A STRIKE by health care workers that started as a local Bratislava protest is gradually gaining strength.
Since the strike began at five Bratislava hospitals on April 6, it has been joined by hospital employees from other Slovak towns, and drawn at least verbal support from the Chamber of Slovak Dentists, the medical students association, and several politicians.
The Slovak parliament was even considering holding a special session to discuss the situation in the health care sector in response to the strike.
Doctors and nurses are demanding a 25 percent pay increase, an increase in medical sector funding, and an end to the introduction of business principles to the health sector as part of a wide-ranging government reform.
It was estimated that by the end of the week ending on Good Friday, about a third of Slovakia's 67 hospitals could be on strike. Hospitals that joined the strike provided only acute care and postponed planned operations and all non-acute examinations for later.
The government, represented by PM Mikuláš Dzurinda, Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš and Health Minister Rudolf Zajac, says the state has no more money to raise wages this year, and insists that doctors and nurses discuss their pay with their hospital directors.
Apart from the Bratislava hospitals, health care employees at hospitals in Prešov, Banská Bystrica, Martin, Nitra, Bojnice, Trnava and other Slovak cities had joined the strike at press time. Some hospitals that had decided not to go on strike showed support for their colleagues by wearing laces or badges on their work uniforms.
Already in the early stages of the strike, some health care employees complained of intimidation from their hospital directors.
Hospital directors in Bratislava, Martin, and Prešov are also trying to stop the strike by having the courts deliver preliminary injunctions forcing employees back to work. The courts have 30 days to rule on the motions.
"We understand that the health care sector had to be reformed to increase its efficiency, but it [the cabinet's reform] fell far short of achieving the desired effect," wrote the strike committee at Martin Teaching Hospital in an open letter to the government on April 10.
"We believe that today, in this time of mass protest by health care employees, the time has come to take an intense, systematic, and fundamental step towards restoring health care as a whole."
The strike committee at Nitra's Teaching Hospital sent a similar letter to top state officials, including the president, the prime minister, the speaker of parliament and the ombudsman, demanding that they help health care staff to address the sector's needs.
"We ask you to use your authority to intercede to quickly rectify past mistakes and address our demands. The accumulated problems have been ignored for a long time, forcing us to the strike," the letter stated.
"We assure you that Slovak health care workers want to provide the best service possible to the patient. All we are asking is that 17 years after the November  revolution, health care staff be allowed to work in dignified conditions that correspond to the meaning of their work for society. Our demands are justified, legitimate and legal," the Nitra strike committee wrote.
Health care professions in Slovakia earn far less than their Western European colleagues. The average monthly wage in the sector is around Sk14,000 (€373), while Slovak doctors earn around Sk30,000 (€800) a month on average.
On April 10, the Slovak dentists' chamber expressed support for their peers on strike. In a statement, the chamber called for health care funding in Slovakia to be increased.
"The health care sector in Slovakia is considerably under-financed and needs an increase in funding to a level comparable to other EU member states," the chamber wrote.
Among the first politicians to support the health care workers was President Ivan Gašparovič, who said that the strike was "a legitimate way for them to express their dissatisfaction" with the situation in the sector.
Surprisingly, however, the strike of health care workers, which was initiated by the LOZ labour union of Slovak doctors, was not supported by other labour unions.
Ivan Saktor, the president of the Confederation of Trade Unions (KOZ), a labour umbrella organization, told the SITA news agency that the LOZ, which is not a member of the KOZ, has not asked the KOZ for support.
Saktor even said that in his opinion the LOZ-initiated strike was "disputable".
"We have a problem with the strike, which was announced according to the constitution. It is a disputable strike," Saktor said.
However, on April 12, before the Spectator went to print, the KOZ board said it supported the strike.
Slovakia still lacks a law to define strikes and the conditions under which they can be called. The Slovak constitution guarantees people the general right to strike, while the Collective Bargaining Act also says that strikes can be called following breakdowns in the collective bargaining process.
The LOZ called its strike under the protection of the constitution, arguing that it does not want to negotiate with employers, i.e. individual hospitals, but rather with the government.
"We are prepared to stop the strike as soon as the government decides to address our demands," LOZ head Marián Kollár told The Slovak Spectator.
He noted, however, that the strikers were prepared to stay off work for a long time if the government does not respond to their demands.