Network 4 Debate, Slovakia

Volkswagen Slovakia Paralysed By Great Strike For Higher Wages

Volkswagen employees in Devínska Nová Ves, Stupava and Martin are striking with no end in sight. They demand a 16 per cent salary increase or longer breaks, in what is the first ever strike in the history of Volkswagen Slovakia (VW SK). With 12,300 employees, it’s the largest private employer in the country.

On Tuesday, four thousand people protested in front of the company offices in Devínska Nová Ves (10 km from Bratislava). Most employees with fixed-term contracts went to work in the morning and did not join the strike. Nevertheless, the production of cars ground to a halt. “The demands made by the trade unionists are still as high as they were at the start, and we do not see any space to meet them,” said Chief of Volkswagen Slovakia Ralf Sacht on Monday.

Although the Slovak Hydrometeorological Institute issued a warning of an extreme heatwave that day, it didn’t deter people from striking. The area in front of the company’s gates was teeming with people that morning. The trade union has rejected an offer to increase salaries by 4.5 per cent this year and another 4.2 per cent next year.

The several months of collective bargaining which preceded the strike were marked by divisions and conflicts between trade unions in the company. Last October, the KOVO Trade Union dissolved its organisation within VW SK, due to a conflict between the chairman of the union Emil Machyna and the head of a grassroots organisation Zoroslav Smolinský, who founded Modern Unions Volkswagen (MU VW). In February 2017, the trade unions MUV had 7,556 full members and the grassroots organisation OZ KOVO VW SK had only 564 members.

After eleven rounds of collective bargaining, the negotiations came to naught.

After a two-month interruption, collective bargaining was resumed in March, and MU VW officially became the trade union organisation empowered to represent employees in disputes. After eleven rounds of the collective bargaining, of which three were attended by an intermediary from the Ministry of Labour, the collective bargaining came to naught.

I must be happy at work. There is no way to get a job anywhere else.

Delegates of MU VW subsequently began collecting signatures of employees with approval to strike if VW does not accept the conditions demanded by the unions. Between 80 and 90 per cent of workers signed. Meanwhile, VW started to circulate its own its account of the impact of the strike on workers with various intimidating messages. Young brigade-workers at the entrance gates to the company handed out leaflets with company-approved content. During a meeting of senior management with employees, which is very rare, the heads of the production halls castigated employees for going on strike. Supervisors and team leaders also threatened workers with deterioration in their working conditions or even dismissal.

Prime Minister Robert Fico (SMER-SD) sees the demands made by the company‘s employees as justifiable. However, last week his social-democratic Minister of Economy Peter Žiga dismissed the demand for a 16 per cent wage increase as irrational, stating that the current salary was sufficient.

Employees have complained about unequal treatment and the impossibility of mobility for several years.

Yet if we compare the wages of workers at the German and Slovak Volkswagen branches, we see that the highest tariff class in VW Slovakia does not even approach the lowest pay check in VW Germany. Although the performance and productivity in both countries are comparable, a German VW employee earns about three times as much as their Slovak counterpart. Furthermore, the employment system in VW does not allow a regular worker on a production line to be in a higher than sixth or seventh tariff class. Higher tariff classes can be only reached by an employee with a different position, making career advancement without friends in high places virtually impossible. Once you’re in one tariff class, you’re stuck. This isn’t new; employees have complained about unequal treatment and the impossibility of shifting between tariff classes for several years.

Sacred Retail and Progress

A demonstration is also scheduled for Wednesday. Chairman of the VW Board of Directors Ralf Sacht and Boris Michalík from middle management have arrived to talk with the trade unionists, who still haven’t received an official invitation from the company management to commence negotiations. The agreement occurred during the Tuesday afternoon. The leadership of Bratislava’s Volkswagen will again be discussing with the unionists and at the wishes of trade unions the next, 12th round of collective bargaining, begins on Wednesday afternoon.

 

This text was created as part of the Network 4 Debate project, supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

Bio

Michael Augustín

Michael Augustín is a political scientist and PhD student at the Institute of Political Science of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of politiquefrance.sk, writer and editor of the blog POLE.