Hungarian government puts clamp on union property

Wednesday, August 21, 1991

By Peter Annear

PRAGUE — The Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) government has opened a serious attack on the country's new trade unions, which have grown in strength since last October's taxi and transport workers' blockade.

Parliament passed legislation on July 12 defining procedures for the redistribution of the unions' property, which was taken over from the old official federation. Sandor Batonyi, leader of the radical Solidarity Workers Union, began a hunger strike to protest against the new regulations, which are unprecedented in so-called democratic societies.

Local union organisations now expect their accounts and strike funds to be investigated. For many unionists, the new act is the last straw, breaking their illusions in the new "democracy" and shattering their hopes for the ending of authoritarian rule, reports trade union economist Laszlo Andor from Budapest.

"A system in which members of parliament can arbitrarily decide which organisation can and which can not participate in public life can hardly be called 'democracy'", he says.

According to Andor, the act is openly directed against the new National Federation of Hungarian Trade Unions (MSZOSZ) — the largest successor of the former monolithic, official National Council of Trade Unions (SZOT) — with more than 2.5 million members, comprising two-thirds of all organised workers.

Hungary's two main parties, the MDF and the opposition Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), which combined to push to legislation through, have aimed at the destruction of MSZOSZ since the earliest days of the newly elected parliament. Their plan, says Andor, is to promote the conservative MDF-aligned National Federation of Workers Councils (MOSZ) and the liberal SZDSZ-aligned Democratic League of Independent Trade Unions (FSZDL or "Liga").

In the period since its March 1990 congress and following October's blockade, the MSZOSZ has gradually recovered from its previous state of paralysis. In the process, it got rid of more than 1000 bureaucrats. Some MSZOSZ branches have become the most militant and powerful representatives of workers' interests in the circumstances of a deepening economic crisis, and increasingly have criticised the most scandalous aspects of the economic transition, says Andor.

During its first 14 months, the parliament dealt predominantly with administrative issues of the economic transition. The right-wing

parties had expected the influence of the MSZOSZ to decline and hoped their own allied union federations would grow as a result of their political affiliations and performance. But their expectations proved false.

In response to the government's announcement in May of staggering price increases for heating and energy, the MSZOSZ leadership called for a two-hour national warning strike, demanding not only a reduction in the price increase or financial compensation but also more public control over the privatisation process, the adoption of a blueprint for employee ownership and restoration of the free summer holiday train ticket that existed under the previous regime.

The Liga and the Workers Councils immediately condemned the strike call. But, fearful of a strike at the beginning of the tourist season and only weeks before the coming IMF review of Hungary's economic performance, the government granted significant concessions. As a result, the strike plan was shelved.

Moreover, by June the MSZOSZ was finalising plans for launching a new employees' bank and an insurance company designed both to improve its own financial situation and to benefit workers' savings and relief. "The scheme would mean a definite consolidation of the MSZOSZ", says Andor.

"The MSZOSZ seemed to be getting too strong at a time when, according to Labour Secretary Gyärgy Schamshula, unemployment is going to double within the next half year, from less than 200,000 to more than 300,000. Probably, these were the considerations that speeded up the preparations of a counterattack in parliament.

"Then, in June, the MSZOSZ and four other federations signed an agreement about sharing the former SZOT property proportionally, according to the membership of each federation. Again, the Liga and the Workers Councils did not join the agreement, preventing it from being complete and legitimate as far as the government was concerned.

"While for more than a year the liberal and conservative parties (which make up 90% of MPs) have engaged in a power struggle and battled to win economic advantages for their own social allies, they have proved to be extremely united against the working class. A sort of employee share ownership program was promised on June 12 for a month later, but a totally different kind of act was adopted on July 12, formulated by an MDF, an SZDSZ and a Young Democrat (FIDESZ) MP, in association with, and entirely for the benefit of, the Liga and the Workers Councils."

Under the act, all union members must reregister their membership

within one month and require their employing firm to discount and transfer their union fee, though the firm can reject this demand. Secondly, the law suspends the property of the unions and establishes a four-member body consisting of representatives of the MSZOSZ, the Liga, the Workers Councils and the remaining federations collectively to manage financial issues in the provisional period. Regardless of membership, each federation will have one vote.

Union property will be redistributed not in proportion to membership but according to a still undefined measure of "popular support". This will depend not simply on new union elections, but on a sort of "reselection" that will benefit the US-financed Liga and the government-affiliated MOSZ, which are favoured by the media, says Andor.

Parliament adopted the act by a vote of 211 in favour and 2 against, with less than two-thirds of the MPs voting. The Socialist Party (MSZP) having bitterly argued against the act, did not participate in the voting. Former foreign minister and Socialist Party president Gyula Horn condemned the act as unconstitutional and in breach of several international agreements. Andor thinks it could begin a dangerous breakdown in the rule of law.

President Arpad Gäncz (SZDSZ) signed the act almost immediately, despite union protests. Dozens of union leaders, who had tremendous trust in Gäncz as a result of his high popularity rating compared to other leading politicians and his moderating role in some previous debates with the government, signed a letter to Gäncz. Former dissident Marxist, now SZDSZ leader Janos Kis described the act as one which facilitates the return to a free union organisation.

The MSZOSZ (as well as the MSZP) will submit the act to the Constitutional Court for review. MSZOSZ leader Sandor Nagy regards the law as part of a political battle aimed at preventing the development of a strong socialist or Social Democratic left based on the trade unions.

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