Tram drivers' strike in Prague, 2003

Submitted by Steven. on November 13, 2006

The history of a short strike of Czech tram drivers, with a detailed account from the picket lines. The strike had the first picket line violence between police and strikers since 1989, and was defeated, but still has some important lessons.

The class struggle in the Czech Republic has so far been developing in its more hidden forms. Open conflicts are extremely rare. The capital city of Prague is bastion of right-wing politics and working class conservatism with the unemployment rate far below the state average (in this connection, it is good to mention, that in January of this year the average unemployment rate rose over 10 per cent - for the first time since 1940's!).

The tram-drivers of Prague Public Transportation Company experience daily abuse and hard work - not that this make them exceptional. They are underpaid compared to their colleagues - bus and underground drivers. Moreover, the main feature of their job is extensive overtime working, which results from the fact, that their numbers (unlike with bus and underground divisions) by no means meet the needs of the transport.

In 2001 some drivers, confronted with the the total impotence of old trade-union (which does not even worry with at least pretending the defence of its members), formed a new union Federation of tram-drivers, which immediately began to be more active in pursuing improvement of the work conditions.

Now Federation covers 1/3 of drivers, another 1/3 is organised in traditional union, 1/3 is outside the unions. However, capital made a big mistake by refusing to recognize the Federation as another labour-market mediator, and since its beginnings, Federation has been marginalized and its members have been subjected to harder chicane. This leads to the ambiguous character of Federation, which has not been co-opted into capital on a full scale yet and still bears significant characteristics of spontaneity, which marked its formation. On the other hand, one can already see how the union form suppresses spontaneity - this fact was most obviously manifested on two occasions - firstly when union leaders (who otherwise still work as rank-and-file drivers) agreed to prolongation of negotiations with Transport Company, secondly when they argued against the strike as an extreme solution (however, after seeing the determination of drivers, they voted for the strike).

First attempts at organizing strike for better working conditions and higher wages appeared at the late summer of 2002. But then, Prague had been hit by floods and following solidarity of/with the affected workers was channeled into solidarity for capital and its rebuilding (and thus its reinforcement). So although Prague experienced transport collapse providing ideal conditions for staging sudden, quick and successful strike, the ideological attack was impossible to resist and tram-drivers postponed the strike. Actually, they were the core of provisonal traffic collapse solutions, after the destruction of underground system. Overtime hours raised incredibly.

With survival getting back to its routine, by December 2002 the tram-drivers were again ready to strike. The demand of wage increase was posed rather unfortunately: to even up the wages of tram-drivers with the wage level of bus drivers. This functioned as a split factor among the Transportation Company employees, fully reinforced by the traditional unions, company managers and city representatives. As a result, bus drivers were ready to work as strikebreakers en masse. The officials of the bus-drivers section of the traditional trade-union even went so far as to threating with counter-strike, if the company would subject to the demands of tram-drivers (well, this was a way too absurd threat even for the bus-drivers and the rest of the union bureaucracy).

On 5th of January, Federation represenatives held negotiations with company and agreed not to call strike and wait for the results of comparation study, which was supposed to compare the labour-intensity of the three drivers' professions. City Hall and its company used the gained time to launch media campaign against the tram-drivers, to reinforce divisons of the three drivers' proffesions and to prepare various measures for the case of strike (such as having work schedules ready for the strike, which counted on loayal workers and hired scabs).

As a part of the media campaign, the company made public the wage figures of the tram-drivers - it used figures from the after-floods period with extreme numbers of overtime hours. These figures were about 19-20,000 crowns, which is some 5,000 crowns above the average (with circa 60 per cent of the working class having less than "average"). This of course helped the company to turn part of the public opinion to its side. However, the average working hours of tram-drivers are about 1.5 of the working hours of other workers, the basic hourly wage is 84 crowns (less then US$3). This information, showing the actual misery of the job, of course was not disseminated by the media.

By the 31st of January, the results of the "independent" comparison study were delivered. Even though it actually confirmed the equality of labour-intensity of tram- and bus-drivers, it justified the wage differences by (basically made-up) different qualification demands. I mean, after all, who cares about the actual height of the wage or labour-intensity, class struggle does not need any legitimacy, but in reality even simple things can get complicated. So the Federation refused to recognize the study and called a meeting to decide about further steps. At the meeting, workers voted on strike - dozens voted for it, 4 voted against, though only because they were intimidated by infavourable media campaign. It is worth noting, that at least two workers, who voted against the strike, actually acted the most radically on the picket-lines. The date of the strike was not published yet, so as to not to make it easier for the company to prepare for it.

At the afternoon of the 2nd of January, the one-day strike and picket lines were publicly called for 3-4AM of the next day, the time, when shifts change. The divisons between strikers and strikebreakers did not follow the union/non-union lines, but rather support (or better to say, readiness to join) for the strike varied on the basis of depots. Two depots did not strike. The picket line (see the report) in another one was defeated before the morning. Two depos gave up around noon. Two other depots held basically until the end.

The strike was broken mostly by two factors, one were the strikebreakers (bus- and underground-drivers, occasionaly hired workers, and of course tram-drivers from problematic depos), the second were security guards and police attacks (this is the second time since 1989, when police was used against workers). Although actually in the case of one depot, the strike was reinforced, when the noon shift joined strikers after seeing the video-footage of the anti-riot police attack on their colleagues. It can be said, that the strike was defeated, but the radicalism of the workers was not. Above, I tried to explain the development of the Federation - its marginalization created unique situation, when the tram-drivers actually welcomed support from the outside.

In a way, due to their circumstances, they were able to see beyond the narrow limits of the separate workplace - something one would not usually expect at this level of generally hidden class struggle. That was also why I joined the picket line and stuff. Other supportes were from ORA-Solidarita and there was a bunch of troskyists as well (Militant-CWI and SWP), but luckily they restrained from intervening (intruding?) with their leaflets and notorious papers.

The current situation shows rather sad picture though, when union apparatus of Federation draws back to legal battles with the company.

Interesting figures show, that the costs of the strike repression were equal to the annual wage-increase demanded by the drivers.

Experience from the picket line
Report from comrades from Prague
Picket lines, strikebreakers, private security guards, and the police anti-riot squad: this division of forces characterized the situation at the Kobylisy tram depot on Monday morning, the 3rd of February. Not only was the situation the first of its kind for our group, which had come to support striking tram-drivers, but probably for everyone involved. Fighting on the picket lines is another feature of class struggle that came to the Czech Republic.

At three in the morning the area in front of the Kobylisy depot is rather deserted, from time to time a police car passes by (but still it passes threateningly often, considering this is the middle of nowhere.) Only a little group of six people pass the time next to the station gate. It is freezing and damn windy, which is even more difficult to bear because your body refuses to forgive you for not giving it any sleep. Well, what next?

Yet before we can ring the mobile phone of a driver from the Kobylisy depot who is a member of the Federation of Tram-Drivers, two shadows split from the group and head towards us. "Have you come because of the strike?," a tall guy wearing a tram-drivers' uniform asks us. However, his uniform is not a guarantee that we are welcomed 'guests'; we knew that, regarding sympathies and support for the strike, the Kobylisy depot is a problematic one. We nod, but when he asks, "for or against the strike?," we answer, "for the strike," with an instinctively cautious tone in the answer. "Great then! So come join us!" The situation gets clarified, and we all go to join the other unionists at the gate.

"There is a police van behind the corner and over there are two plainclothes cops," we receive the basic information from the tram-drivers, who are members of Federation but do not actually work at Kobylisy. They came here from the Hloubetin depot; the necessity of their mission merely stresses the fact that the situation will be tough in Kobylisy. The mood of the tram-drivers inside the depot no one knows, not even the unionists. Occasionally, one of them goes in, but returns only to report that there is uncertainty and hesitancy inside. The trade-unionists call for back up - and before dawn another group from Vokovice should arrive. Meanwhile, the picket line is being strengthened by a few additional tram drivers, as well as the five of us from the outside.

First blockade - for twenty minutes
The assumption that the situation inside of the depot is not developing favorably could be made on the basis that, after a 15 minute delay of the first morning trams, only one tram-driver, a member of the Federation, came from the garage. Still their determination was proven when the group of trade-unionists set out to block the first tram leaving.

At this point, police come to the gate and start the fight for positions by asking for our documents. And the legal reasoning? The police must have been able to learn something somehow as they reply with, "You fit the description of a wanted person." "Which one?" "We have tons of pictures of wanted people at the station. Surely you resemble one of them and, if you want, we can take you there and find it." By their sharp behavior the ordinary police officials apparently want to make up for the handicap they feel in the presence of a dozen better-armed colleagues with shaved heads and permanent anti-riot troop emblems on their sleeves. The police ensemble is supported by two 'undercovers' and a burgess cop.

The group of striking tram-drivers behind the garage gate is able to withstand the onslaught of the scabs' trams until they are pushed aside by police at about 4:20AM. The same happens to us, who, after an arrangement with the members of the Federation, were standing in the front of the gate. They manage to block the departure of all trams for almost twenty minutes.

One more try
After four trams were escorted out, our group and the strikers stake out the rails again. Other trams that are ready for departure remain still. The two groups continue to block the gate for additional tens of minutes.

The strikers are joined by another tram-driver (probably from Hloubetin), as well as by the most radical driver from the Kobylisy depot - with his tram. When returning from the night shift, he left it stuck in the gate. It is pulled away in a couple of minutes, but it is still some encouragement.

From time to time some of the strikers come to our group in front of the gate, and we exchange information about depots that are still on strike and about those where police have attempted an attack. In this way, we learn that at about half past four police raided the Motol depot - and that the strikers defended themselves. At the Pankrac depot all trams departed without problems, but no one ever expected that anyone from Pankrac would join the strike. Apparently there were similar conditions at the Vokovice depot, where trams departed after brief rail blockades by another group of strike supporters. The blockade was ended after police gained control over the situation. Depots Strasnice, Hloubetin and Zizkov held out well. The Kobylisy depot was perceived by the tram-drivers as a crucial depot; as if it joined the strike it would add to its success, all depending on the courage inside and support from the outside.

From our perspective it seems that the Kobylisy tram-drivers are hesitating. As we ask those who were enter the depot, "To work or to strike?," a couple of them answer, "To hell with your strike!" But the most of them respond with words such as "I do not know," or "We will see." A tram-driver from the Zizkov depot, who lives nearby, also stops at the picket line and she wishes us that we will be able to hold. We can only guess at what is happening inside of the depot. Even the strikers do not know. But the Kobylisy depot is notorious (just as Vokovice and Pankrac) for its particularly crude management, and surely the police presence played its role by influencing the mood inside.

After a longer time the tram-drivers finally decide to depart. The lights on the stored trams are switched on and the cars are ready to go - only the picket line stands in their way.

The strikers were beaten by someone who was not there

The police push us out again, much in the same manner as before, the only difference being that the police target us, while the members of the Federation are dealt with by two private security guards, skin headed and seemingly close to nazis. "Yeah, those were probably fascist bastards," one of the strikers would later comment about them. It is not hard to guess how he would comment if he only knew the security director of the transportation company, Antonin Fedorko, would proclaim that the security agency did not take part in the attack. Also, there is no reason to wonder about Fedorko's lies; as a former chief of the Prague police, whose past includes raids as the one in Propast (in 1997 the alterative club Propast in Prague was raided under a false drug pretext; in reality, this action aimed to terrorise the anarchist movement by crudely beating people, including a pregnant woman), he has all the qualification and praxis needed for his new job.

It seems as if the story would like to illustrate, how the system works. It fits together quite well: a former cop, who used to disperse the actions of discontented youth, is the most competent person for repressing the workers' strikes.

Something that will pay off
The strikers are performing well in the fight, so to the rescue of the security agents the police must rush, with whom the tram-drivers do not dare to fight. The sharp divisions that can exist within one workplace during a strike is demonstrated mainly by the way the workshop employees of the Kobylisy depot, members of the majority union, are fighting against the strikers as if they were hired the same as the body-builders from the security agency, all defending the bosses.

The strikers after being pushed away go inside the depot; as such there is nothing left for us than to observe the leaving trams over the shoulders of police officers. We chant a bit at the trams, "Scabs!", "You betray your colleagues!" or simply "Shame!" It is quite possible that many of the departing drivers are hired brigade-workers or strikebreakers, but many are also directly from the depot. It has to be said that they took the side of capital in this conflict. "I thought they would hold together," even the burgess cop remarked with disbelief.

We talk for the last time to the member of Federation from the Kobylisy depot, the one who left his car stuck in the gate. We exchange experiences and he thanks us for the support. We reply to him that we have come also for ourselves, that during class conflict workers should not let themselves be divided by capital, the lost strike signifies loss for our entire class.

Yet this picket line was broken. But even this class struggle, that cannot exactly be called a victory, is an experience that may pay off in struggles to come. After all, one of the tram-drivers said that he did not regret having joined the strike against the will of the majority of his workplace. Rather the problem is what to do next.


Text taken from, credited to a "Letter from a comrade in Prague"

KW -