Bolstered by a wave of nationwide protests, Hungary’s labour unions are mulling whether to hold their first general strike since the 1989 fall of the Iron Curtain.
Industrial workers were among the more than 10,000 people braved freezing weather in Budapest over the weekend to demand Prime Minister
Viktor Orban’s government repeal a new law allowing companies to ask them to work as much as six days a week. Branding the legislation “the slave law,” their unions vowed to rally on January 19 and are consulting members about a walkout.
The debate may signal a resurgence for among unions after, like elsewhere in eastern Europe, their influence withered the three decades since communism collapsed. While only one in 10 workers here belongs to a labour organisation, the threat of a strike marks a new challenge for Orban. He’s politically unassailable after winning a third consecutive constitutional majority in a vote last April, but a strike may dent his efforts to galvanise nationalists across the European Union before elections for its parliament in May.
“This is going to cripple families,” Ilona Forgo, head of a union representing electricians, said of the new law. “Unions may be relatively weak, but we’re confident we can mobilise the masses against this.”
At first glance, it’s an odd time for labour unions to protest. Economic growth is at the fastest in 13 years, wages rose by a third in three years and unemployment is at a record low.
But some of the gains have been due to a labour shortage, worsened by the anti-immigrant stance embraced by Orban’s government that, along with a clash over the rule of law and democratic backsliding, has put him at odds with the EU.
Orban defended the new law on overtime hours last month by saying Hungary had essentially “run out of workers.” Opposition figures say that he is instead kowtowing to carmakers including Daimler and Volkswagen’s Audi, which both employ thousands of people in the former communist country.
The 55-year-old leader has weathered pro-democracy protests since returning to power in 2010, and initial polling data so far suggests this time may be no different. Helped by Hungary’s surging economy, his ruling Fidesz party’s popularity is about equal to the combined backing for the entire opposition.