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Romanians general strike against austerity measures, 2009
In October 2009, official estimates pointed to a budget deficit of 7.3 percent of GDP for the year in Romania, with the figure constantly climbing due to increasing unemployment and falling taxation revenues. In the second quarter of 2009, the Romanian economy had shrunk by 8.7 percent in comparison to the previous year, the worst rating for an economy in the region. The Romanian government had promised in 2008 that workers’ living standards would improve and their salaries would increase, but in 2009, the country saw a wage freeze or wage cuts for 85 percent of public service workers. The International Monetary Fund and other international organizations imposed a salary law on Romania as part of a package of financial measures meant to help the Government reduce budgetary spending with one billion Euros by the end of the year, in order to get the next tranche of loan from the IMF. The Unitary Public Sector Pay Law (also known as the Unique Wage Law or the Wage Law) would tie all public employees to a wage scale defined in terms of multiples of a base salary of 700 RON (€165) a month. State employees considered themselves disadvantaged and announced their initiative to oppose the government’s financial plan.
The National Trade Union Confederation Cartel Alfa had started staging protests to promote effective anti-crisis measures early in the year. On March 3, 2009, Cartel Alfa had published an open letter opposing the IMF loan. On March 13, the same organization published a statement opposing the measures the Government had proposed in order to reduce the budgetary deficit through salary cuts and layoffs, and urging for negotiations regarding the Wage Law. In the March-May period, various trade unions around the country organized meetings and protests at the local level, followed by protest marches in Bucharest. In April, public transportation workers held marches to the Government headquarters and two one-day strikes. In early May, Cartel Alfa released to the press a list of protest actions scheduled to take place during the summer of 2009. The press release voiced the trade unions’ demand for the resignation, by the end of May 2009, of the ministers of transport, agriculture, labor and social protection, economy and education. The protest movement was planned to take the following forms of expression: sending at least 100,000 letters, postcards, and email messages to all Parliament and Government members and to the President, as well as to all of his staff; street protests and rallies aiming to stop the national tests for entry to secondary schools; local meetings of the trade union federations in metallurgy and transport and trade union meetings and picketing of county authorities during May and June 2009; a 15-minute solidarity strike of all workers in Romania; and a march and protest rally in Bucharest at the beginning of July 2009.
Around the country, worker unions started forming alliances and meeting for discussions to agree on a plan of action. On May 29, public transportation employees from the capital and the province held a one-day strike. On June 1, a coalition of subway, bus and streetcar workers assembled for protests in the capital. Transportation, already a problem in Bucharest, was paralyzed the entire day, causing major inconveniences. In the rest of the country, in cooperation with Cartel Alfa, unionists from different activity sectors organized protests. They held a march and a rally in front of the county prefecture, gathering some 2,000 workers from the chemical plant Oltchim Ramnicu Valcea, who protested against salary cuts – through the application of the technical unemployment scheme – and the threat of layoffs for 1,600 employees. Unionists picketed the prefectures of the Arges and Maramures counties on June 4, 2009, Neamt and Brasov on June 5, as well as Constanta and Olt on June 10 (in total, the prefectures of 27 counties were picketed). Unions around the country scheduled more meetings for the month of June. A 15-minute solidarity strike took place on June 12, and the threat of a general strike was maintained. In mid-June, government representatives finally agreed to meet with the unions for negotiations, but no legislative proposal was ever discussed. Soon after the negotiations ended, it became obvious that the government did not intend to keep its promises. In July, judges nationwide went on strike, demanding settlement of their overdue salaries and a 50 percent pay raise. Workers in the education sector were also threatening major actions.
In early September, the Wage Law was sent to the Parliament for approval. Although contested even by voices within the political field, it was immediately supported by additional measures meant to reduce staff in government agencies, cut wages, and introduce mandatory unpaid leaves. On September 10, public transportation workers in Bucharest held a mass march. None of these actions succeeded in drawing the desired attention. On September 15, protesters from various professional fields picketed the Parliament building in Bucharest, but the action had no tangible results.
In early October, state employees picketed the headquarters of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Liberal Democratic Party (PD-L), both of which had proposed a comprehensive austerity program, involving severe cuts in wages, as well as increased taxation and savage cuts to health and education services. The unions representing underground workers (the Underground Free Trade Unions) warned that they would go on an indefinite strike unless bargaining over the new collective agreement began. Despite that fact that the unions had reduced their original demands for a 25% pay increase to an annual 3.7% growth of the wage fund, the management of Metrorex (the Romanian company which runs the Bucharest underground) refused to start negotiations on a new agreement.
On October 5, Romania was paralyzed by the biggest strike in the past twenty years. About 800,000 public service employees from the education, health care, public administration and finance sectors, 57 % of Romania’s 1.4 million budget employees, took part in a one-day general strike to protest against the Wage Law and the set of unfavorable measures proposed by the government. The strike was held all across the country and affected numerous offices, administrative departments and schools (where students and teachers – wearing white armbands - were present, but no classes were held), as well as other institutions. Police agents showed solidarity by patrolling the streets wearing white armbands. Penitentiary employees joined the protests in a similar, symbolic way, as under legal provisions, police and security forces were not allowed to go on strike. Perhaps the greatest impact was felt in the health care system: 120,000 employees were on strike and, in several parts of the country, people were not allowed into hospital units and the only cases that received medical attention were emergencies and patients already admitted.
The Federation of Trade Unions of Education, the Federation of Alma Mater, the Spiru Haret Federation, the Sanitas Federation, the National Federation of Unions of Local Administration, the Federation of Unions of Public Administration ‘Publisind’, the National Federation of Unions of Finance, the National Federation of Unions of Work and Social Solidarity, the National Federation of Statisticians, the Federation of Unions of National Administration of Prisons and the National Union of Police were all part of the alliance of unions that had joined the protest. The Budgetary Employees’ Alliance included all major trade union confederations in the country. The strike’s main goals were the saving and creating of jobs, as well as the maintenance of the purchasing power of workers. Unionists were pushing for a minimum wage of at least 750 RON, demanding that wage levels return to those in early 2009, that layoff plans be scrapped, and that the Labor Code be kept in its current form. According to the initial agreement, the Budgetary Employees’ Alliance had as its main purpose the renegotiation of the Wage Law, which they claimed reduced their incomes. Secondary demands featured the elimination of national tests for entry to secondary schools. Cartel Alfa called on the government to draft a well-thought-out and effective plan to control the financial and economic crisis. The trade union members criticized the poor performance of the Romanian cabinet members in implementing these measures during the previous six months.
The government responded to the mounting opposition and displays of public dissatisfaction by ignoring the protests at first, and by attempting to blame the unionists afterwards. The Alliance representatives finally met with the Finance and interim Labor Minister, as well as the Prime Minister on October 5. After the talks, the unionists decided to continue protests, as none of their requests had been answered. Union leader Aurel Cornea said the government’s representatives only wanted to prove that everything was under control and that they were willing to talk to protesters. During the talks, government officials called on unionists to stop protests, underlining that any negotiations must take into consideration the current economic situation. Unable to withstand the popular pressure, the governing PSD/PD-L coalition fell apart: on October 5, all nine Social Democratic ministers withdrew from the cabinet, just a few weeks before the presidential election.
Dubbed the largest general strike in the history of modern Romania, the strike on October 5 failed to achieve its main goals (the Wage Law was adopted on November 9, 2009), but it introduced some revolutionary ideas to protesting techniques and forced the government to suspend salary cuts at least in some fields of activity. The initiative of sending personal letters and messages of protest to all decision-makers, at least, seemed to be a novelty in trade union action in Romania. The large street protests reminded the population of the ones in the early 1990s, when people protested in front of the Government, suspending work for a couple of days.
The strike motivated similar protest actions as well. On October 6, over 20,000 people rallied at the Government building, asking that the minimum wage be increased in 2010 and that the Wage Law be reviewed. On October 7, 15,000 workers and public servants took to the streets of Bucharest to protest, bringing traffic in the national capital to a standstill for hours. Another token strike was held on October 23, and an indefinite general strike was called for October 28. The unions asked their members to boycott the presidential election on November 22. Another general strike took place in 2010.