Romania: Anti-austerity strike wave culminates in huge public sector strike

The severe austerity implemented in Romania in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, carried out on the backs of working people, has spurred a period of accelerated economic growth and rising profits but it has been at the expense of the hard strapped workers of Romania. In this context the pent up anger and frustration has led to the calling of indefinite strikes in the public sector, starting today.

Romanian Growth

Recent Romanian economic growth has come on the back of ruthless austerity and structural adjustment policies pushed by the IMF and the European Union institutions put in place in 2010 by the Băsescu government. Despite nominal changes in the make up of the government, austerity has continued under both Social Democratic and National Liberal politicians, and have continued through to the technocratic government that was put in place after the end of the Ponta government, which was forced to resign in 2015 after big street protests.

Photo gallery of the strike

Cuts to social services and increased market liberalization have solved no fundamental social issue in Romanian society. The labour market has been overhauled. The right to national bargaining was eliminated and protection for shop stewards has been reduced. The membership base of many unions has been crushed through the implementation of the Social Dialogue Law and amendments to the Labour Code. In the process, public sector workers suffered a 25% wage cut. These attacks on industrial relations eased the way for a decline in the workers’ share of GDP. The ILO estimates that in 2008 Romanian workers were compensated to the tune of 45% of total GDP, but by 2011 this had dropped to 37.4%. The counter-reforms imposed after the 2008 crisis have clearly been carried out on the backs of working people in Romania.

This deteriorated condition for the majority of Romanians is in stark contrast to the profits of the rich. Romania’s GDP growth in the second quarter of 2016 was as high as 6%, making Romania Europe’s leader in growth. This is the situation in the most unequal country in the European Union.  It is on the back of this growth that the Iohannis administration has thrown some crumbs to workers with minimal and selective wage increases in certain parts of the public sector. However, this has not stemmed the tide of discontent that has erupted against conditions of perpetual capitalist crisis.

The political and social outcry against the constant decline in conditions of life materialized first against the government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta in 2015.  A nightclub fire in Bucharest proved to be the last straw among many who linked corruption at all levels of the state with the blaze. This sparked anti-government protests which brought down the Ponta Government. Victor Ponta himself had been indicted in various corruption related cases. Since then a new technocratic government was put in place in November 2015. Far from fighting austerity and corruption, the technocratic government has been embroiled in its own scandals. The politics of lies, distortions, and deceit is still used to mask vicious attacks on working people.  The situation is quickly changing as the prospect of mass labour unrest looms before the December 11th Parliamentary elections.

Conditions of Austerity in Healthcare

It is important to keep in mind that the conditions of life prior to 2008 in Romania were not of milk and honey. The situation in the state sector is emblematic of the situation throughout the economy. Medical facilities have been facing systemic issues of underfunding and understaffing for the better part of 25 years.

A personnel deficit in the healthcare system has led to overtime work being pushed on doctors, nurses, and orderlies. About 23% of nurses are forced into unpaid overtime because of systemic understaffing. Collapse at work and even death from exhaustion are not uncommon. Aside from speed ups in the workplace, healthcare workers are pushed to tackle larger workloads. The absurdity of these working conditions becomes clear with childcare workers, for example, who are routinely pushed to mind 15–20 infants.

In addition to understaffing, many sections of the healthcare service are horribly underpaid. A doctor’s starting salary can be as low as €250 per month. Comparatively, Irish doctors make around €4,000 per month. The combination of a personnel deficit and low hourly pay has led to some doctors working themselves to death. Recently, a doctor in Galaţi suffered a fatal heart attack after seeing more than 200 patients in a 12-hour shift. His supervisor recounted that this doctor requested his shift because he needed the money.

Appalled by low-paying jobs, corruption, old equipment, and enticed by the prospect of a better livelihood abroad, many young doctors opt to emigrate. This further exacerbates the crisis. In 2014 over 2,500 doctors chose to work abroad. It’s estimated that over 10,000 doctors have emigrated westwards since Romania joined the EU. This has drastically exacerbated the social crisis in healthcare, as it has led to a drain of state hospital staff. From the 26,000 doctors needed to run the state hospital system, only 13,500 doctors are actually employed. For years educated and young layers of the working class have been siphoned off into the West through migration. While migrants face difficulties in the labour market in the West, this movement of large sectors of the workforce has acted to stem radicalization in Romania. In the context of the healthcare crisis, migration has been a band-aid on a festering wound for workers.

Recent negotiations in 2015 on behalf of the trade union confederations with employers’ groups and the government produced meagre results. The most notable outcomes have been an increase of the minimum wage and a selective wage increase for certain public sector workers. The minimum wage increase to €217.50 is more emblematic of conditions in the more backward underdeveloped countries than in Europe’s “leader in growth”. The public sector wage increase was selective in its implementation, having the effect of dividing the wages of portions of the state sector on the shop floor. This is a tactic by the state to diminish the unity of state employees. Romanians need a living wage that is fair, even, and indexed to inflation. If the wealthy can make astronomical profits, then doctors shouldn’t have to die on shift for a paycheque.

Promises by the government to improve staffing levels and implement a unitary pay system have been repeatedly broken. No demands of the workers’ petitions in this regard have been answered in full. The national trade union leadership seems hesitant to push onto the offensive, given the overall context of the repeal of trade union rights and general austerity. This weakness has invited aggression, as it has emboldened the government. Under the conditions of frustration with the government—which allows these dreadful conditions of work to continue—and the national union leadership, which does little to combat these conditions, a call for an indefinite strike emerged from the rank and file workers. Quite literally, workers in healthcare have tried every tactic, except a strike of this magnitude, to alleviate their lot in life, only to face Eurocrats in Bucharest who preach, “you must tighten your belts”!

The Strike Wave

Attacks on living conditions and wages could not continue indefinitely. The recent public sector workers’ unrest has been spurred by doctors, nurses, and prison guards. (Conditions in the prisons have dramatically worsened.) This explains why the unions representing healthcare workers declared for an indefinite strike beginning today, October 31. This has come after decades of underfunding, six years of general austerity, and failed negotiations with the government.

The culmination of this large strike was foreshadowed by the almost constant struggles of public sector workers over the past year. Sanitas, a union federation representing 120,000 healthcare workers, declared today’s indefinite strike and also the preliminary work stoppage on October 19. After failed negotiations with the Health Minister and the State Secretary, the F.S. Hipocrat (another union representing doctors, nurses, and orderlies) began protests and rotating strike actions in March.  Continuing these actions through to October, they too are staging an indefinite strike today, coinciding with Sanitas.

Demands raised by the unions called for comprehensive changes to the public healthcare system. These demands included the creation of a unitary salary for medical workers; an end to forced overtime by solving chronic staff shortages; and better working conditions. A progression towards a strike in hospitals was organized through a series of preliminary work stoppages that involved different locals throughout the country. Another notable demand is the inclusion of administrative hospital workers, who have a separate union, into an August ordinance that increased public sector wages, yet exempted 1,800 selected professions. This instance of class solidarity amongst different sectors of the trade union movement is likely to energize other sections of the public sector.

In fact, this strike action in the healthcare sector unites elements of both national union confederations, the National Trade Union Confederation (Cartel ALFA) and the National Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Romania—Brotherhood (CNSLR-Frăţia) in joint strike action across the sector.

Medical workers are being joined by municipal civil servants who, after a turbulent summer of protests, are also coming out on strike todayt. The National Federation of Unions of Administrators (FNSA) was pushed from below at a conference of the federation to take part in an indefinite strike on July 19. The issue again revolved around pay discrepancies between different sectors in the public service. In July a pay gap between municipal and national administrators pushed the rank-and-file municipal workers to vote for “an unlimited general strike” or, more accurately, an unlimited sectoral strike. But the leadership backed out of the strike action after the government assured them that pay discrepancies would be resolved by September. By mid-October it was obvious that the government was yet to address the union's’ demands. Thus the FNSA was also poised to move into a nationwide indefinite strike.

Simultaneous strikes commencing today  among medical and civil workers will likely find a natural element of solidarity amongst other sectors of the public sector. Trade unionists working for the National Administration of Penitentiaries have carried out a series of sporadic protests for the past three months. Their methods on the national scale include picketing prisons and refusing overtime. Their demands have been to be treated like members of the defence and public sector. As such, they have demanded immediate pay hikes, an end to worker shortages in prisons, an amelioration of working conditions, and the resignation of Raluca Pruna, the Minister of Justice. Pruna came to the post as a former lawyer working primarily in EU institutions. Notoriously, she lied to the European Court of Human Rights regarding budgeting for prisons. Allegedly she claimed there was almost a billion dollars to improve Romania’s prisons, which are some of the worst in the EU.

The Political Situation

2013 Romania teachers strike - FSLEThe relationship between healthcare workers and the technocratic government have been rocky. The first Minister of Health in the government of Prime Minister Dacian Cioloș was forced to resign after a corruption scandal involving defective sanitization products contributed to an E Coli outbreak. This is particularly ironic as the Cioloș government came to power on the back of protesters who shouted “corruption kills” at the outgoing Ponta. The current Minister of Health Vlad Voiculescu has been resisting trade union demands for months, thus leading to the build up of the strike wave. While unveiling the National Liberal healthcare plan, Voiculescu recently stated that he would not seek to run for office. It is clearer than ever that “technocrats” cannot solve the persistent problems in the healthcare system.

But what is this technocratic government? It is a government of order that acts in the interests of foreign capital and the domestic political elites, that has tried to ensure that the status quo can be maintained. The Cioloș government has tried to balance between the main political parties, the EU institutions (which represent the interests of western banks in Romania), and the trade unions for the better part of a year. More acutely put, Cioloș has attempted to give the political parties breathing room to recover from the corruption scandals while maintaining the market conditions  that benefit western finance. This has included an active struggle against wage increases and the amelioration in conditions of work for public sector workers nationwide.

In an attempt to engender political stability, the technocratic government of Cioloș has attempted to draft a budget for next year, despite the upcoming elections in December. Cioloș has been very clear that “there’s no more room for wage increases” in the new budget and that, for him, “throwing money at wages and pensions is just populism”. The austerity budget washes the hands of any future Social Democratic or National Liberal government that may take power. It is a budget of convenience that absolves the political elite, yet condemns public sector workers to poverty wages and squalor in the workplace.

The sections of the working class that are participating in the strike wave are fundamental elements for the functioning of any society. For example, under the umbrella of Sanitas we find nursery [kindergarten] teachers, social assistance workers, and various employees of the Department of Public Health. Their movement into an unlimited strike has the potential to send tremors into every sector of Romanian society. It is imperative for these workers to engage other sections of the working class actively, with flying pickets and broadened demands. The more the struggle stays centred on the demands of the various local unions, the easier it is for the government to isolate and wear down the the movement. Particularly, workers engaged in the private sector, including metal and auto workers, as well as strategic sectors of the public economy, such as energy and telecommunications need to be won to the strike movement.

The unlimited strike is a powerful tool for demonstrating who actually runs society. Given the spontaneous nature of different sectors entering the strike wave at different times and for different reasons, this pushes the movement forward yet at the same time also presents concrete organizational limits. Sanitas, Hipocrat, and FNSA workers need to form a united National Council to conduct a united strike. This would lead to the rational utilisation of resources, personnel, and time, to be able to maximize gains from the strike. This structure, which exists at rank and file in all three unions, would be able to put forward united demands that go beyond the immediate membership to resonate with working people throughout the country.

For an unlimited strike against austerity!

For an immediate increase of wages to a living wage!

For an end to technocratic government!