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RAIL SERVICE RESUMED AFTER A THREE-DAY WALK OUT, UNION DEMANDS STILL UNANSWERED

Court order stops rail strike

SLOVAK railway unions called off a three-day nationwide stoppage after a Bratislava district court issued a preliminary injunction ordering striking workers back to work. The court was responding to a request from state-owned rail companies ŽSR and ZSSK to determine the legality of the strike.
While total losses from the strike are not yet known, the action paralysed the country's freight transport infrastructure, leading industrial producers to fear forced shutdowns due to a lack of raw materials. While train operator ZSSK has said it will be announcing losses in the near future, rail network operator ŽSR has estimated direct costs of over Sk60 million (1.4 million euro) due to the strike.
Most of Slovakia's 43,000 railway employees walked off the job on January 31, protesting a government decision to eliminate passenger transport on 25 regional lines and cancel 200 passenger trains on main lines. However, workers at some stations had broken the strike before the court's decision was handed down.


STRIKING rail workers hold up placards showing some of the routes cancelled in government cuts.
photo: TASR

SLOVAK railway unions called off a three-day nationwide stoppage after a Bratislava district court issued a preliminary injunction ordering striking workers back to work. The court was responding to a request from state-owned rail companies ŽSR and ZSSK to determine the legality of the strike.

While total losses from the strike are not yet known, the action paralysed the country's freight transport infrastructure, leading industrial producers to fear forced shutdowns due to a lack of raw materials. While train operator ZSSK has said it will be announcing losses in the near future, rail network operator ŽSR has estimated direct costs of over Sk60 million (1.4 million euro) due to the strike.

Most of Slovakia's 43,000 railway employees walked off the job on January 31, protesting a government decision to eliminate passenger transport on 25 regional lines and cancel 200 passenger trains on main lines. However, workers at some stations had broken the strike before the court's decision was handed down.

While union leaders said they would respect the ruling for now, they maintain that the strike was within the law, and that further legal or industrial action was possible.

"In no way does the preliminary injunction support what the employers are trying to say - that the strike was illegal. The court will decide on that," said strike committee chairman Jozef Schmidt.

"Although we have ended the strike, we are still discussing the verdict with our lawyers and we cannot rule out an appeal," said Milan Hošták, strike committee vice-chair.

State representatives welcomed the judgement, which came after a week of unsuccessful negotiations between union, railroad, and government officials over the service cuts. While maintaining that railway workers had no right to strike, officials said they would not seek punitive measures against the unions.

"I have claimed from the beginning that the reasons for the strike were illegal," said Transport, Post, and Telecoms Minister Pavol Prokopovič.

"But neither I nor railway managements will be preparing any sanctions against the strikers. Our goal is to resume operation of the railways and to remove the negative consequences of the strike as soon as possible," he said.

Union demands, state rebuffs

The three-day strike, started on January 31, came on the heels of a six-hour walkout by rail workers in the early morning of January 29. In both cases, unions were protesting government plans announced late last year to reduce service and cut employees in an effort to bring the railway's finances under control.

The government's decision to cancel 25 loss-making local lines from February and cut 200 trains from main lines from March would cost thousands of jobs, reduce people's living standards, and leave some regions without public transport, said union officials.

"Maintaining transport on the local lines is our fundamental demand," said strike committee chairman Jozef Schmidt. Unions had demanded that passenger rail not be cut at all.

When talks with the Transport Ministry stalled, union leaders called on Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda to intervene. The PM declined to become involved until the strike was over, however, and suggested that union demands were unrealistic and politically motivated.

"If [cutting local lines and eliminating related positions] is an argument for a strike during huge reforms that also require layoffs, I am sure that it is not protection of railway workers' interests, but a step with a clear political background," he said.

Management from ZSSK said prior to the strike that the cancelled local lines would mean the elimination of 450 positions, though further job cuts would be announced in the coming months.

Snip, snip

Government officials maintain that the cuts are necessary to patch Slovakia's haemorrhaging railroad system.

According to the Transport Ministry, losses in the two railway companies reached Sk3 billion (71.6 million euro) in 2002, up from Sk497 million (11.8 million euro) in 1996, while aggregate debt grew from Sk11.5 billion (275 million euro) to Sk49 billion (1.17 billion euro) over the same period.

At the same time, say ministry officials, average monthly wages for rail workers grew from Sk9,232 (220 euro) to Sk16,347 (390 euro). The most recent data from the Slovak Statistics Office put average monthly salary in the country at Sk13,164 (314 euro).

"This is the economic situation at the railroad, and we are forced to do something. It is not possible to go on like this," said Prokopovič.

Although strike damages are still being calculated, officials from train operator ZSSK have already threatened deeper cuts to make up the deficit.

"The company will compensate its lost sales [from the strike] through wage cuts of all employees by 25 percent or laying off about 5,100 employees without social compensation," said ZSSK spokesperson Miloš Cikovský after the first walkout. He added that ZSSK had already planned 1,300 redundancies this year, including the 450 positions related to the cancelled lines.

A way out?

Since making the original proposal, Prokopovič has said that the regional lines can be saved, but only if other sources of funding are found. One possible solution is for regional administrations to make up the deficits in the lines.

The Bratislava regional government has already submitted a proposal to offer a trial of financial backing to one cancelled line - the 20-kilometre Zohor-Záhorská Ves track north of the Slovak capital. However, it is proposing only one month of support, paid from the salaries of regional officials, to allow quarrelling sides time to find a systemic solution for the regional lines problem.

Other regions, however, say they have neither the finances nor the legal authority to make up losses on the regional lines.

"There is no legislation for this kind of step, and there is no money. Because of that it is not possible to solve the problems of the railways in this way," said Milan Mráz, head of the central Banská Bystrica regional government.

The head of the Nitra regional administration, Milan Belica, rejected the idea of offering a similar solution, saying that, with 220 kilometres of track, his region could not possibly afford to keep the trains running. s

"The Bratislava example is only an empty gesture. I'm not a kamikaze, or such an adventurer that I would take this responsibility without it being covered by law. If the law changes, regions shouldn't take only loss-making passenger transport, but [profitable] freight transport as well," said Belica.

Labour unhappy

Slovakia's umbrella Trade Union Confederation (KOZ) has already said it considers the court injunction stopping the strike to be unconstitutional, and is likely to push the matter to the country's Constitutional Court.

While KOZ head Ivan Saktor said he was still studying whether or not the cuts to passenger transport are justified, he said it did not alter the right of railway unions to strike. In addition, said Saktor, the court's cancellation of the strike infringed on the rights of organised labour as a whole.

"It will be possible to stop any strike in the future using this method," said Saktor, adding that strike rights would likely become a part of ongoing negotiations on revising Slovakia's Labour Law.

"We will use all contacts to inform international organisations how the right to go on strike is exercised in Slovakia," he said.

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