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SLOVAKS DISINTERESTED IN LABOUR STRATEGY TO WIN SUPPORT FOR DEMANDS

Low turnout makes farce of union protest

A threat by Slovakia's unions to blockade the country's main cities and disrupt traffic in town centres evaporated on November 9, as rain, public disinterest and the apathy of union members themselves combined to spoil the protest.
In western Slovakia's Trnava, a city of 70,000 inhabitants, about 40 union activists showed up in the rain to hand out leaflets. A straw poll conducted among pedestrians by The Slovak Spectator found that of 20 people asked, only two knew about the union action. Most answered when questioned, "what protest?"
In Bratislava, protesters were outnumbered by police and journalists. Police kept the unionists off the road, and one protester swore that he would not show up at future actions. "They told me that they would block traffic today, and nothing happened," he told reporters. "They won't get me back here."


Ivan Saktor, leader of the KOZ trade union umbrella group, leads about 80 protesters through the streets of Košice. The KOZ had aimed to rouse working Slovaks throughout the land to blockade highways, halt city traffic and pass out leaflets bearing the union's demands. But the event was a complete flop: protesting workers were outnumbered by police and media, and were largely ignored by the public. Undaunted, the KOZ plans further action on November 17 and in December. See story, page 3.
photo: TASR

A threat by Slovakia's unions to blockade the country's main cities and disrupt traffic in town centres evaporated on November 9, as rain, public disinterest and the apathy of union members themselves combined to spoil the protest.

In western Slovakia's Trnava, a city of 70,000 inhabitants, about 40 union activists showed up in the rain to hand out leaflets. A straw poll conducted among pedestrians by The Slovak Spectator found that of 20 people asked, only two knew about the union action. Most answered when questioned, "what protest?"

In Bratislava, protesters were outnumbered by police and journalists. Police kept the unionists off the road, and one protester swore that he would not show up at future actions. "They told me that they would block traffic today, and nothing happened," he told reporters. "They won't get me back here."

In Košice, the second largest Slovak city, the daily Sme newspaper reported that only 80 protesters showed up. Northern Slovakia's Žilina proved more receptive, with 500 unionists assembling on Štefáníkovo Námestie and others blocking the main highway to the neighbouring city of Martin.

The Confederation of Trade Unions (KOZ), a Slovak umbrella labour group, had organised the blockade to push its demands that the government raise wages, cut taxes and reduce unemployment. Led by KOZ President Ivan Saktor, the unionists had hoped the latest action would turn up the heat on the government after a September 25 protest rally in Bratislava that attracted 40,000 people.

But even before the planned blockade, ominous signs had appeared that Slovak citizens did not sympathize with the union's actions. According to a recent survey conducted by the Slovak Statistics Office, only 20% of Slovaks considered mass protests a suitable way of responding to the nation's current economic problems.

On the day of the event, the hearts of the protesters were clearly never in the blockade. KOZ activists in white lab coats were originally supposed to set up road blocks outside all eight Slovak regional capitals from 14:30 until 15:10 and hand out leaflets. They were also to stop traffic in Slovak cities and distribute fliers bearing the union's requests.

The day before the planned blockade, however, Police Presidium spokesman Jaroslav Sahul said that police would act to keep traffic moving and to quell street violence. A Trnava police patrol chief who refused to give his name told The Slovak Spectator during the protest on November 9 that far from being blocked, traffic was actually moving faster than normal.

The disappointing turnout did not sap the spirits of Pavol Ondriš, chairman of the KOZ's Trnava region branch. Ondriš said that the KOZ would continue with protests if their demands were not satisfied.

"We are preparing a one hour teacher's strike for November 17, the tenth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and International Students Day," he said, standing in the rain on a busy Trnava street corner. "Then, on November 23, we are planning an action similar to today's in all district towns to distribute information. If this doesn't help, a December KOZ rally may resort to stronger tactics."

Judging from the reactions of government members to the November 9 protest, however, the KOZ faces an uphill battle if it is to exact concessions from the cabinet. Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš told the state run Slovak Radio on November 11 that the KOZ's requests weren't realistic. "The Slovak economy simply doesn't generate enough money to cover higher salaries while lowering taxes," he said.

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