'Free' unions offer their advice

Wednesday, October 30, 1991

By Peter Annear
and Sally Low

PRAGUE — "I have been a fighter against communism for 40 years", Norman Willis, the general secretary of the British Trades Union Congress, told a press conference here on October 18.

Willis was with an International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) delegation that held discussions with the country's largest union federation, the Czechoslovak Congress of Unions (CSKOS), and with members of the government.

Even Prague's conservative press corps were prompted to ask Willis if he knew "that the hero of many leading Czechoslovak politicians is Margaret Thatcher, and others are against even the existence of unions?"

The problem with Thatcher, Willis replied, was her refusal to let people work together. She pushed people apart, and anyone who tried to give an alternative point of view was "hit with a handbag", he joked.

With Willis was a large delegation headed by John Vanderveken, the general secretary of the ICFTU, and including representatives of the US AFL-CIO federation and the German DGB.

Vanderveken also emphasised that human rights and trade union rights amount to the same thing.

The delegation stressed its support, above all else, for the idea of tripartite negotiations between unions, government and employers. They hinted that all is not well in this aspect of Czechoslovakia's flight from tyranny.

Early in the year, the tripartite system promised Czechoslovak workers that the 2000 crown monthly minimum wage (A$100) would be indexed to inflation. When prices rose 50% in six months, the government simply said not a penny extra could be paid. Given the economic constraints in this country, is it entirely honest to suggest that a market economy will lead to anything else?

CSKOS was praised for its commitment to "keeping the social peace" during the difficult transition. However, there were no real answers to one question: how could the unions make their voice heard on behalf of their members and still maintain this commitment?

Wages in Czechoslovakia are about one-sixth of the West European average, many industries are overstaffed by about a third in comparison to Western producers, and the extensive social welfare previously provided by the government is eroding at a rapid pace.

An inkling that the delegation might have glanced at the increasingly anti-democratic face of Czechoslovakia came when Vanderveken said the d about the recently passed lustrace (screening) law [see article above].

It was ironic, AFL-CIO delegate Jim Baker admitted, that in 1977 there were International Labour Organisation proceedings against the Czechoslovak government for breach of the ILO convention against political discrimination in employment. Once again the Czechoslovak government is violating this provision.

Trade unions are the only institution in a position to mount real resistance to the devastating effects of the transition to a market economy on the lives of ordinary people. It does not seem that the advisers from ICFTU will help them fill this role.

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