Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová watches proceedings at a labour rally on September 25 in Bratislava. She was prevented from addressing the crowd by security guards, and then was threatened with violence by unruly protesters following the event.
According to the Confederation of Labour Unions (KOZ), which organised the event, the participating union members represented 1.3 million Slovak workers from a wide range of Slovak industries and public services. Many were carried to Bratislava by 850 hired coach buses from around Slovakia. Among them were 12 headline-making employees of Pratex Čadca factory, who have not been paid for more than five months.
From the rally stage set up on SNP square, KOZ president Ivan Saktor called for four main concessions from the government, including the reduction of personal income tax, the shortening of the work week from 42.5 to 40 hours, and the maintenance of real wages for public employees next year at current levels. The fourth demand was for a socialist-style law which would ensure that secondary school and university graduates were guaranteed a job immediately after finishing school. He gave the government 14 days to deal with all the requests.
"If the government won't respect our needs, the leaders of all unions will meet on October 20 to discuss more extreme measures," Saktor said at a September 29 press conference.
While Prime Minister Dzurinda did not immediately respond to the demands, Vice Premier for Economy Ivan Mikloš said Saturday on state-run Slovak Radio that the government was not likely to meet them. Sixteen other minor union demands, many dealing with when and how dialogue between the government and unions should take place, have already been granted, he added. "The government agrees with 16 of the 20 [total] union requests. But we can accept only those requests which are not against either the constitution, our economic policy or the restructuring of the Slovak economy. The cabinet respects unions, but it has to develop an adequate economic policy," Mikloš said.
Saktor would not comment on a possible strike. Last month, however, as a speaker at a teachers' protest, he mentioned that the KOZ was considering calling a general strike on November 17, the 10th anniversary of the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution.
Saktor faulted the entire political system for the worker's woes. Since communism, he announced at the rally, the average Slovak has suffered. The social system, he continued, has collapsed. "We have to pay for everything that we had for free before," he said to a sympathetic crowd, adding that under the Dzurinda government the living standard of 80% of the Slovak population has fallen.
According to Roman Kováč, chief of the ruling SDK party's parliamentary club, such statements by Saktor will worsen the position of KOZ in the International Confederation of Free Unions.
Saktor, a political independent who was last year thought to be close to the coalition SOP party, labelled Saturday's rally as positive and said that the KOZ had resisted all attempts by political parties to use the labour union rally for their purposes. "There were as many as 50,000 people, and among them I guess 30% were HZDS [opposition party] supporters," he said. "But the rally was clearly a union action."
Also seen on the square were representatives of the former (1994-98) government, such as Ján Ľupták, the chairman of the former governmental Workers Party (ZRS), and former Environment Minister Jozef Zlocha. Many protesters held HZDS flags over their heads and called for the dismissal of Dzurinda's cabinet.
Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová, who is a member of the former communist SDĽ party, came to the rally to talk to the workers and explain the root causes of the country's terrible economic situation. But she wasn't allowed onto the podium. The SITA press agency on Saturday reported that some of the unionists even tried to attack her physically.
"The rally was abused by the political opposition and by people who had no right to be there," said Jaroslav Volf, chairman of the Slovak Social Democratic Party (SDSS). The SDSS, which forms a small faction within the SDK, was the only government party which supported the organising of Saturday's event.
Monday's edition of the Práca daily, a labour newspaper, published a short opinion poll taken during the rally. The poll showed that most of participants hadn't viewed the meeting as a political action, but instead as an opportunity to show their disagreement with the government's economic policy.
In another political tangle, some rightist youth organisations accused the KOZ of spending far more money on the rally than it had admitted to its members. While the KOZ had said total expenses of the rally would be about 100,000 Slovak crowns ($2,400), the Christian Democratic Movement (KDMS) and Democratic Party (ODM) youth organizations placed the figure at between 13 to 15 million crowns.
The KOZ did not respond to the charges, and no union members have publicly complained that the money for the rally was misspent.
According to Slovak Police vice-president Jozef Petráš, 146 state and 30 metropolitan policemen kept order at the rally. No riots were reported.
The last mass union protest was held in Bratislava in 1995. At that time, as many as 30,000 people showed up on SNP square to protest against the economic policy of Mečiar's government.