Thousands protest in Prague at government's public finance reform

15-09-2003

On Saturday thousands of trade union members from all corners of the Czech Republic converged on Prague for the biggest workers' protest seen in the city for six years; some estimates said up to 20,000 took part. The unions are fiercely opposed to planned government cutbacks intended to address the country's record budget deficit. However, after a meeting on Sunday, the leaders of the three parties in the governing coalition said they would make only small changes to their planned reforms.

Trade union members on Palachovo Square, photo: CTKTrade union members on Palachovo Square, photo: CTK "This is not a reform but a 'deform'," declared one of the trade union leaders from a platform on Palachovo Square in the centre of Prague, where the protesters finally ended their march on Saturday afternoon. Thousands of angry trade unionists, wearing hats with logos of their organisations, cheered and shouted slogans borrowed from November 1989 demonstrations, when the protesters' common cause was to bring down the communist regime.

The unifying idea behind Saturday's protest was disagreement with some of the measures the government is proposing to halt the growth of the state budget deficit. Trade unionists criticise such measures as a proposed reduction of sickness benefits and a later retirement age for both men and women.

"I will get eight more years. I was supposed to retire at 55 and now I'll have to work until 63. That's awful for women! It's really, really terrible!"

That is the view of the women workers from the Chomutov Steelworks who came to Prague from northwest Bohemia.

Milan Stech, photo: CTKMilan Stech, photo: CTK Although the leaders of the three coalition parties, who met on Sunday, denied being influenced by Saturday's trade union action, they said the government might back off in allowing women to retire earlier or including the years spent on studies into people's pensions.

The heads of the coalition parties, along with Finance Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, are to meet trade union leaders on Tuesday afternoon, when the latter are expecting to get the government's final statement to their demands.

If the trade unions are not satisfied with the result, the head of the country's largest trade union organisation, Senator Milan Stech, says other protests will follow.

"If the government sweep our demands under the carpet and behave arrogantly towards us, there might be other protest actions. They might be more widespread and they might have a bigger impact than this action. Saturday's demonstration was conceived in a way that would not harm our economy. We support reform but it would have to be more acceptable for the people we represent."

15-09-2003