Transport unions want to halt public transportation in the Czech Republic if Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek continues to insist on taxing employee benefits such as meal vouchers and employee transport passes. This would affect trains, buses and public transportation in most big towns. In Prague even the metro would come to a halt.
“We are not fighting just for transport employees. The tax changes affect everyone, including employers,” says Jan Rejský, DOSIA transport union leader. He and 12 other trade union leaders decided Monday that a strike is unavoidable and it must come soon. Kalousek called them immediately and proposed a meeting for Wednesday. This way he at least delayed the threat of a strike.
“If they go ahead and do it, it would paralyse the entire country,” says top union chief Milan Štěch. Kalousek, he says, is just testing the ground. “Why can entrepreneurs deduct 50-70% from their base tax and employees can’t even have meal vouchers,” asks Štěch.
But Jaroslav Pejša, leader of the railway union, does not support the strike. “It’s more of a political problem than a transportation problem. Unions should stick together and not rush things,” he says. He says he thinks the cabinet wouldn’t agree to Kalousek’s proposal. “If the government were discussing it already, I would understand the reasons behind a strike, but this is a sort of “let’s-quickly-call-a-strike” situation, which can only harm unions,” says Pejša.
Even the finance ministry considers the unions’ reaction too rushed. “The minister talked to the unions on Friday already. Apparently, there was some misunderstanding, and a new meeting could help sort that out,” says ministry spokesman Ondřej Jakob. In exchange for taxing employee passes and meal vouchers, the ministry is proposing an employee allowance, from which workers could deduct their benefits.
“Now only some people have certain benefits, but the allowance could be used by anyone. We need to decide if we want a transparent system or if we want to keep all the current exceptions,” explains Jakob, noting that the proposal has not even been discussed by the government.
“That’s nice, but an employee allowance has to do with only some of these exceptions. We don’t understand why the current situation should change. It’s been in place since before the World War II,” says Rejský. He says most transport companies in big towns support the strike and so do all 32 trade unions.
“For now, the confederation of unions has only expressed support. It doesn’t mean that they will join the strike,” says Milan Štěch. “In some companies, though, given the current crisis, some employers would actually welcome a strike,” he adds. He can’t rule out, however, that in the end some of the unions would not join the strike.
According to Rejský, unions are already preparing for a strike. “In order for it to have maximum impact, it must be a surprise, so it must happen as soon as possible. That’s why we’re already organsing everything, for example, ensuring that the metro doesn’t remain stopped in tunnels,” he says. If the meeting with Kalousek does not go well, the strike would start within a week.
“We don’t know what connections and for how long this could affect. We are trying to find out, so that we can inform passengers,” says Radek Joklík, spokesman for the Czech Railways. Other transport companies are taking similar measures.