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TRIPARTITE TALKS IN STALEMATE; GOVERNMENT CRITICAL OF THE UNIONS THAT PLAN A NEW STRIKE

Dialogue Stuck, Unions Afflicted

THE CONFEDERATION of Trade Unions (KOZ) and representatives of the employer unions failed to renew their talks with the government on September 16.
They also called for negotiations involving top representatives of the entire tripartite - the leaders of the unions and the employers, as well as Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda himself.
The unions, refusing to acknowledge the meeting initiated by Labour Minister Ľudovít Kaník as an official negotiation, dubbed it an informal meeting.

THE CONFEDERATION of Trade Unions (KOZ) and representatives of the employer unions failed to renew their talks with the government on September 16.

They also called for negotiations involving top representatives of the entire tripartite - the leaders of the unions and the employers, as well as Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda himself.

The unions, refusing to acknowledge the meeting initiated by Labour Minister Ľudovít Kaník as an official negotiation, dubbed it an informal meeting.

A tense atmosphere has been paralysing the communication between the social partners for a long time. The reason for this tension is the KOZ's ultimate demands, which include increasing minimum wage, unemployment payments, subsistence-level payments, and family tax benefits, as well as the valorization of pensions.

They also oppose the abolition of real estate transfer taxes and push for the lowering of the value-added tax on food, medicine, energy, construction work, books, daily press, and public transportation. Unions, emphasizing the harmfulness of introducing the flat tax rate, argue that the state should keep its present progressive tax system.

The tripartite dialogue has been in a stalemate since August 19, when tensions in the relationship between social partners arose due to the fact that the unions and employers representatives declined to take part in a meeting of the Economic and Social Agreement Council (tripartite).

In spite of the absence of the unions and employers, the government passed important bills, such as the bill on the privatisation of strategic companies, and the bill introducing a flat income tax rate of 19%.

The deterioration of the August meeting transferred to the scheduled tripartite meeting on September 4, when the body was supposed to approve key legislation in the social and health-care sectors.

The confrontations peaked with a protest that featured about 1,000 unionists gathering in front of the cabinet building in early September. The protesters appealed to the government to stop social recession, stabilise the economy, and create the foundation for increasing the living standard.

The unions will increase their pressure on the Slovak government with a general one-hour strike, scheduled for September 26.

The strike could be recalled, said unions, only by successful talks with the prime minister. Dzurinda already announced a possible meeting with the president of KOZ, Ivan Saktor, and boss of the Association of Employers, Michal Ľach, on September 19.

The KOZ tries to support its demands by claiming that it strives to improve the social situation of citizens. However, the government thinks that it opposes the basic principles of economic reform and blocks the transformation process.

Dzurinda lashed out at Saktor, accusing him of abusing the unions for his own personal interests, serving his aspirations to become a politician, and meeting personal publicity objectives.

Analysts have criticized the deformed character of the KOZ, arguing that it should concentrate on "relevant" demands that pertain to the employer-employee relationship and should learn to use professional negotiation skills.

According to Viliam Páleník from The Institute of World and Slovak Economy, the KOZ often focuses on issues that have no relation to employees - for example pensions, family benefits, etc. "Those are not topics for unions," he said.

Páleník also deems unacceptable what he sees as the KOZ's effort to paralyse the whole economy: "Today, the methods that the unions use are disputable. Interfering with transportation and blocking border crossings are harmful for the whole economy and will not help the social situation."

Páleník acknowledges the effectiveness of using tactics such as strikes in order to reach demands. However, they must always follow clear aims and come only after unsuccessful professional negotiations, which is not the case with KOZ's practices.

"The level of professionalism in the KOZ is not sufficient. They should realise that they will need economic and legal experts and advisers. It is the only way to effectively negotiate with the government.

"A detailed analysis of the economy and laws would enable them to promptly react to government proposals. Late argumentation automatically disqualifies them from the negotiations," added Páleník.

Eugen Jurzyca from INEKO (Central European Institute for Economic and Social Reforms) shares the opinion. "Resistance by badly organised individuals against strong and well organised groups has always existed. But, the character of enforcing their demands is now changing.

"I think the world is getting to the point in which it needs more professionalism (for example, knowing structural reforms) and less unstructured use of power (for example, occupational strikes with no clear aims)," said Jurzyca.

We will probably know more about the position and role of unions, according to Jurzyca, next year after the implementation of all social reforms.

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