Strikers assemble near Prague Castle, where the president’s birthday party was to take place
Protesting Czech transport workers closed down the country’s rail network and capital’s subway on Thursday but overall support was patchy across the country. The 24-hour strike was called by unions to protest a raft of government reforms to the health, pension and tax systems and its refusal to negotiate over them.
The head of the biggest nationwide grouping of unions, the Czech and Moravian Confederation of trades Unions (ČMKOS), Jaroslav Zavadil, put the blame for the strike squarely on the center-right government. “Its arrogance, refusal to negotiate and subversive actions caused this strike,” he said at a rally in the center of Prague, at the outset of a march across the city in which over a thousand union members took part.
“This republic does not belong to [Prime Minister Petr] Nečas, [Finance Minister Miroslav] Kalousek or other politicians,” said the head of the Transport Unions Association (OSD), Luboš Pomajbik, referring to the main architects of the reforms. “This republic belongs to 10 million citizens who go to work and still cannot support themselves properly and now have to face up to these reforms.”
Strikers protest at Prague’s main train station on Thursday morning
Violence flared up during the march through Prague by strikers and their supporters when they came outside the Finance Ministry, the target for much of the protesters’ anger. A group of demonstrators against the strike clashed with marchers with police intervening. Finance Minister Kalousek was jeered and pelted with tomatoes when he appeared on the steps of the ministry to talks with some of the union leaders, who blamed him for provocation.
Strikers’ main success in the capital was closing down the subway system, which usually carries around a million people daily and was last closed down completely as a result of the massive flood in 2002. Prague Mayor Bohuslav Svoboda (Civic Democrats, ODS) was forced to concede that the system would not open Thursday after earlier promising that a limited service could run.
But a skeleton tram and bus services continued in the capital. Rail services nationwide were shutdown with some foreign tourists stranded after the strike caught them unawares. Prague Ruzyně Airport and the main national airline, Czech Airlines, said they were operating normally.
Outside of Prague, the picture was mixed with public transit shut down in some towns and cities. Others, such as Brno, South Moravia, offered basic public transit services, and transport workers in Plzeň, West Bohemia, took just symbolic action with services running normally.
In Prague, city transport bosses and unions gave conflicting reports over support for the strike. City Hall transport bosses said around 40 percent of trams and one-fifth of buses were running normally, but unions maintained only 14 percent of trams and 6.5 percent of bus services were operating normally.
Car traffic was surprisingly calm in the capital early morning, though cyclists were plentiful on the numerous bike routes that have sprung up across the hilly city recently. Hundreds of workers took to two wheels along one of the main cycling thoroughfares along the Vltava river to reach work in the morning.
“I set a personal record to work this morning because there were so few cars. It’s nice to see Prague as a regular European city, like Vienna or Munich, where there are usually hundreds of cyclists,” said one regular cyclist. “In one way, the strike will make people think again about how they travel,” he added.
Strike-breaking boat bus
Prague city bosses also offered a one-day only boat bus along a long stretch of the river into the center. “There aren’t too many people so far,” one of the boat operators said after finishing his early morning stint near the center of the city. But the pleasant riverboat service was eagerly awaited by some. “I think it’s a great idea,” said one young student who was traveling to end of the line at Modřany, around 10 miles up river.
Strike organizers, from around 13 transport unions and allied groups, initially threatened to blockade key roads in the city but later backed down and said they would only march. Protesters say the reforms will hit their pockets and livng standards hard.
Unions representing Prague city transit staff say the proposed reforms will do away with their annual travel pass, cancel meal tickets worth around Kč 10,080 a year, up pension payments by an annual Kč 6,000 and wipe out another around 110 perks and benefits. Taxes on wages will rise from 15 percent to 19 percent, health insurance increase by 1 percentage point to 6.5 percent and value-added tax rise from 10 percent to 14 percent in 2012 and then to a single rate of 17.5 percent in 2013. In return, they say Kalousek is offering compensation of around Kč 3,000.
Unions say the government has refused to negotiate meaningfully on the overall reforms, which also include pushing back the retirement age. PM Nečas failed in last minute talks with the unions Wednesday to get the strike called off. But he did agree to postpone a vote on health reforms until further talks with the unions on the details could be held Monday.
After the collapse of his last ditch attempt to avert the strike, Nečas said the action would bring nothing good and only pump up tension and cost the country around Kč 1 billion.
One high-profile victim of the strike is President Václav Klaus, who was forced to cancel a special reception for personalities and diplomats at his Prague Castle seat on Thursday to mark his 70th birthday. Klaus earlier bitterly attacked the strike action and said strikers should be fired.
Historically, the strike looks like one of the biggest protest actions by workers in the Central European country since the end of communism in 1989. Czech unions are not usually prone to work stoppages or taking on the government head on.