With just six weeks left to the general elections, protests over low wages are spreading across the public sector like wildfire. Thirteen trade union organizations are now on strike alert demanding that the government deliver on its promise of a significant wage hike as of November.
The promised wage hike for public sector workers was to have been an election gift to voters from the parties of the ruling coalition, but an unexpected glitch on Monday has drawn rumblings of discontent from workers around the country; teachers, workers in the health sphere, firemen and police officers are all worried that the promised wage hike will not materialize.
On Monday the parties of the ruling coalition failed to agree on a proposed 15 percent increase for teachers and a 10 percent hike for other civil servants – differing both on the size of the hike and when it should come into effect.
Teachers, who are among the worst paid employees in the country, were the first to react, threatening strike action that could last for several days. The head of the teachers’ unions, František Dobšík, said time was running short.
“We are no longer prepared to stand by and watch this. We are calling a strike alert in order to get through to the government the message that the situation is grave, that without the promised finances the education system, which is already in a crisis, will start to disintegrate.”
No date has so far been set for the strike action, but unions say the threat of a strike is real and would be supported by 70 to 80 percent of primary and secondary schools in the country. On Wednesday 12 other trade union organizations joined the protest, also declaring a strike alert. University rectors, who are unhappy with the money allotted to them, have declared “a week of protest” against what they see as neglect of the academic sphere.
Although the ruling parties had agreed to raise salaries in the public sector, a move they said was made possible by the healthy state of the economy, last minute problems have appeared. Finance Minister Ivan Pilný from the ANO party blocked the Social Democrats’ proposal for a raise as of November saying the money for a wage hike would not be available until January of next year and would, in any case, not be enough for the kind of increase trade unions are demanding.
Deputy chair of the Social Democrats Lubomír Zaorálek said he understood people’s concerns.
“If we do not agree on a raise as of November 1, then those whom it concerns will be left in uncertainty, it is not certain when the next government will be formed and whether the country may not have to operate on a provisional budget.”
Coalition talks on the issue have been put off until next Monday to give the ruling parties space to reach agreement. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said he supported trade unions demands and his Social Democrats would do their utmost to win over their coalition partners. However time is running short and fierce party rivalries ahead of the elections are not likely to help.