The Orbán government doesn’t spare its old allies

My heart doesn't go out to István Gaskó. Do you remember who he is? He is the leader of one of the numerous trade unions at MÁV (Hungarian State Railways). In addition he is the leader of the Democratic League of Independent Trade Unions, an umbrella organization of innumerable small trade unions representing over 100,000 workers. While most of the other trade union leaders are closer to MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party), István Gaskó clearly supported Fidesz when it was in opposition. He organized strike after strike, making demands that were clearly unreasonable. His strikes weren't particularly successful. When, for instance, he predicted a general strike that would bring the country to a standstill only a few thousand railroad workers followed him and then only for a few hours. I wrote about Gaskó as someone who was making points with Viktor Orbán ("Are Hungarian strikes a Fidesz political weapon?" and "Chaos repeated?"). Surely he was hoping for a reward when Fidesz came into power.

But Viktor Orbán is not the grateful type. In fact, if someone outside of the charmed circle makes a deal with him, that person can be pretty sure that he is going to be ruined as soon as Orbán no longer needs him. The best example of that kind of treatment is the case of József Torgyán, the leader of the Smallholders party, by now defunct. Torgyán, a buffoon by the way, who made possible the formation of the first Orbán government, was ruined and dispensed with as soon as Orbán no longer needed the votes of the Smallholders. Once the budget for two years (a Fidesz invention) was passed, Orbán moved with full force against Torgyán, his son, his ministers. In no time Torgyán was forced to resign as minister of agriculture. Well, something like that is happening to Gaskó now, but his fall from grace is not so dramatic because he never achieved such heights as Torgyán did.

Whether promises were made to Gaskó or not we will never know for sure, but rumors were circulating that Gaskó might get an important job in the new government as payment for services rendered. Of course, Gaskó today denies these rumors, but my feeling is that there was at least the expectation of reward on Gaskó's part. After all, his comrade-in-arms, Gábor Kerpen, leader of one of the two teachers' unions, received a cushy job from Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary in charge of education. He became the head of the Oktatási Hivatal (Office of Education) that seems to be handling organizational tasks connected to schools and universities. And what happened to Gaskó? He remained head of his own union and of the Liga (League) as the umbrella organization is informally called. No promotion, no new job.

Well, that's bad enough, but that the government is also preparing legislation that would make the law governing the activities of the trade unions tougher seems to be too much for Gaskó. In the last six months Gaskó never joined the other trade union leaders in criticizing the government, and he kept repeating that one must give the new government time. But now Gaskó is shaken. Hírszerző entitled the article dealing with Gaskó and the new trade union law "Orbán and co. executes their ally of yesterday." Well, no execution, but one thing is sure: if this bill passes (and why wouldn't it?) Mr. Gaskó will not be able to start a strike with only an hour's notice and without some prior agreement of minimum service.

As far as I understand the present setup, a strike by workers of a public utility company (including public transportation) is legal even if the two sides can't agree on the extent of minimum service. The new bill stipulates that if there is disagreement on minimum service either party can turn to the courts and the court's decision is final. However, if the court can't decide, no strike can take place; if it is held, it is illegal. That's what got Gaskó's goat. He considers this ruling unconstitutional. Gaskó is not the only one who considers the proposed legislation worrisome. Gábor Nemes, one of the union leaders at the Budapest Transit System and a friend of Gaskó, also expressed his misgivings.

But that's not all. The bill will also make some of the financial privileges of union leaders obsolete. I remember my utter astonishment when I found out that state-owned companies give very high salaries to the trade union leaders. In Gaskó's case, the situation is even stranger. He is also a member of the board of directors of MÁV. I find this absolutely ludicrous. If the employees want to have full time union leaders their salaries should be paid from union dues. But in Hungary even lesser leaders got fully paid days off from work in order to devote themselves to union duties. It seems that this would come to an end if the bill passes.

The government has other, in my opinion sensible suggestions. As it stands now, union dues are deducted and collected by the employer. The bill would stipulate that in the future the unions themselves would be responsible for collecting union dues. Needless to say, unions leaders don't like that either.

The proposed bill that got onto the website of Liga has neither a date nor the name of the submitter. Gaskó and other union leaders suspect that these changes will be part and parcel of the very large bill containing next year's budget. These provisions will be hidden somewhere among the thousands and thousands of paragraphs of the budget bill.

The Hírszerző article is followed by about fifty comments. Almost all of them are delighting in the fact that Gaskó fell on his face. Here are a few:

Gaskó and company deserve their fate. For years they have done Fidesz's dirty work with phony strikes.

Gaskó deserves what he gets. In vain was he sucking up to Fidesz and took people to the street.

You poor, stupid Gaskó, Orbán screwed you? Orbán betrayed you? What did you expect you, simpleton? Where have you been? Orbán betrayed MDF, the Smallholders, he devoured the Christian Democrats, he trampled down everything and everyone, including the rule of law. You thought that you were an exception? You deserve it!

 

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Paul
Guest
Orbán is as nothing compared to the evil that was Thatcher. After she had finished with the unions in the UK, striking became virtually impossible. Not only do unions have to have (and win) a postal ballot before calling a strike, but strikes can be legally prevented by appealing to a judge if just one minor infringment of the exact letter of the law is discovered. The recent British Airways strikes were delayed several times when BA lawyers managed to find tiny things that the union had got wrong. In one case it was that the union’s address list was out of date and a few members who had since died had been sent ballot papers! And one union coming out in support of another (even in the same industry) – one of the corner stones of the sirt of coordinated political action that gave us democracy and freedom – was made illegal (and not re-legalised by Blair, even after 13 years). OV has a long way to go before he catches up with the ‘modern’ West. On a different note, it’s odd that the last commentator regards KDMP as having been “devoured” by Fidesz. They have been ‘devoured’ about… Read more »
whoever
Guest

I find Eva’s tone here quite amusing for someone who considers herself to be on the ‘left’ of the political spectrum.
Eva, take it from me – in the US or the UK, you would be considered a conservative. Perhaps a liberal conservative, but a conservative none the less. It doesn’t make everything you write wrong – but please, stop talking about a ‘coalition of social democrats and liberals’ – because you’re not really interested in social democracy, or democratic socialism, are you?
In any case, this further confirms my belief that those who see the death of ‘democracy’ in Hungary are absolutely wrong. Fidesz will have no need to gerrymander elections or rig them in some way. Just look through the opposition, closely, one by one, and you will see the absolute lack of any potential or coherence. This article is indicative of the confusion. It’s Viktor’s job as long as he wants it. Move along, please… nothing more to see.

Paul
Guest
whoever – where do you live? It can’t be the UK, because I can assure you that the last thing that someone with Éva’s political opinions would be called here is ‘conservative’! With or without a capital ‘c’. As for deciding that Éva is not a supporter of democracy, I really can’t see how you can read that into this post, or indeed any others of Éva’s pieces. And you seem to have a similar confusion over democracy and Fidesz. The fact that OV will almost certainly be elected again in 4 years and quite possibly 4 years after that, even if he doesn’t doctor the constitution and the system in his favour, in no way indicates the health of democracy in Hungary. I fail completely to see how you can find a causal link between the two. Our worries about the death of democracy in Hungary are based purely and simply on two things: what OV is doing and what he is telling us he’s going to do. The fact that he is dismantling democracy in such a hurry when he doesn’t actually need to in terms of retaining power, is just sadly ironic. It doesn’t mean it isn’t… Read more »
Paul
Guest

Éva – off topic again, I’m afraid, but while browsing for KDNP in Google, I came across this http://www.nationalpost.com/opinion/columnists/story.html?id=4f09adc5-852e-4be8-97bc-c3189f833902
I asume you are aware of this paper? I’ve never heard of it. Is it a large circulation paper? Is this typical of it’s editorial line?
I’d always imagined Canada as an easy going, broadly liberal sort of society, and, although I know all countries have their loony right, this still came as a bit of a shock.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

whoever: “Eva, take it from me – in the US or the UK, you would be considered a conservative.”
Well, I guess in economic matters I’m more of a conservative but in social issues I’m a liberal. In any case, I’m by western standards a kind of middle-of-the road type. Except in Hungary where in certain quarters I’m supposed to be an extreme liberal if not a communist. It just shows where Hungarian politics stand right now.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul and the National Post: va – off topic again, I’m afraid, but while browsing for KDNP in Google, I came across this http://www.nationalpost.com/opinion/columnists/story.html?id=4f09adc5-852e-4be8-97bc-c3189f833902
Put it that way I’m no expert on the Canadian media but I do know that the National Post is a conservative paper. Don’t forget that Canada had a very large influx of Hungarians after 1956 and it seems to me that most of these people are fiercely anticommunist. Which is fine but the problem is that these refugees didn’t follow Hungarian politics between 1957 and 1989 and therefore they have little knowledge of what transpired politically during those years. They look upon MSZP as if it were the MSZMP between 1956 and 1963. Well, they are wrong. As most analysts proclaim: they were at least three phases of the Kádár regime. In the third phase almost everything could be discussed in the press except a few taboo subjects.

a3t
Guest
Whoever, it’s a bit silly to impose the template of Thatcher’s union battles of the 80s on the enitrely cosmetic unions of Hungary 30 years later. I know where you’re coming from: in the Rheinland model, union leaders can occupy senior non-executive positions at large, private companies, and it works well. It was a tragedy in the 1980s that, instead of moving towards that model of labour representation, Thatcher attempted to stamp out the unions together: arguably, the near-extinction of manufacturing industry in Britain and the resultant dominant role played by the City of London in the UK’s economy led directly to collapse we’re now witnessing. But to attack Eva for being on the wrong side of a battle that isn’t being fought is somewhat quixotic, don’t you think? Hungary’s unions were never more than appendages of political parties, they never represented workers’ interests – and Orban’s economics are the diametric opposite of Thatcher’s. She genuinely hated the state; Orban is only dimly aware of anything that exists outside the state. Thatcher privatised and, in most cases, let the resulting companies sink or swim; Orban nationalises and provides highly specific regulatory benefits to certain “strategic” companies. You’re right: Eva is… Read more »
Odin's Lost Eye
Guest
Union dues (and the political levy) even today are deducted from the employee’s pay by their employer for the Union. In the U.K. this can only be done with the employees’ written consent. One thing Maggie T changed was the status of the political levy (which was paid to the Labour Party). Prior to Maggie’s changes a Union Member had to ‘opt out’ of this impost. This was often very difficult to do. After Maggie’s changes you had to ‘Opt in’. Under the Communists, the trades unions were part of the Party. In the eyes of the party they were ‘sinecures’ as they did/could do little or nothing for their members. They were ‘window dressing’. Mr A3T I like your analysis of the difference between Mrs Thatcher and Orban Victor Mrs T disliked the idea that a state apparatus could run a business. She was absolutely right. There are big structural differences between the degree of ‘empowerment’ needed to run a state and that needed to run a business. What you say about the ‘Mighty One’ O.V. awareness of anything beyond government is probably true. He has lived all his life in the ‘Realms of Academe’ and Politics. In ‘business… Read more »
whoever
Guest

Why do people think I am equating Gaskó with Scargill, for example? I never said that so I object if people criticise me for things I haven’t said.
On one level this is very simple. Anti-union legislation IS anti-union legislation, regardless of the people or politics involved. And the bill as proposed is classic anti-union legislation and works against the rights of free workplace organisation.
Once again, this proposal runs against the interests of the labour movement, such as it is.

a3t
Guest

Sorry, you didn’t compare Gasko with Scargill, whose name you spelt correctly, unlike me.
And I’d agree with you, if there had been an effective union movement here in the first place. But unions here are all party vehicles, as has been made abundantly clear over the past few years. They have not been acting in the interests of the labour movement, and nor was there any scope for them now to start. I don’t think you need to mourn something that never existed.

Vidra
Guest

The parallels between Thatcher and Orban are nevertheless ominous. Margaret Thatcher did whatever it took to centralise power within parliament (even if she privatised much of the State’s assets), where she had an absolute majority, by curtailing not just trades union rights but also the powers of local government. The most coherent opposition for the first decade of her reign came not from the socialist (small s)Labour Party, still less from the SDP (formed by breakaway members on the right of the Labour Party), but from her own party and the House of Lords, so when she intoned “there is no alternative” to justify her own divisive policies, there really was nobody with a workable alternative manifesto and the electability to see it through.
It took Labour some 15 years to become a viable political opposition again – I just hope the centre-left in Hungary is capable of reforming a lot quicker than that.

whoever
Guest
‘Our worries about the death of democracy in Hungary are based purely and simply on two things: what OV is doing and what he is telling us he’s going to do.’ I’m going to hazard a prediction here. From a technical perspective, there will be free elections in Hungary, with universal suffrage, and an opposition. Regardless of what the media landscape looks like, regardless of the how society looks like, there will be a democratic electoral system in Hungary. Paul, you’re basing your panic on the wrong things. Whatever Orbán says is guaranteed to bring out MSZP supporters, who will accuse him of wanting to be a dictator of one kind or another. That is the nature of the divisions in Hungary. The real cause for concern, in my opinion, is the very fragility of democratic institutions in Hungary, the lack of engagement with society, the lack of serious electoral options, and the lack of serious politicians (even ones I disagree with, I would even be happy to see independent-minded Tories like Kenneth Clarke in Hungary, never mind a Hungarian version of Tony Benn!) But this is NOT Viktor Orbán’s fault and the reasons for this absence runs much deeper.… Read more »
kormos
Guest

Despite my opposition to Hungarian Government bashing, I do not think that Mr. Orban is the last man standing. There is no void beyond him and FIDESZ. There are young generations of enterprising business people, politicians and public servants being groomed as we worried about future.
Every Government runs its course, the present one is not an exception. It is guarantied, there will be a new one someday.

whoever
Guest

‘There are young generations of enterprising business people, politicians and public servants being groomed ‘
That’s the point – I wasn’t talking about grooming of an elite to replace the existing one – I was talking about the possibility of capable people emerging with some sense of empathy, humanity and a sense of public service. And to be honest, there are not many of these kind of people around, anywhere, but certainly not in Hungary.

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