Jan Macháček

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Czech Business Weekly

The unions took us hostage, but for what?

30. 06. 2008
Many critics of the Tuesday, June 24 “protest strike” described it as unacceptable because it took people hostage, and mainly those who have absolutely nothing to do with the relationship of the unions with the government or employers.

Well, it seems that some of these critics believe—or pretend to believe—that there is some kind of attainable ideal world in which strikes do not take anyone hostage and do not damage anyone who stands outside of the relationship of the involved parties.

Such an ideal world does not exist. Strikes were invented precisely because they take hostage even those who have nothing to do with what has caused them. Even strikes in industrial enterprises take hostages, namely those who are waiting for the delivery of goods. Small groups and small unions, such as a union of train drivers whose blackmailing power is very strong even though their numbers are modest, have the power to damage a lot of people. This, for instance, was demonstrated by the famous case of the air traffic controllers who went on strike while Ronald Reagan was the U.S. president. The controllers were replaced by military staff.

Though the resolution of this particular labor protest proved to be somewhat exceptional, the need for the U.S. government to respond in the way it did to the threatened disruption demonstrated how employees banded together have a lot of power to make a huge impact on the lives of others, and reminds us how strikes are usually successful in terms of meeting the workers’ demands.

It is not mere happenstance that the train drivers in the Czech Republic are separated from the rest of the country’s railroad employees when it comes to their union format. They have a lot of power to negotiate the best possible conditions for themselves without needing to show solidarity with others. And they are far from being alone in choosing to take this approach. Think of the strikes of actors and script writers in Hollywood and the strikes of hockey players in the National Hockey League (NHL).

Apolitical strikes unheard of

Similar misunderstandings are seen in the criticism that strikes are not about the relationship between employers and employees and are clearly political. The response to this has to be that yes, of course, they are political, the fact that they are is no surprise to anybody.

At the very least, any strike at a state-owned enterprise is political. In France, a strike is most likely to occur at a publicly owned enterprise, with the railroads, other public transportation services and many other state-held sectors all probable targets. It is either state workers or the farmers. And farmers in Europe are absolutely dependent on the redistribution of assets within the European Union, which is politics par excellence.

As already touched upon, it would certainly be a nice, ideal world in which strikes would be apolitical while only organized street protests would be permitted to be political, but such a world does not exist.

We also hear criticism that there is an obvious conflict of interests in that some union leaders are also politicians. While there is obviously a conflict of interests, it should be added that in many countries it is quite normal that union leaders are also parliamentary representatives or senators.

Unions often strike against the government and against the legislature, but they also often sit on the supervisory boards of companies. In the case that they strike against a company while simultaneously sitting on its supervisory board, there is the same conflict of interests that is evident when a union boss leads a strike against the government, hence the state, and legislature, while serving as a senator.

In Germany, for instance, it is absolutely normal and even traditional that unions are very close to the Social Democrats. The situation is similar in Austria, and it also used to be this way in the U.K. when the country was more reliant on industry.

Nonsense at the barricades

Even though the strong role of the unions is weakening and is not seen as compatible with modern, dynamic, service-oriented economies, it is clear that it is probably not possible to simply throw out some of the provincial influences. And it would certainly be naive to expect the unions to support a right-wing ruling coalition.

In last week’s industrial action, the unions themselves said that their strike was not aimed at hurting the employers. Their goal, they said, was to criticize the government. But this line, coming from the other side of the barricades, is also obvious nonsense. Any strike logically damages an employer. There is no such thing as a strike that does not.

It is important that the ideological nonsense propounded by strikes is analyzed. While this latest strike was supposed to be the strongest labor protest since 1990—the unions claimed more than 1 million people took part while some ministers maintained that number should be divided by between three and five to get the true turnout—it clearly lacked any comprehendible goals.

The unions were, we were told, not happy about some of the government’s reform steps. Discontent was directed at the introduction of doctor fees, the increasing of the retirement age, the raising of value-added tax (VAT), the arrival of the flat tax … in fact it seemed that opposition was expressed toward everything and anything this government has so far done. But what do they want? Do they want the government to resign? Or rule till when? (Even the opposition Social Democrats [ČSSD] do not want the government to resign right now.) Do they want the government to cancel everything that has been implemented?

Where were the unions’ protests before these “reforms” and budget savings were approved? It really seems that the main purpose of the strike was to make the union leaders visible before the coming regional elections. Every government would raise the retirement age. Every government would bring in doctor fees. And so on.

The government should actually celebrate. The strike had no proper goal. And the government has not been given any proper demands. If 1 million people actually protested, there were 5 million of us who went to work as per usual.
What’s more, rising inflation is a global phenomenon. Governments throughout the world have apparently been taken by surprise, not only ours. If, however, the growing prices are not tamed soon, we can expect more frequent clashes between ministers and the unions—whichever government happens to be in power.

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