Lithuanian workers can‘t go on strike - because beer is a vital need

There is an old Lithuanian saying: “labour embellishes the person”. But the situation in our country calls to mind more to the Latin proverb “labor hominem firmat” (“labour hardens the person”). It certainly hardens the mind of the beer-producing company ‘Svyturys-Utenos Alus’ (part of the ‘Carlsberg Group’), as the workers had a chance to witness for themselves.

It all started back in the summer of last year, in June 2011. A few years ago the Lithuanian branch of Carlsberg signed a collective employment contract with its workers, undertaking to adjust wages in line with the rate of inflation at least once a year. However, they broke this promise after 2009, where, because of the world financial crisis, the company experienced a loss.

Eventually the workers’ patience came to an end. They were deeply dissatisfied and claimed that with a net profit of 54 million Litas (about 16 million Euros), the company had all the means to increase the wages of the workers and, with inflation of 12.4%, the freezing of wages was in direct violation of the collective contract.

The workers threatened to go on strike. The employer failed to respond with an increase in wages, so on June 10th members of the IUF-affiliated Lithuanian Trade Union of Food Producers (LPMS) voted in favour of strike action at the Carlsberg brewery on 23rd of June.

The company responded by suing the union. According to the 51st Article of the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania: “...while defending their economic and social interests, employees shall have the right to strike”. However, in the past 20 years the authorities have created many laws and other obstacles to the right to strike and protest.

One of them is Article 81 of the Labour Code, which the employers used in this case. According to the 4th part of Article 81, the Lithuanian courts can reschedule or stop a strike for 30 days “if there is a direct threat to the vitally essential needs […] of people”. So the court postponed the strike.

Naturally, the Labour Code has the list of essential enterprises finely tuned: it includes railway, public transport, civil aviation, medicine, water supply, electricity, warmth, sewerage and waste-utilising companies (Article 80 of the Labour Code). Nonetheless, the court did not waste time in justifying how beer-brewing concern falls into one of these categories.

However, very quickly all turned out better than expected. On June 5th the court went back to the case and reviewed the legality of the strike and announced that despite the postponement, the strike itself was legal.

After the trial the Workers’ Union even tried to negotiate with the employers and proposed to stipulate only a 7% ratio to the wages (instead of the 12.4% real ratio of inflation which ought to be maintained according to the contract). However, the employers refused the offer. There was a rumour that it was at about this point that strike-breakers were hired.

With this, the court also decided to revoke its previous decision and proclaimed that the workers can strike without waiting the whole 30-day period. So that’s what they did: on July 25th, after a secret ballot, the Union launched an indefinite strike. In response, the employers sued the striking workers for illegal action and the whole painful courtroom-marathon was restarted once again. It is clear that they did this only in order to win time and to try to break the workers’ spirit.

Yet the employers got what they wanted, and in October the court pronounced that the strike was illegal. The Union has submitted an appeal, and the madness continues to this day… There are no signs of the employers giving up and there are no such indications on other side, what is very unusual in Lithuania. In most cases, most of the time, the workers would surrender and quit the job, or go back to work under the bosses terms.

People in Lithuania are trying to support the strikers in various ways. Back in July one of the Lithuanian autonomist activist, Kasparas Pocius, launched an initiative on Facebook to boycott the products of the Calsberg brewery. Sixteen hundred joined the “event” on the social networking site. It has also received some coverage in the media. Regrettably this campaign had little resonance and it has not become general. There are number of articles covering the topic.

A number of Left activists have tried to reach out to the leaders of the strike to offer their direct support. But, quite naturally, the workers feel do not want to risk any additional trouble whilst they await the latest verdict of the court. This should be announced on February 6th.

The whole story marks a precedent for Lithuania in many aspects. It is marks a precedent for our judicial system as it is a unique case in Lithuanian strike history. It is also an exceptional example of direct class struggle for workers’ rights. It has been a long time since anybody stood up for their rights so seriously. It is an especially significant struggle as it has shown the world the real situation facing workers and labour activists in Lithuania.

This January a world-wide United Front of Food, Farm and Hotel Workers have started a campaign to support Lithuanian workers. They encourage people to send a message to Carlsberg and to the government of Lithuania telling them to stop violating workers' rights. I invite you too to show the enthusiasm for the rights of the fellow workers in the Baltics! For all the rights that the workers have achieved in struggle!