Trade unions at the country's largest employer - state-owned Slovak Railways (ŽSR) - finally had enough of dragging wage talks and declared a strike alert on March 9.
The industrial action is set to last until March 29, the deadline which ŽSR management has been given to reach an agreement with the trade unions under their collective agreement.
"We have created space for further negotiations, but if we do not get an agreement with management, we'll strike," said Peter Rozložník, vice-chairman of the Union Association of Railway Workers.
The festering labour dispute goes back to early February, and is basically a matter of wages. Originally, the sides were far apart, with worlers asking for a 35% hike while management was willing to accept only a 5% increase.
After close negotiations on March 9, the gap had narrowed, with unions demanding a 15% increase while ŽSR management held out for eight percent. But that was as close as they got.
"The management offered a partial wage increase to only certain groups of railway workers, moreover on condition that staff cuts be made," explained Rozložník. "There's no way that we could agree to such a deal."
But following the breakdown of talks, management officials claimed the offer given to trade unions had been more than generous given the railway's cash crisis. "Given the critical financial situation at ŽSR, the management was sincerely trying its best to meet the wishes of the unions," said Rastislav Polcer, a ŽSR press official.
Polcer said that the management would explore all avenues in pursuit of a compromise solution with the unionists. "There's still enough time to sit and negotiate a solution," he maintained.
Polcer refused to consider the alternative - a full strike by ŽSR's 40,000 employees, 85% of whom are unionised - but said neither side would benefit from such a course. "Strikes never bring anything good," he opined.
Rozložník, however, said that the unions were prepared to strike if they didn't get satisfaction from negotiations.
The ŽSR is in a critical financial situation, having recently reported losses of 9.31 billion Slovak crowns ($233 million) from its operations in 1998. This sum includes also a cleared but unsettled loss from provisions of 3.466 billion crowns. The operating loss exceeds projections for 1998 by 2.087 billion crowns.
The increased loss reflected a massive hike in operating costs of 28.136 billion crowns, 4.585 billion more than expected. Management says that it simply cannot afford to pay workers more - payroll costs of 9.708 billion crowns made up more than 34% of the total costs. Workers, on the other hand, argue that management was guilty of tunnelling the company, and cite a more than 3 billion crown loss from "financial operations."
In the last week of February, police filed financial corruption charges against Bartolomej S., a former ŽSR director.
The ŽSR's total assets were 73 billion Sk at the end of 1998, while its total indebtedness exceeded 32 billion crowns.