A general strike in Hungary? Doubtful

István Gaskó likes big numbers but usually ends up red faced. Except Gaskó never admits defeat. Rather he says at every opportunity that his latest failure was in fact a great victory. People just didn't notice it. They didn't grasp its full significance.

Gaskó is president of an umbrella organization called Liga that includes several smaller trade unions, among them the Vasúti Dolgozók Szabad Szakszervezete (Free Trade Union of Railway Workers) also headed by Gaskó. He normally is joined by Gábor Kerpen who heads a small union representing teachers. (There is another larger, more normal union for teachers.) Kerpen by the way looks like a homeless man who hasn't had a bath for months. Gaskó on the other hand is quite well groomed and apparently draws a very handsome salary. Not from the relatively poorly paid MÁV workers but from MÁV itself. I find the whole arrangement incredible. A company paying the salary of the leader of its trade union? Moreover, Gaskó is a member of the board of directors and the information he picks up in that body he uses to his own advantage. It boggles the mind!

Gaskó announced a few weeks ago that he is organizing a general strike. The original date was supposed to be a week ago but then he magnanimously announced that he was postponing it. Teachers and parents begged him to change the date because all over Hungary that weekend was "ballagás," a part of high school graduation ceremonies. Ballagás means "ambling"; the students say farewell to their schools by going from classroom to classroom. I very much doubt that Gaskó decided to postpone the general strike because he felt pity for the "ambling students." By holding the strike a week later, tomorrow, he picked a date much worse from the students' point of view. Thirty thousand students are writing their German language exam. The results of these matriculation examinations may determine the students' future. I suspect that Gaskó didn't manage to get the necessary support for that famous general strike. He needed a little more time.

Although he had an extra week a huge general strike doesn't seem to be materializing. One union after the other voted not to join Gaskó's call for a strike. Gaskó boldly talked about a strike with three million workers! Altogether in Hungary only about 3.5 million people are active wage earners and the number of trade union members is shrinking. In 1999 there were 745,888 organized workers but by 2007 only 496,000. Today their number is even smaller. Gaskó claims that his umbrella organization has 100,500 members and another smaller trade union that apparently will join Gaskó has a few thousand members. Népszabadság, by the way, has a chart that shows that the least organized work forces can be found in France (less than 10%), Spain (16%), Poland (17%) and Hungary (18.1%). Denmark on the other hand leads the European list: 80% of workers belong to unions.

Gaskó who two days ago talked about three million striking workers today lowered his estimate considerably: tens of thousands of people will strike. My feeling is that even that number is too optimistic. However, if his own trade union within MÁV follows his call to strike the situation might be quite chaotic in the rail service. Although Gaskó's men handle only a very small part and not even the most important part of the whole operation, no train can leave without them. It seems that workers of Volán, the state bus service, aren't siding with Gaskó and his MÁV men. They will accept railway tickets on buses and the company will put more buses on the roads. Kerpen's teacher's union is a bit of a problem because not only are seniors writing their German exams but the lower grades are still attending school. Kerpen apparently refuses even to negotiate about the necessary miminum services that teachers are obliged to provide. However, I'm not at all sure whether Kerpen's union will follow the leader in full force. I might be wrong but I don't expect huge chaos tomorrow because of Gaskós "general strike."

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It is pretty clear that Gaskó is one of those militant trade union leaders who is politically motivated. While he certainly wants to destroy the government, it isn’t clear to me what precisely he is in favour of – is he a FIDESZ supporter, or would he prefer something further to the right? Militant “political” trade unionists have some obvious problems. Unless the union can re-imburse strikers from the strike fund, the union leaders are asking their members to make potentially large material sacrifices. Most normal members have to be sure that their action has a reasonable chance of success, and they will be gain from it. The second one is that when public services are affected one really needs broad public sympathy for the cause that is being fought for, for the action will cause considerable public inconvenience. Militant union leaders who can be painted as extreme politically are not in the best position to persuade the politically moderate who wish to travel by train to support them. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher’s long tenure in office was in no small part enabled by the stupidity of some of her opponents in the trade union movement – one or… Read more »
Gaskó’s union are a reminder that sometimes things are not what they seem. He’s infuriated many people at different times with his stubborn and inflexible approach. It’s not easy to see the results of the majority of his strikes – even if sometimes they are well-founded. It would be hard to argue for a huge pay rise for MAV workers, over and above those of doctors, nurses and teachers. However – and this is a big qualification – his view of unionism does actually aim to seriously defend the interests of union members. Should the political situation change, I would not expect LIGA to suddenly disappear, and it may be the case that LIGA would then act more in accordance with the other trade union confederations. It may be in the future, that in certain ways we will be quite pleased that Gaskó is around, somewhat independent, and a pain for all, especially governments of the day. I think Mark is wrong on this – Gaskó’s politics are probably hard-left – meaning that if and when Fidesz enter government, they will have to deal with LIGA, as well. And we can guess that LIGA will not sympathise with Fidesz’s programme,… Read more »