a library or a government office, is not staggering, and support from the private sector would be of immense help. The union boss Středula talked mysteriously about a certain unnamed large enterprise, which was to support the strike in the public sector. Of course, on December 8, this enterprise was nowhere to be seen. Cross-sector solidarity can hardly arise through official union channels. But if I am about to wage a struggle and I want it (or at least information about it) to spread beyond my own workplace, I could do a lot worse (although in the Czech Republic this is not too common) than take a leaflet to the nearest company, or at least post something on an on-line forum of its employees. It can hardly be epoch-making, but at least the employees of the neighbouring enterprise will find out what is going on. The imaginary border between workers in a town or a quarter will be smashed. Learning about the advantages of practical solidarity, and getting to know them in practice, is not the only thing that requires time. We have got to start somewhere, though.
Not all can be blamed on the unions
What we wrote in a previous KPK Bulletin about the strike in July 2008 applies as well to the situation in the public sector of autumn 2010: the unions are weak – on one hand, they do not want to mobilize the workplaces, but on the other, they would not even be able to, as in most workplaces they are not a living organization and their real influence on employees is very small. (In some workplaces, people do not even know of the union’s “functioning”.)
The position of the union leaders now is not so good. They lost in the public sector, the strike did not frighten the government, and the protests under their direction are reliably impotent. How will they defend their credibility in the eyes of employees? They resort to abstract support based on surveys (the strike is supported by 60% of the people, Zavadil emphasized – without adding that surveys never won anything for the workers, as bosses and governments simply don’t care about them). They also resort to trivializing the defeats and pointing towards the future, to the attacks of the government that are yet to come.
Of course, the behaviour of the unions is certainly not the only reason why nothing interesting, or even nothing at all, took place at the workplaces.
Silence and passivity reigned over the workplaces not just because the unions pacified, tranquilized and held back the workers.
There can be no doubt that unions do not favour workers‘ self-activity and self-organization. But a major enemy of workers today is their own passivity. Not everything can be blamed on the unions.
To say that the unions tried to eliminate any activity in the workplaces, because they did not want to let the genie of an independent, self-organized workers activity, which could easily overwhelm the unions, out of the bottle, would be too optimistic.
So far, the workers in the Czech Republic are not trying to find out what sort of power they can develop in the workplace against the bosses. With one, very specific exception.
More blows than usual
The result of the scuffle over wages and working conditions in the public sector is a testimony to the government about how “strong” an “opposition” the unions can mount. The attack on public sector workers was just the start, though. More worsening of working-class living standards is on the way. Add to this that this is the worst offensive against us launched from the side of state and employers since 1989.
So far, capitalism has been serving us reforms and worsening of living standards in a discreet way, so to speak. The reforms at the general social level did not go hand in hand with a tightening of screws at the level of individual workplaces.
Looking back, we notice – at the social level – the liberalization of prices in 1991 and not many other decisive reforms in the 1990s. These came only with the social-democratic government in the new millennium, and then during Topolánek’s and Fišer’s governments. Repression at the level of workplaces did not go hand in hand with the reforms; the screws were not tightened all at once. The biggest shocks in workplaces came in 1997, when unemployment began to rise, in 1999/2000, when wages were not paid in many enterprises, and then mostly thanks to the social-democratic government.
Yes, it was this political ally of the unions who in 2003 tried to lower wages in the public sector and two years later came with a new Labour Code, which made layoffs easier and gave the bosses an instrument for employing people depending on the amount of outstanding orders (the so-called working time accounts). That is yet another reason why it was perfectly justified to scream at the social democrats Zaorálek and Sobotka, who paraded at the September 21 demonstration, “You don’t belong here, here are the workers! Politicians out!”, as one of the participants did.
The situation of today is completely different. It is unique because the screws are being tightened on all fronts at once. At the level of private sector workplaces, workers faced repression in 2009 and 2010 in the form of a stagnation or even a decrease in wages, a spreading of precarious forms of work, lengthening of the working day, intensification of work and a the return of unemployment. Workers in the public sector are next.
The measures targeting the working class await all of us – workers in both the private and the public sectors, students, unemployed and pensioners, at the general social level. The government plans are not completely clear yet (which only suits the government, of course). What has surfaced so far demonstrates the great anti-worker ambitions of the coalition:
an increase in VAT from 10 to 19 percent (= increase of prices of food and other necessities), pension freeze and limiting their further increases to inflation, pension reform (partial privatization), increase in income tax for individuals, tougher state repression against migrants, amendments to the Labour Code favouring the companies, legal extension of precarious forms of work (lower severance pay, easier conditions for short-term contracts), tougher conditions for receiving unemployment benefits and getting the state to pay for medical and social insurance during unemployment, “participation” of patients in health care, public university fees, abolition of tax exemptions on employee benefits (meal and transport vouchers etc.)
Collective bargaining as a way of returning the blows
We should keep in mind what the government is planning. Not to lament over it with the unions, but to take it as a challenge and pay attention to it in practice: for example, the establishment of collective contracts in workplaces.
In what sense? The bosses and the state are one family, and that is how we should treat them. If the state is making our life more expensive, we should be trying to compensate for that in the workplaces.
How much more expensive the reproduction of our labour-power will be (and how much more expensive it will be to keep ourselves in shape to work for the bosses), what the impact of reforms on our wallets and family budgets will be – that is for the unions to count up. They are efficient in analyzing and documenting the injuries the government and bosses cause us. These can be dramatically lamented in speeches and television interviews.
But the fight in collective bargaining to compensate price increases by higher wages is up to us. A major union representative already said what he thinks of that: we should rather forget about improving our own budgets from the pockets of our employers. “There will be a greater demand from the employers for a compensation of these costs (the impacts of reforms and austerity measures) in higher wages,” said the boss of Škoda’s union, Jaroslav Povšík, suspecting the workers. He added that “This will create pressure on the employees‘ representatives to take the price increases in to account, but this will not be possible everywhere.” This is how the unions think ahead.
As always, it holds that in capitalism, nothing is for free. Even the struggle for higher wages and better working conditions requires a lot – energy, determination, wits. But it is the only way of gaining anything in the current situation. The reward can be not only better living conditions, but also the consciousness of our own interests and collective power as workers; an even more important benefit for the future.
January 23 2011
Collectively Against Capital (Kolektivně proti kapitálu, KPK)
Czech / Slovak Republic