Lucia Kovarovič Makayová, spokesperson for Volkswagen in Slovakia, described the union’s demand for a 16 per cent pay rise as irresponsible. But on 26 June, after six days of a widely supported strike, the Martin plant’s 12,500 workers secured a rise of 14.1 per cent over two years, a review of the lower end of the pay scale, a €500 (US$590) one-off bonus and one extra day of holiday.
“The strike was a bolt from the blue,” said Ján Macho, the Moderné Odbory (The Modern Union) representative at Martin and in charge of engine testing. “Investors know that Slovaks work hard and never complain. They have benefited from the high rate of unemployment, which made workers scared to lose what little they had. But today we have a level of skills that means we can’t be intimidated with threats of offshoring.”
Since acquiring Škoda’s car plants in 1991, VW has staked much on this carmaker’s paradise, taking maximum advantage of a 10-year tax holiday offered by Mikuláš Dzurinda’s neoliberal government in 2001, and of Slovakia’s cheap and skilled labour.
In 2016 VW Slovakia’s workers assembled more than 388,000 vehicles under different brands, including prestigious models such as the Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q7 and VW Touareg. But most of these luxury cars, almost all intended for export to western Europe, China or the US, are out of reach for them. Despite achieving productivity equal to that of their colleagues in Germany, they earn on average two-thirds less: workers start on €679 (US$800) a month in Bratislava, compared with €2,070 (US$2,450) in Wolfsburg.
The strikers had the advantage of surprise. “The management didn’t believe there would be a large-scale strike. The Germans thought it would be enough to tell us we were better paid than other Slovaks, talking about an average salary of €1,800 (US$2,100). But that made the workers angry, as most of them were earning less than €1,000 (US$1,180).”
“We are fighting for you and your wages”
The picket outside the plant in Bratislava felt festive. Karol Klobušický, a Moderné Odbory union councillor, explained that “workers at VW Slovakia managed to appeal to all Slovaks by telling them: ‘We are also fighting for you, and your wages’”.
Most political parties ended up supporting the strike, including the parliamentary speaker, Andrej Danko (of the Slovak National Party), and Prime Minister Robert Fico.
Macho said with a smile: “Fico realised we were going to win. Anyway, supporting us didn’t commit the government to paying, as it would have with teachers or nurses.”
The hardest task for Moderné Odbory union members was before the strike. They had to convince themselves that they could win despite the metalworkers’ union OZ Kovo (affiliated to the trade union federation KOZ, which has close links to the social-democratic party Smer-SD and is the successor to the communist-era single union). OZ Kovo has retained its character as a government communication channel, though union membership has fallen from 70 per cent in 1993 to 10 per cent today.
Tired of OZ Kovo’s inaction and lack of transparency over funding, a small group (led by Zoroslav Smolinský) tried to put pressure on the powerful chairman of OZ Kovo, Emil Machyna, by standing against him for election to the chairmanship.
Machyna’s response was to get the VW management to sack some 15 dissidents. It took an intervention by German metalworkers’ union IG Metall, which has great influence at VW in Germany, to persuade the management to lift sanctions and recognise Moderné Odbory, which today claims 9,500 members — three out of four workers at VW Slovakia.
The strike’s significance can be judged from the importance of the automotive sector in Slovakia’s economy: it accounts for more than 40 per cent of industrial output, a third of exports and a quarter of GDP. By cars assembled per head, Slovakia is the world’s biggest car-producing country.
Between 2000 and 2016, new models from the VW group, and the arrival of Kia and PSA Peugeot Citroën (renamed PSA Groupe in 2016), boosted output from 200,000 to more than a million cars a year. And the new Jaguar Land Rover plant being built at Nitra will assemble another 150,000 vehicles a year from 2018.
Macho said: ‘”I’m certain that this strike will be historically significant. For the first time, everyone had to talk about our position in the EU. We won’t be slaves to western companies any longer. We refuse to go on being the third world of Europe.”
According to Klobušický, “what people want above all is respect. They want foreign companies to treat them as human beings.”
The workers at PSA Groupe have just set up a branch of Moderné Odbory. At Kia, OZ Kovo has already secured an 8.8 per cent rise. This struggle to achieve dignity in employment could be the beginning of the end of cheap labour in central Europe.
Hungary’s conservative prime minister has recognised as much by raising the minimum wage, and the Czech Social Democratic Party has made ending cheap labour a central point of its campaign for this month’s parliamentary election.
Last January, workers at Audi Hungary (11,500 employees) downed tools for two hours to force the management to negotiate, and secured as much as their 4,000 countrymen at Daimler — a rise of around 20 per cent over two years. Serbia’s prime minister Ana Brnabić had to address workers at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’s Kragujevac plant in person before they agreed to end a 20-day strike. Meanwhile, the 20,000 workers at the Škoda plant in Mladá Boleslav in the Czech Republic are talking of industrial action.