Credit: Freepik

Most Schools and Dozens of Unions Join Largest Czech Strike Action In Many Years

The unions say they are ready to continue their protests if the government does not negotiate with them. Credit: Freepik.

Prague, Nov 27 (CTK) – Trade unionists are protesting the direction of the Czech Republic under the current government, and are ready to continue their protest actions if the government does not negotiate with them, Josef Stredula, head of the Bohemian-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions (CMKOS), said at the beginning of today’s demonstration against the government’s budget plans.

In a short speech on Prague’s Malostranské náměstí, he also criticised the government’s approach to dialogue and communication. “Social dialogue is not that you meet in the same room, but that you look together for a way forward and compromises that would help everyone,” he said.

The unions are protesting against the shape of the government’s consolidation package and pension reform, the failure to raise public sector salaries, expensive energy, high inflation, an unresolved minimum wage increase and a lack of money for education. They complain that the government is not seeking a compromise.

According to the union leaders, the strike is taking place today in all regions in a number of schools, companies or offices. In some places, work has stopped for an hour, in others for two hours or for the whole day. According to school unionists, 74% of all regional schools closed or restricted their operation completely today.

However, the trade unions would not meet Labor and Social Affairs Minister Marian Jurecka (KDU-CSL) after the march as planned, Stredula told CTK.

“We are ready to negotiate,” he reiterated. However, he said the meeting with the labour minister would take place “only if” the K5 (the leaders of the five government parties) also convened and negotiated with the leaders, he added.

According to CTK, the unionists were supposed to meet Jurecka, who had cancelled a trip to Brussels today for a meeting of the EU labour ministers because of the situation, after the demonstration, but cancelled the meeting. The Labor and Social Affairs Ministry did not comment on the information.

Stredula called for the K5 to meet the unions on Sunday.

Prime Minister Petr Fiala (ODS) said this morning that the government was ready to continue negotiations with the leaders, but not under pressure. He reiterated that the financial recovery and the pension reform were necessary and the cabinet would not back down from them. He mentioned that the Tripartite Council meeting is scheduled for next week.

The trade unionists said that the adopted consolidation package could be changed and the tax settings needed to be adjusted.

Doctors and paramedics do not want their protest to affect care, Martin Engel, president of the Czech Doctors’ Trade Union, told the demonstration. “We should not allow ourselves to be pitted against each other,” he said in a message to patients, adding that doctors originally objected to an overtime adjustment that would make them “serfs.”

“Now we want more, we want to preserve quality and affordable health care for you, the patients, and us, the healthcare professionals,” Engel said.

Pavel Bednar, head of the Trade Union of State Bodies and Organisations, mentioned the demands on workers in culture, ensuring state security, and others. He also reiterated that if the government did not enter into dialogue with the unions, the protests would continue. Healthcare, education and security are basic functions of the state that this government is failing to fulfil, he stated.

It should be clear to the prime minister that cutting spending on education does not lead to a brighter tomorrow, but to a developing country, said Frantisek Dobsik, head of the education sector union. That is not where schools and people want to go, he said. The underfunding of education is affecting not only regional education, but also universities, he added.

Roman Durco, chairman of the KOVO trade union, mentioned the unions’ dissatisfaction with the decline in real wages and changes in pensions. Like Bohumir Dufek of the Association of Independent Trade Unions (ASO), he spoke of the reluctance of Labour and Social Affairs Minister Marian Jurecka to negotiate an increase in minimum wages and the impact of the increase in electricity prices.

The trade unionists marched to Malostranske namesti from the Rudolfinum, with union leaders including Stredula carrying a banner reading “For a better future for the Czech Republic” at the head of the march.

The march, which included a number of banners, state flags, trade union flags and flags of some political parties, led past the headquarters of the Finance Ministry, where the participants booed and shouted. According to a CTK reporter, most of the lower part of the square then filled up, to the tram line.

Meanwhile, around 74% of kindergartens, primary, and secondary schools in the Czech Republic were closed over the strike, either completely closed or with reduced operation, said Marketa Seidlova, a vice-president of the school union.

She said a total of 7,213 schools are actively involved in the action, marking the largest strike in the Czech Republic in 30 years. In 2007, for example, some 5,850 schools went on strike, while 1,500 schools supported the protest in other ways.

Several hundred Prague secondary school students supporting the strike marched with banners through the centre of Prague to the Education Ministry after 11am, in support of the teachers and to protest against the Education Ministry’s proposed changes to the funding of schools, which they say will affect both students and teachers and will have a significant impact on Czech education.

Some students brought banners with slogans such as “It won’t work without them” to draw attention to the situation of non-teaching professions such as cleaners and teaching assistants at schools. There were also slogans such as “You are taking away the privilege of quality education” or “The ministry is cutting, the young are suffering.”

University unions also organised a token strike at 13 faculties in support of the protest, including faculties at Charles University in Prague, Ostrava University, Palacky University in Olomouc and the Czech Technical University, the chairman of the University Union (VOS), Petr Baierl, told a press conference.

VOS will continue to work with the education trade union to correct the system of financing education, Baierl said. The higher education sector is not yet planning a strike of its own, but it depends on how the situation develops. If no corrections are made, Baierl said it is possible that VOS will respond early next semester.

With today’s strike, the trade unions are seeking, among other things, more funding for education. They do not approve of the government’s draft regulation, which would reduce the maximum number of hours of teaching funded by the state budget. They also want to prevent a drop in the salaries of non-teaching staff and other school employees.

Education Minister Mikulas Bek (STAN) apologised to parents on Sunday evening, saying they and their children had become hostages in the dispute between the government and the striking unions.

Many principals and teachers connected via the Teachers’ Platform will join the warning strike of primary, secondary and kindergarten schools today, and others will actively support it in other ways, the Teachers’ Platform association announced in a press release this morning.

Dobsik dismissed Sunday’s statement by Prime Minister Fiala that union leaders are not concerned about savings and pensions, but about their own political ambitions.

“The prime minister can say whatever he wants. The support is not that we have deceived anyone or politicised something, but that this is how the cleaners, janitors and cooks perceive it,” he said. He reiterated that the government is not fulfilling its own policy statement.

Dobsik said the trade union’s next course of action will initially be negotiations. “Depending on the results of the negotiations, we will make arrangements. Some colleagues who are more radical are talking about possibly organising a multi-day strike, there is talk of not issuing school reports, some kind of protests during the graduation exams, the admission procedure,” Dobsik said.

Dobsik added that he did not want to threaten anyone. The promised CZK 8 billion would be enough for next year, he said, but there are also medium-term prospects at stake.

The next meeting between the ministry and the unions should be on 5 December, he said.

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