Last Thursday, Prague city ground to a halt as transport workers led a strike against the coalition government’s so called reforms of healthcare, pension, tax and social services. This was seen as the first of many strikes to come and saw an unprecedented number of workers and youth, pushed to breaking poitn by austerity policies.
Trams, trains and buses were shut down for the 24 hour strike. The metro system alone carries 1 million people under the city every day, but was ‘closed for strike’ – for the first time. Workers marched, alongside students and pensioners, carrying placards, waving union flags, and calling for the immediate end of the government. Slogans, such as - The government against the people, the people against the government - echoed through the streets, where traffic was halted for hours by the protests.
On 7 May, large numbers of protesters went onto the streets of Prague to oppose cuts which will seek to remove benefits from students, the disabled, and the broader working class. On 21 May, another 40,000 took to the streets as the reforms were still being drafted. Last week, the first major strike was called by transport workers for Monday 13 June, but was banned by the courts. The court agreed with the Ministry of Finance, who said that a necessary 3-day warning was not given.
The ban was regardeda as a farce, but led to the strike date being moved forward to Thursday 16 June. The delay gave union leaders, workers, students and community members more time to co-ordinate and mobilize, so the 24 hour strike saw thousands of protesters take to the streets. Many called for a general strike and the end of the government. Police, firefighters’ and other unions gave support to the strike.
The enraged strikers marched through Prague, past several government buildings, most notably the Ministry of Finance building. Finance Minister Kalousek, accompanied by a bodyguards, police and journalists stated he wanted to "talk to the protesters". You can imagine reaction he received!
The Czech section of the CWI, Socialistická alternativa Budoucnost, was at the fore of the demonstration, distributing leaflets to enthusiastic protesters who are looking for ideas for an alternative government, and collected signatures for a petition calling on unions to immediatly call for a general strike. The government should be kicked out now, the Czech socialists said. They argued that a fighting programme should be adopted to stop all reforms and workers and youth should promote their own independent demands, and discuss political representation.
Encouraged by international movements of youth and workers
Working class consciousness in the Czech Republic has grown over the last year. Encouraged by the movements of youth and workers in Spain, Greece, Britain and elsewhere, Czech people are imbued with a new confidence. The confidence of the Establishment however is lessening. Adriana, a student interviewed at the protest, said that “the movement is growing, and today was a very good turnout. There is a large amount of anger among us.” With mass strikes taking place across the continent, workers are becoming aware of an international struggle against a common enemy.
Although the number of striking workers did not match those seen in Spain or Greece, the movement marks a qualitative change in the minds of the Czech people. No longer will it be sufficient to wait until an election to vote for politicians who misrepresent the majority - that is, the working class - and promise so-called real change but who never deliver. Workers have a sense of a growing power. The question is whether or not the movement will gather speed and complement the rest of Europe or be diverted by politicians and right wing union leaders.