Workers Fight Back in Hungary

04/02/2014 08:19 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2014
  • John Feffer Director, Foreign Policy In Focus and Editor, LobeLog

One of the memorable events of the Hungarian transition period was the day that the taxi drivers went on strike. It was October 1990, and the economic changes were starting to bite. After the Soviet Union cut back oil shipments to Hungary, the government in Budapest dramatically raised the price of gas. In response, taxi drivers and teamsters essentially shut down the country over a three-day period. It was just a taste of what was to come in terms of austerity measures.

But how the strike ended was equally important. The government sat down with representatives of employers and employees and hammered out an agreement. This National Reconciliation Council was Hungary's attempt to create a tripartite system that would advance economic development with a measure of social harmony. That council remained in place for more than 20 years.

But in 2010, "the new government came in and said that it had a two-third majority in parliament," Peter Fiedler of the Liga trade union confederation explained to me at his office in Budapest last May. "The council met, the prime minister came and basically told us that he represents the employers, the employees, and the government (since voters are among employees and employers). So he didn't see why he should have this council with us."

Liga emerged in the late 1980s as a non-Communist alternative to the state-run trade union confederation. It played a political role in the transition process and then, as its president Pal Forgacs told me in an interview in 1990, it began to focus on more traditional trade union responsibilities.

By 2010, however, the government stopped playing by the rules when it disbanded the National Reconciliation Council. Worse, it pushed through a new labor code, arguing that it needed more flexibility because of the economic crisis. "Our actions became more powerful," Fiedler recalled. "Then the law on strikes was restricted, so we couldn't hold strikes any more. We had to find a new way. We held demonstrations. But the government didn't care. There was one demonstration where some 50,000 people marched on the street against the government's measures. The government said, 'We are on your side, we are totally with you!' So, there was no point in doing more demonstrations."

Disrupting traffic had been successful in 1990, so that's what Liga turned to again. "The next step was the road closures, and the police said that basically we could do them," Fiedler continued. "It took three or four months until we could do the next one. From that point on, in June, we could stop traffic at 60 points. Then they wouldn't allow us any more actions. The police said it was causing too much of a traffic jam, so we couldn't do them any more. We had to go through the courts. Then in November we earned the right to do half-lane closures. We did it in 100 places around the country. We said we'd do it again on December 5. Then the telephones started to ring. They said, 'Don't do this, guys, let's negotiate.' Then we negotiated on the new labor law and to have a tripartite social dialogue."

The workers had fought back and won. But collectively they've been losing ground in Hungary in terms of wages and benefits, even as the wealthier part of society has profited from the economic transformation. And austerity keeps coming back, as each new government has asked Hungarians to tighten their belts. "Every four years, we hear the message that we have to do this now but the next generation will be better off," Fiedler concluded. "It's been 25 years. Our children are here, and it's not better for them."

Pal Forgacs passed away in 1995. When I visited the Liga headquarters this time around, Peter Fiedler provided me with the trade union perspective of the next generation of activists.

The Interview

Are people voting against their economic interests in Hungary?

We don't know. But we do know that although 40 percent of voters are for Fidesz, 60 percent of all the people who have the right to vote are not voting at all. So, it's not really 40 percent of the population -- it's only 40 percent of the people who would vote next Sunday. But still, the rightish parties usually have the power to mobilize people, while leftish parties don't. That's why Fidesz won the last elections with a two-third majority. Again that was a two-third majority of the people who voted, which was like 2 million people out of 6 million.

Tell me about the changes in the labor law.

In 2010, we had this national reconciliation council, which had been working for 15-20 years. The new government came in and said that it had a two-third majority in parliament. The council met, the prime minister came and basically told us that he represents the employers, the employees, and the government (since voters are among employees and employers). So he didn't see why he should have this council with us.

So, this council was abolished. After this, we had some very serious actions. In the meantime, the new government said we would have a brand new labor code. Because of the economic crisis we needed more flexibility. This was done without consultation. Our actions became more powerful. Then the law on strikes was restricted, so we couldn't hold strikes any more. We had to find a new way. We held demonstrations. But the government didn't care. There was one demonstration where some 50,000 people marched on the street against the government's measures. The government said, "We are on your side, we are totally with you!" So, there was no point in doing more demonstrations.

We tried other tactics, like half-lane road closures. The first time we did that in June we organized 60 road closure points around the country.

Road closures by?

Cars. We just went there and stopped. It was just a half lane, so cars could get around us. The police at first were very cooperative. We also have a policeman's trade union with us. Nobody really believed that we could do this. At that time, people said that trade unions were absolutely powerless. My personal view is that the government stopped talking with us in 2010 because they thought that trade unions were nothing. We tried the strikes: they banned them. We tried demonstrations: they basically made fun of us. The next step was the road closures, and the police said that basically we could do them. It took three or four months until we could do the next one. From that point on, in June, we could stop traffic at 60 points. Then they wouldn't allow us any more actions.

The government?

The police. They said it was causing too much of a traffic jam, so we couldn't do them any more. We had to go through the courts. Then in November we earned the right to do half-lane closures. We did it in 100 places around the country. We said we'd do it again on December 5. Then the telephones started to ring. They said, "Don't do this, guys, let's negotiate." Then we negotiated on the new labor law and to have a tripartite social dialogue. In December we had an agreement on the new labor code, and a new body was formed, like the reconciliation council for the private sphere. We used to have a similar council only for the public sphere, but it wasn't really working any more. But the government said, "Let's do that also." Since then, these two bodies are working quite well. And we also have something called the National Social and Economic Council, which I already mentioned. That's supposed to take over the part of the National Reconciliation Council from 25 years. But that's not really working because the government isn't participating.

Back to the labor code. In June the government said that it was going to change the labor code completely: we needed flexibility because of the economic crisis. We had demonstrations, and in December both sides agreed to a strong compromise. Still, the new labor code makes it impossible to have trade unions in the public sphere. It discriminates against trade unions that exist in the public sphere.

So, for instance, for police?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.