In the pocket of her jeans she has a mobile with the number of the personnel director, and she can call him any time someone among the 3,000 employees at the Toyota plant in Kolín need something or are experiencing problems. After two years on an assembly line Klára Bačová, 26, knows about these things. When her arm muscles became inflamed as a result of the repetitive motions she did on the jobs and she needed to find a new role in the company, she became the head of a three-member union group. At the Toyota plant she is now the person others look to when the word “crisis” is mentioned. “If the plant starts laying off people, I will fight for every employee,” says the petite, long-haired blonde with determination.

She does not even realise that these days she represents on of the faces of Czech unions – powerful, influential organisations that recently pushed the government into a corner by threatening to strike and won a landmark victory: Food vouchers will not be cut from employee benefits. And while the top-level union officials are planning out how to show their might, and whenever they see a micropohone, the start droning on about the historic solidarity among workers, terrain leaders like Klára Bačová deal with interpersonal problems, complaints, overtimes and other aspects dealing with the quality of the work environment. They are becoming something like symbols of hope – at least now as the crisis approaches.

Don’t be surprised please

Vít, who paints cars in plant’s C shift, sits modestly on the corner of a table. “When my four-year-old daughter grows older, I will receive subsidies for her summer camp,” he says, explaining why he applied to join the union. It wasn’t worker solidarity that brought Vít to the union. It was gift certificates and discounts on tickets to sporting events. On the application, he had filled out what he would like to improve in the company – the shift schedule.

Eighty percent of people applying to the unions in Kolín have similar motivations. Most of all at the end of the year, when there are Christmas collections. “We don’t mind. At least it expands our membership and we gain a stronger negotiating position when dealing with our employer,” says Klára Bačová. “The financial crisis can help change the image of unions as gift certificate agencies. We need to use this opportunity,” she says. She wants to have representatives in every division, so that they could explain to the workers that the unions are not on the side of the employer and that they are there to help people deal with everyday problems.

Unions are now setting their sights even higher – to the European Union. In the Plzeň office Jan Dvořák, 27, the director of a division of the KOVO trade union, there are books on human resources, economic indicators and agenda leadership. Dvořák co-founded the Panasonic union nine years ago, and because no one wanted to become the chairman, he took the helm at just 19 years old. “When our representatives threaten to strike, they don’t realise that this is unrealistic in our situation. People are slowly signing up for the union but often they don’t want others to know that they are members,” says Dvořák. He recruits new members small step by small step, promising legal aid. The threat of layoffs is also doing its part. Since last October, about 40 people a month apply to join the union. Before it was always just a handful.

“I hope they will stand up for me if I am faced with the possibility of being laid off,” says Norbert Farkaš, who has worked on an assembly line that produces TV screens for two and a half years. He joined the union for greater job security. The 1% of his salary he must pay is worth it. And he isn’t alone. The membership of the Plzeň union grew after the lay offs of agency employees by nearly 100%.

Although unions cannot influence lay offs, they can help negotiate better conditions for those being laid off when it comes to severance pay or training for another job. “If companies don’t have enough work and tell employees to stay at home, they usually pay them 60% of their salary. But if unions step in, they always manage to negotiate at least 75-80%,” says Josef Středula, chariman of the KOVO trade union.

The crisis has shuffled local “traditional” union themes. Klaus Dierkes, Škoda Auto board member, has noticed this. He says Czech unions often focused just on the finances because there was an abundance of jobs, and they didn’t feel the need to fight unemployment. In Germany, on the other hand, this has been a priority for 10 to 15 years. The crisis is changing the situation in the Czech Republic. Klaus Dierkes says he was very surprised by the attitude of Czechs who up until recently focused on raising wages instead of on protecting jobs. He never encountered anything similar during his 15 years at Volkswagen in Germany. He also says German unions are much more sparing with their threats of striking and only would resort to a strike in case that employees’ fundamental rights are being violated. But Czech union leaders don’t seem to find the notion of crippling a whole country over something like food vouchers that strange.

“There is nothing to be surprised about,” sayd Milan Štěch, head of the Czech Confederation of Trade Unions. “We can’t risk having workers several years on complaining that we didn’t stop in time to save social benefits.”

They understand it

“Most of the time I spend reading documents prepared by our lawyers and economists. I rarely now have time to visit the factories. Only in my electoral district” says Štěch, who, besides being the top leader of all unions, is a senator for the ČSSD. Some activists in various union divisions criticise the politicisation of union leaders. “Until the mid-1990s we were all working together, but then it started to disintegrate and some union leaders entered politics. That reduces our credibility with our members,” says Vlastislav Molek, former chairman of the Workers’ Union.

Just seven years ago, nearly a million people belonged to unions. Today the number shrank to a half of that. Although the Harvard World Economic Forum in 2003 revealed that political negotiators have greater success than people protesting in the streets with banners, the government holds fewer negotiations with unions now than in previous years. “The ODS didn’t invite unions to a meeting even once. We find that insulting,” says Štěch.

Because of that, unions are setting their sights higher – to the EU. Even local union leaders are looking for support abroad. “Our employer is a global players. The unions have had to react to that. Last week, for instance, we talked about a new press release from the Japanese headquarters about the planned closure of 27 plants. We will look for a solution together with the European Federation of Unions,” says Jan Dvořák, who is also vice-president of Panasonic’s European company council.

Experts agree with this trend. “Unions in the Czech Republic are growing weaker because their membership is dwindling,” says Bernd Felgendreher, an expert on Czech and German unions. “Based on experience in Germany, it is necessary that they change their image. Then people will start turning back because in a time of crisis they simply need their representatives. A new generation of Czech union leaders fortunately understands this.”