Following a series of recent protest actions, a Slovak umbrella labour group declared a 'strike alert' on November 22 to press the government to do more to lower unemployment, increase real wages, reduce the tax burden on citizens and compensate lower income groups for recent price hikes to gas, rent and travel.
The alert, called by the Confederation of Trade Unions (KOZ), follows a September protest in Bratislava attended by an estimated 35,000 people, a series of road blockades in recent weeks and a September 17 one-hour teachers' strike called by the of Education and Science Employees Trade Union.
KOZ President Ivan Saktor said after the strike alert was approved that "this is a serious step - we've moved to the second level of pressure that the KOZ has approved in its strike policy."
Saktor explained that the alert would consist of a public information campaign, coordinating KOZ member unions and forming strike committees - one level below a general strike. "We're preparing our army for an offensive," he said.
It is by no means sure that Slovak citizens will rally to the KOZ standard. An October opinion poll by the IVO think tank showed that only 44% of Slovaks trusted the KOZ, while 36% did not.
What's more, Slovakia has very little experience with labour strikes - the KOZ 'strike alert' is the first such measure by the umbrella group in the country's history - and the nation's peace-loving workers may feel alienated by the KOZ's recent aggressive tactics.
"In Slovakia, we commonly say that 'We aren't like the Poles - we don't strike, we work'," said Darina Malová, an associate professor with the Department of Political Science at Comenius University in Bratislava. "This is a completely new strategy for the KOZ, and they must be careful they don't alienate public opinion."
Malová's study of strikes organised between 1990 and 1994 found that 25 strikes and 50 strike alerts had been called in Slovakia during those years, which she said was negligible given the dramatic decline in the standard of living in 1991. "This country has a very low level of social collective protest," she said. "Our way is peaceful bargaining."
Besides possibly losing public support, Malová said that the KOZ also risked a split within its own ranks if the less militant of the KOZ's 43 member unions withdrew, unwilling to join a strike. On November 11, the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists (SSN) became the first union to leave the KOZ over the recent change in tactics, with SSN head Ján Füle accusing Saktor of "irresponsible" leadership.
Ironically, it is falling union membership that may be driving Saktor towards more militant action. According to Malová, the KOZ had some 2.4 million members in 1990, but this figure had dropped to 800,000 by the end of 1998.
While workers were not willing to put their jobs on the line in a strike over wages, Malová said, a general strike whose motives were political - forcing the government to accept the unions demands or leave office - might well prove a lightning rod for general frustration with economic hardship. It would also give the unions a powerful weapon in their negotiations with the cabinet.
"This is not about wages," she said. "It's a political tool, to help Saktor in his closed-door negotiations with [Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan] Mikloš. I can imagine Saktor finds Mikloš a very tough partner; after all, it's Mikloš's duty to hate trade unions."
29. Nov 1999 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson