Account of a small but significant strike at a Skoda (owned by Volkswagen) factory in the Czech Republic.
Inspiration from Mlada Boleslav?
The biggest class conflict in the history of Skoda Mlada Boleslav took place at the end of March and the beginning of April 2005. It was not that exciting but only one demonstration that was organized and fully controlled by the unions and production was stopped for only three hours in total. It is still worth to pay attention to this particular event as it might mean the beginning of a new round of class struggle in the Czech Republic.
Skoda Mlada Boleslav has reached, unlike its mother corporation Volkswagen, a record total profit of about 3.5 billion Czech Crowns last year [1 Euro = 30 Czech Crowns]. While there was a strike about to happen in the German factories of Volkswagen in autumn 2004 because of massive firing, the atmosphere in Skoda was getting difficult due to different reasons: The enterprise is doing well and the workers want ‘their share of the profit.’
Whistles instead of an autonomous struggle
The wage was about 20,000 Crowns (about 667 Euro) so far, which meant that the workers from Skoda were constantly told they have nothing to complain of because their wages were even higher than the average wage (about 18,000 Crowns, 600 Euro) and more than 65 percent of workers can only dream of such an income. The company management had originally offered to increase the wages by three percent, which would equal inflation. The unions asked for ten percent. Long collective negotiation followed and some started talking about a possible strike. The strike really happened after all but it lasted for only three hours as we have already mentioned. Three shifts took part and 240 cars less were produced. The strike was accompanied by a demonstration that took place in front of the firm’s headquarters. About 12,000 workers took part. The union people suffocated their voices with blowing whistles and kept their hands busy with hitting small drums. In advance, they were all said to follow the instructions of the organizers and to leave peacefully after the end of the event. (A few days before the unions had a meeting with townhall people who feared an escalation of the conflict into the streets of town.) During the demonstration the unions also pulled the usual nationalistic strings: Some shouted ‘We are not a German colony’ and likewise. Demonstrations did take place not only in Mlada Boleslav but also in Kvasiny and Vrchlabi. The meeting in Vrchlabi happened on factory ground and not even the press was allowed in. (We have no information how the demonstration in Kvasiny looked like).
On the other hand, there were some hints showing that the workers’ dissatisfaction is not strictly bound to union demands. The most visible fact is that the work rate was far too slow in comparison with Europe’s average. Now it is increasing rapidly. Workers will also be under growing pressure because of the competition with a new plant of TPCA in Kolin: While a worker in Skoda produces 18 cars a year, one worker in TPCA should produce 100 cars.
Workers vs. Management 1:0
Soon after the end of the strike unions and management made an agreement on increasing wages by seven percent. Bonus payments will also increase by seven percent. All workers will be given a special payment in April (3,500 Crowns, 117 Euro) and the 13th wage will remain, too. The bonus’ for afternoon and night shifts will also increase a bit. The firm will then ‘loose’ about 1.5 billion Crowns (about 43 million Euro).
The management had to face a difficult situation. On one hand it had reached exceptional profits last year but the goal for this year was to ‘save’ (in other words: to squeeze out of the workers) about six billion Crowns. There is also a plan to start production of a new model (Roomster) in Kvasiny. However, the car industry in the Czech Republic is in a situation where it has to deal with a lack of qualified workers. (TPCA has started its production in February and had problems with getting enough workers for only one shift even though it had started a massive campaign in the north of Bohemia, Moravia and even in Slovakia where unemployment is extremely high.) The management has lost the advantage it used to have by threatening to lay off workers in the case of a strike: There are simply no workers to substitute the fired ones. Workers could now take advantage of such a situation. The press, being aware of this workers’ superiority, gave evidence of that by bitterly complaining about the management’s inability to deal with and fuck up the workers as it had been able to many times in the Czech Republic after 1989. The position of workers was much stronger than the one of the employees of Ispat Nova Hut in Ostrava (Mittal Steel at present) who was also threatened with a strike last year. The management of Skoda had only a minimal chance for concessions, so that much more could have been won. If such a situation remains, we might witness much more interesting events than a demonstration controlled by unions.
As we have said earlier, it was the biggest class conflict in the history of Skoda. Before there were only a few strike alerts connected to the unions and collective negotiations. Everything was fully controlled by the union bosses and it never became an open strike. Production was stopped for a while several times on only one assembly line because of high speed (2001) and some workers refused to go to work for extra night shifts (2003). As far as we can say, the latter was rather the result of a union strategy during collective negotiations than it was a result of an autonomous workers’ struggle. The belief in the union does not seem to be weakened so far (60 percent of the workers are members). The question is to what extend the wage increase has satisfied the workers and to what extend their expectations were compatible with the demands of the union. So far it is also not clear whether the conflict line between the workers and the union will be around the question of the work rate, that has not been addressed by the union so far.
The management of Skoda has also an effective strategy of deviding workers into ‘stable employees’ and ‘part time employees’. There were about 24,561 people working in Skoda by the end of last year and 20,897 were ‘stable ones’. Always when the management had to fire some workers, the first ones were workers who were employed through ‘job agencies’, mostly the workers from Slovakia. Unfortunately, there is no information on the attitude of these workers during the last conflict. Did they take part in stopping the production? Are they also included in the wage increase? Or will the inner split become even more drastic?
The threat of moving production to Ukraine also plays its role. VW has already built a factory near Ushorod and its assembly lines produce VWs as well as some Skoda cars. There are also speculations to move production to China and India. But this production is primarily concentrated in local markets and Mlada Boleslav is a far too crucial part of production to be simply moved somewhere else.
We cannot say whether the workers of Skoda managed to break through the vicious circle that consists of outer (the threats of moving the production) and inner (devisions between employees, union’s control) factors if we just look at the result of the last conflict. However, as we mentioned earlier, under the present circumstances it is possible to imagine such a breakthrough.
As soon as this conflict had finished some unease was felt in the press. What if the other workers in new factories like TPCA (Kolin), Bosch (Jihlava), Denso (Liberec), Panasonic (Pilsen), Philips (Hranice na Morave) etc. get inspired? It would destroy the basis on which investments in the Czech Republic take place so far: the absence of class struggle and a politically atomized working class. The fact that there are no unions in these new factories - and if there are, they openly cooperate with employers - may provide some possibility for an autonomous struggle in which any union structures would be left behind. We will see what this inspiration from Skoda will cause and whether it will be able to get over the fence of the Skoda factory. And we will also see where and how this inspiration will have effects on everyday life.
From prol-position news #2, 5/2005