Trade Unionists in Hungary Seek to Keep Jaws of Austerity From Closing on Them

Peter Fiedler

Peter Fiedler

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

One of the memorable events of the Hungarian transition period was the day that the taxi drivers went on strike. It was October 1990, and the economic changes were starting to bite. After the Soviet Union cut back oil shipments to Hungary, the government in Budapest dramatically raised the price of gas. In response, taxi drivers and teamsters essentially shut down the country over a three-day period. It was just a taste of what was to come in terms of austerity measures.

But how the strike ended was equally important. The government sat down with representatives of employers and employees and hammered out an agreement. This National Reconciliation Council was Hungary’s attempt to create a tripartite system that would advance economic development with a measure of social harmony. That council remained in place for more than 20 years.

But in 2010, “the new government came in and said that it had a two-third majority in parliament,” Peter Fiedler of the Liga trade union confederation explained to me at his office in Budapest last May. “The council met, the prime minister came and basically told us that he represents the employers, the employees, and the government (since voters are among employees and employers). So he didn’t see why he should have this council with us.”

Liga emerged in the late 1980s as a non-Communist alternative to the state-run trade union confederation. It played a political role in the transition process and then, as its president Pal Forgacs told me in an interview in 1990, it began to focus on more traditional trade union responsibilities.

By 2010, however, the government stopped playing by the rules when it disbanded the National Reconciliation Council. Worse, it pushed through a new labor code, arguing that it needed more flexibility because of the economic crisis. “Our actions became more powerful,” Fiedler recalled. “Then the law on strikes was restricted, so we couldn’t hold strikes any more. We had to find a new way. We held demonstrations. But the government didn’t care. There was one demonstration where some 50,000 people marched on the street against the government’s measures. The government said, ‘We are on your side, we are totally with you!’ So, there was no point in doing more demonstrations.”

Disrupting traffic had been successful in 1990, so that’s what Liga turned to again. “The next step was the road closures, and the police said that basically we could do them,” Fiedler continued. “It took three or four months until we could do the next one. From that point on, in June, we could stop traffic at 60 points. Then they wouldn’t allow us any more actions. The police said it was causing too much of a traffic jam, so we couldn’t do them anymore. We had to go through the courts. Then in November we earned the right to do half-lane closures. We did it in 100 places around the country. We said we’d do it again on December 5. Then the telephones started to ring. They said, ‘Don’t do this, guys, let’s negotiate.’ Then we negotiated on the new labor law and to have a tripartite social dialogue.”

The workers had fought back and won. But collectively they’ve been losing ground in Hungary in terms of wages and benefits, even as the wealthier part of society has profited from the economic transformation. And austerity keeps coming back, as each new government has asked Hungarians to tighten their belts. “Every four years, we hear the message that we have to do this now but the next generation will be better off,” Fiedler concluded. “It’s been 25 years. Our children are here, and it’s not better for them.”

Pal Forgacs passed away in 1995. When I visited the Liga headquarters this time around, Peter Fiedler provided me with the trade union perspective of the next generation of activists.

The Interview

Do you remember what you were doing and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I was about 10 years old, so I don’t really remember.

How did you get involved in the union movement?

I’ve always been something of a revolutionary. I was involved in the Pioneers. The Pioneers wore red kerchiefs, and the younger ones wore blue ones. I was one of the blue kids, and then I became a Pioneer. Then the political system changed and I became a Boy Scout. Our secondary school had one of the first student unions and I was part of that. In high school, I became a member and president of the student council. I was always a protector of rights. For four or five years, I worked in the higher education sphere. And somehow I ended up here at Liga.

Somehow? 

One of my colleagues was actually working for the railway workers trade union in the same building as Liga. The trade union was looking for a new communications guy and that’s how the connection began.

Had you done communications work for other organizations?

Yes, my first degree was in communications. I started right after high school in one of the oldest universities in Hungary doing communications for four years. Then I spent a year at a private high school. Then I came here about six years ago.

Does anyone in your family have a background in unions?

That’s a tricky question in Hungary. We had four million trade union members before 1990. My uncle, especially, was proud of it. My mother was one of the first entrepreneurs in Hungary in 1985. That was really rare, someone not being a state employee. But yes, of course, there were trade unionists in our family, but not activists.

You said that it was natural that you were an activist, working in the student union. In many countries, that would be considered a political path. Was politics ever of interest to you?

Yes, for a short period I looked at politics. I was a member of the liberal party, SzDSz. Shortly after that, the party fell apart.

That was the end of your political career?

Yes, but it was not my fault that the party fell apart! I had a good relationship with the leadership, but I did criticize them. I used to say that liberals should not have a party. They should have groups of friends. Liberalism in the way Hungarians use it is not meant for people in a political party.

And you already had a group of friends, so…

Yes, some of them were part of this liberal party as well. But all of us, the 4-5,000 active members of SzDSz, more or less stayed friends, but we couldn’t work as a party.

There were many criticisms of SzDSz back in the early 1990s that it was somewhat isolated from the rest of Hungarian society – that it was mostly in Budapest, mostly intellectuals…

Yes. But the whole country is divided into two in many ways. We have Budapest with 2 million and we have the rest of the country with no big city at all. The second biggest city is Debrecen with 200,000 or 250,000 people. Besides Budapest there is rural Hungary.

Did you grow up in Budapest?

I was lucky enough to have an interesting family history. I was born here in Budapest, and at the age of eight we moved to the country Vas, to a very small village with only 200 inhabitants. That was quite a good contrast. I finished my secondary school there in the next city over, Sarvar. I had my four years of high school in Szekesfehervar, which is 80-100,000 people, a city near Budapest. Right after that I came back to Budapest. So I had quite a good view of how people are living in different cities and in the countryside.

So, what is the membership like for Liga these days?

It’s hard to say. In the last couple years, Hungarian trade unions have been in a crisis situation. Our membership is around 100,000 or 110,000. Before 1990, trade union membership was obligatory, and there were 4 million union members. Now union membership overall is down to about 400,000.

So, LIGA has about 100,000. Then there’s the former Communist trade union.

Yes, they are the other 300,000.

So, you have both declined?

Not really. They are declining continuously. Liga was a brand new trade union confederation in 1990, so we could only increase. So, there was an increase from 1990 until 2000. There were about 40-50,000 members at that point. The others were losing members, but they were not coming to us. But since 2005-6, our membership has increased to 100-110,000.

Is that because of the economic crisis?

The economic crisis made trade unions smaller. Membership became-short term. We couldn’t really gain by it. During the economic crisis, people lost jobs. And without jobs, you don’t keep trade union membership. It was a really hard period, and it still is. That’s why I said, in the last two years, we’re not increasing, but we’re not decreasing either. We’re just standing at 100,000.

What did you do to go from 50,000 to 100,000?

We didn’t really do big campaigns. We did only one great campaign in 2007, and it was called Saving the National Social Insurance System. In 2007, there was a Socialist-Liberal government that planned to let private capital into social insurance. We said that wasn’t right, that we should keep the obligatory nation-wide social security system. It was a one-and-a-year campaign with strikes and signature collecting. That gave us a boost. It was really powerful. In the end, we managed to save the national security system. The government backed down after voting for it in the parliament twice. That was a big victory. For some reason, the other trade union confederations didn’t really join us. We invited them, but they didn’t really do anything. So, I think they lost a lot on this one, and we gained a lot.

We didn’t do campaigns beside this. And this campaign wasn’t for recruiting. We kept saying that we’re not doing any collaboration with any parties. Of course, we were thought to be in a good relationship with Fidesz, the party that is governing now. But we really didn’t. We had common goals, like saving national social security. But we never signed any agreements. In the long term, our members have given us credit for this.

Where are Liga’s members concentrated? Public sector? Private sector?

Half and half. We used to have the National Reconciliation Council, which was abolished by this government. There’s a new body formed, but the government is not part of it. So it’s not the same, it’s not tripartite. To get into this body, there was a verification system for all the trade union confederations in which you had to identify your members by position. As a result of this poll, it turns out that half our members are in the private sector and half in public sector.

Are the private sector workers concentrated in any particular sector? Blue collar, white collar?

We have a union in a communication company and in a bank. We have a teachers union. But it’s mainly blue-collar workers, and mainly in the public service sector: trains, planes, automobiles. Transportation and energy sectors. And there is a separate category of doctors and nurses. I don’t know if they are white or blue collar.

Do you have much cooperation with the former Communist trade union? You mentioned that they weren’t interested in joining you on the social insurance issue. But on strikes and demonstrations?

Not on strikes and demonstrations. They’re not really into it. I can’t remember a strike organized by MSzOSz or ASzSZ. We had a few demonstrations in the last two years when the new labor was introduced, and then the law on strikes was cut back. But again, Liga was the one doing the strike. In 2010, it was only Liga that went on strike. We did demonstrations too, but they were not really into this. We have cooperation, though, particularly at the international level like at the International Confederation of Trade Unions. There’s not a big difference between us. The big difference is we have one trade union confederation Munkastanacsok, which translates into work councils. They’re into this Christian trade union movement, which we really don’t understand here in Hungary. They define themselves as a Christian trade union.

What does that mean? 

I don’t know, you’ll have to ask them.

Are they connected to something international?

Yes, they’re connected to an international confederation. But we don’t really see much of them. They have around 10-20,000 members. They’ve existed since 1990.

Then there are the four ex-Communist trade confederations. They are more or less connected to the Socialist Party. On May 1 this year, they had a big demonstration saying that three of them are combining forces to become one. And one of their basic messages was to split from political parties because they’ve had enough of them. At the same meeting, however, was the leader of the Socialist Party and the former prime minister of the party, and they all had a beer together. Those are nice words, but if declare that you want to have nothing to do with political parties any more, then don’t invite them to dinner.

Maybe they meant all the other political parties!

Yes, probably. There really aren’t any other political parties other than Fidesz. And Fidesz is still quite popular among people despite the new labor code and everything else they’ve changed that have just made things worse, and which people have felt it in their pockets. Still, 40 percent of the voters support Fidesz, which we don’t understand.

Are people voting against their economic interests?

We don’t know. But we do know that although 40 percent of voters are for Fidesz, 60 percent of all the people who have the right to vote are not voting at all. So, it’s not really 40 percent of the population — it’s only 40 percent of the people who would vote next Sunday. But still, the rightish parties usually have the power to mobilize people, while leftish parties don’t. That’s why Fidesz won the last elections with a two-third majority. Again that was a two-third majority of the people who voted, which was like 2 million people out of 6 million.

Tell me about the changes in the labor law.

In 2010, we had this national reconciliation council, which had been working for 15-20 years. The new government came in and said that it had a two-third majority in parliament. The council met, the prime minister came and basically told us that he represents the employers, the employees, and the government (since voters are among employees and employers). So he didn’t see why he should have this council with us.

So, this council was abolished. After this, we had some very serious actions. In the meantime, the new government said we would have a brand new labor code. Because of the economic crisis we needed more flexibility. This was done without consultation. Our actions became more powerful. Then the law on strikes was restricted, so we couldn’t hold strikes any more. We had to find a new way. We held demonstrations. But the government didn’t care. There was one demonstration where some 50,000 people marched on the street against the government’s measures. The government said, “We are on your side, we are totally with you!” So, there was no point in doing more demonstrations.

We tried other tactics, like half-lane road closures. The first time we did that in June we organized 60 road closure points around the country.

Road closures by?

Cars. We just went there and stopped. It was just a half lane, so cars could get around us. The police at first were very cooperative. We also have a policeman’s trade union with us. Nobody really believed that we could do this. At that time, people said that trade unions were absolutely powerless. My personal view is that the government stopped talking with us in 2010 because they thought that trade unions were nothing. We tried the strikes: they banned them. We tried demonstrations: they basically made fun of us. The next step was the road closures, and the police said that basically we could do them. It took three or four months until we could do the next one. From that point on, in June, we could stop traffic at 60 points. Then they wouldn’t allow us any more actions.

The government?

The police. They said it was causing too much of a traffic jam, so we couldn’t do them any more. We had to go through the courts. Then in November we earned the right to do half-lane closures. We did it in 100 places around the country. We said we’d do it again on December 5. Then the telephones started to ring. They said, “Don’t do this, guys, let’s negotiate.” Then we negotiated on the new labor law and to have a tripartite social dialogue. In December we had an agreement on the new labor code, and a new body was formed, like the reconciliation council for the private sphere. We used to have a similar council only for the public sphere, but it wasn’t really working any more. But the government said, “Let’s do that also.” Since then, these two bodies are working quite well. And we also have something called the National Social and Economic Council, which I already mentioned. That’s supposed to take over the part of the National Reconciliation Council from 25 years. But that’s not really working because the government isn’t participating.

Back to the labor code. In June the government said that it was going to change the labor code completely: we needed flexibility because of the economic crisis. We had demonstrations, and in December both sides agreed to a strong compromise. Still, the new labor code makes it impossible to have trade unions in the public sphere. It discriminates against trade unions that exist in the public sphere.

So, for instance, for police?

Or teachers. They are public employees now. And the law says that it applies to any company where the state has ownership.

A majority stake?

Not a majority. Just a part. That means that if you have certain rights in a company — for instance, if you agree on the lunch break as part of your work time — you can’t do this in a public company.

In the United States, there has been an argument that there shouldn’t be unions in critical service professions like firefighters or police. But it’s hard to find an argument about public services overall. What justification do they use?

In 2010, there were some scandals involving top managers at publicly owned companies who received tens of millions of forints compensation when they were fired. The idea was to stop this by not letting any collective agreement grant such benefits to people working at such companies. We said that such managers are not union members, that those agreements don’t apply to managers, and that the state is the employer at publically owned companies. When we do collective bargaining, the state representative is siting in the next chair and can say, “I won’t give you this in a collective bargaining agreement.”

We think that the new government wasn’t really sure if there would be a strong enough person in that chair to say no to trade union demands. So they created this law preventing any future improper use of collective agreements. Really, there are no agreements on the government side. They just say, “This way is good for everyone.”

I’m curious about the tripartite system here. In Germany, there were agreements on wage increases and on preserving “social peace.” What did the councils do here over the 20-year period? How would you evaluate their activities?

For a long time, we had one major tripartite social body, the National Reconciliation Council. Between 1994 and 1998, we had the same government as we do now. They changed the structure a bit. But the formal structure stayed the same. They just put another council next to it – the National Social and Economic Council. They divided the tasks into two. It wasn’t a big difference. For the last 20 years, this council was working. We had six trade union confederations and nine employer confederations plus the government. Usually the government delegated at least a minister or secretary of state to these meetings. They usually discussed every topic, including taxation, pensions, everything related to working conditions. But it was more of an advisory body.

In 2008, there was a constitutional court ruling that since there was no election that put the six trade union confederations and the nine employer confederations on the council, we could not have agreements with the government that were obligatory for all employees. And this was right. So, this council could make only recommendations. The Socialist governments usually took these recommendations as obligatory for themselves. Then, in 2010, nothing happened when the new government dismissed the council, even though there was a law that this council should be called together to discuss this and this topic. This shows the real weight of this body, which was nothing. It was more like a gentleman’s agreement. There were two or three cases when an economic crisis made us believe that we needed something firmer than a recommendation. But we could never did that. As far as I can remember there was never a time when the National Reconciliation Council made an agreement that was really firm on any topic.

Since it wasn’t doing so much, maybe it wasn’t so important to have it?

Yes, that’s what the government thought. But the council did do one thing. It gave us the illusion of negotiations, which led to peace more or less in the workplace. Whenever there were hard times and the government put through austerity measures, at least the government called us together. We would have three or four months of hard debates: we threatened them with strikes, they threatened us with dismissing the whole forum, we had hard debates deep into the night. In the end, we always reached an agreement. It was not obligatory, but we reached an agreement. So we achieved something. When in 2010, the government believed that we wouldn’t notice if the council was dismissed, we started with strikes and demonstrations. And then these half-lane road closures proved to the government that social dialogue is a must. We do have the power if we want to. We don’t like to use it. But if they don’t give us the minimum of attention, then we’ll use the power.

Let’s go back to the “economic transition period.” In countries like Bulgaria, Podkrepa and the former Communist union supported the government’s austerity measures. That was in the early 1990s. It put the trade unions in an awkward position. They were supporting an economic reform that decreased their own membership. It led to the rapid closure of factories where they had all their members. They’d basically cut off their own legs. I don’t remember what happened with Liga in the early 1990s.

We were in a much easier position. We didn’t have a huge membership in 1990, just a few thousand. Even if we backed these measures, we wouldn’t had lost much. In 1992-3, there was the Bokros package — he was the minister of finance. We fought them very hard. From the government side, there was a great willingness to have an agreement. But I think in the end there was no such agreement. There were negotiations for eight or nine months on how to cut just one of our legs off. Partly because of the fact that we had six trade union confederations, we couldn’t agree. Half of the unions were in a position you just described — accepting these measures would have cut their legs off. And half of the unions were in the position of Liga: it was not a question of losing masses of members and we had more of a liberal way of thinking then. We accepted the necessity of these steps a bit more than others. Still, we opposed them. But there was never an agreement made, and this led to the government doing whatever it wanted, and masses of trade union members disappeared. Liga and the other union confederations handled this situation very poorly. We couldn’t really do anything in this situation. Liga wasn’t ready in our second or third year of existence to face such a huge problem.

What do you think should have been done or could have been done, from a trade union point of view?

One of the problems still remains after 25 years: a trade union is nothing without its members. We should do what our members say. If our members say no austerity measures at all, we should communicate this. Of course we have the responsibility to teach them, to tell them, to explain to them that we must make compromises at a certain point. That’s what happens in a factory in a collective bargaining negotiation as both sides make compromises. Union members don’t really understand this.

So, on the one hand, we understand that those measures had to be made. Retrospectively, looking at the measures Mr. Bokros instituted 20 years ago, he was right. The Hungarian economy made a U-turn after his measures. On the other hand, a majority of our members lost their jobs during that period. I don’t think it really helped them to hear that the next generation would be better off. Every four years, we hear the message that we have to do this now but the next generation will be better off. It’s been 25 years. Our children are here, and it’s not better for them.

So it’s hard to say what could have been. It was just a historical necessity that these measures had to be implemented. I personally believe that a bigger problem was with politics. Another election came, and the politicians were not strong enough, and they stepped back. If we had stayed on that road for another four years, it would be better now. It’s more or less the same the way the Bajnai government handled the crisis in 2009, which was for one year only. The numbers after three years show that, even though we made demonstrations against those measures, he was basically right. Then elections came, we made a U-turn, and things are worse again.

I talked with Laszlo Urban, who responsible for the first Fidesz economic program, and asked him what he thought was a mistake from the early 1990s. He said that Hungary closed too many factories and threw too many people out of work. That created a group of people shut out of the labor market for so long that they became unemployable. Do you agree that Hungary should have kept some of those enterprises going even if they were not internationally competitive?

There is some truth in that. At that time, privatization came like a tornado. In two years, basically every company in Hungary was privatized. Let’s say that politicians at that time were just naive. I don’t remember if all the privatization contracts said that the new buyers had to keep the company running, but nothing happened if they didn’t. We sold the company, and they fired the people the next day. What could the state do? We didn’t have the money to buy the company back. We could have done it a bit slower.

Of course we were never a country of oil and energy. But we did have companies that could have survived in the competitive world of international business, like the steelworks on Csepel island. We still have Tungsram, which is part of GE now and which is still working. They’ve had some inventions that the whole world is using. We have Raba, the vehicle-producing company, which the American army has licensed to produce chassis. I’m pretty sure there were some companies that it was a mistake to privatize. This part could have been done slower, with more background information. It was a one-time opportunity, and I don’t doubt that many international businessmen with what seemed to us unlimited power and money came here and said, “Okay, I’ll buy, name the price.” Our politicians were probably naive. But they had grown up for 40 years in a country where you had one car, one flat, and that’s all. And no traveling to Western countries. In two years, everything changed. It wasn’t hard to corrupt these opticians. And they were naive as well. It was a bit fast. Then again, I don’t think we could have done it much slower. There was 20 percent inflation. There was not much to wait for. We needed to change really fast.

When you look at the future for unionized labor, what’s you’re best-case scenario? Do you see a time in 20 years when the percentage of unionized labor goes up to 50 percent, with a strong safety net, great pensions, and Hungarian companies thriving internationally?

Not really. I don’t really see this. I’m quite young to make such predictions. But then again I’ve grown up in a period of time when we were waiting for the next ten years and everything was supposed to be different and fine. As I mentioned, every four years we were promised that it would be fine for the next generation. The next generation passed, and nothing has really changed. One thing did change: we can freely travel to Western countries. So we can see that although we think we are a little bit better off — and there are countries with much worse conditions — we are still not where we could be. These last 20 years make me say that in the next 20 years we’ll probably stay the same. If you come back 20 years from now, someone will be sitting here saying exactly the same thing.

It won’t be you.

It may be me. I don’t know.

When you think back to your positions when you were 18 or 19, when you were connected to the SzDSz, what has changed in your thinking since that time, over the last decade or so? What second thoughts have you had?

It’s a tricky question. At that time, I was very young, very idealistic. I believed that if you go for it, if you put your energy in it, you can change things. That’s why I did all the pioneering, the Boy Scouts, the student council, the liberal party, all that stuff — because at that time I really believed you could change things. I did see changes in 1989-90. I was going to school in a uniform and I had no choice but to learn Russian. In two years that changed: we could wear our own clothes and we could choose another language. We didn’t really have any other language teachers, but still, we had the right to choose another language. In 1999 and 2000, I absolutely we believed that we could change things if we worked together.

As a member of SzDSz and a member and leader of student union, I participated in many fights. The same thing happened after each one. Hungarian people just wouldn’t stand up. If I look at our history, it’s usually the same. For 50 or 100 years, we are oppressed and we are like sheep. But after 50 or 100 years, and no one can predict when, there comes a point when we all say, “That’s enough.” For two months, that’s what we say. Two months after this revolution — or freedom fight or war — everything starts all over again. We just exchange the people who are oppressing us. And we get the right, whoever the oppressor is, to be treated a little easier. After 1956, we were called the happiest barrack in the Communist world, which meant that we had more or less freedom. We weren’t beaten up on the street. We could have our music and concerts in the park. But not more than that.

These days, the world is moving faster. In democracies, you don’t have leaders for 20 years but eight years or four years. These are shorter periods. But we are still oppressed by our own people for these shorter periods, and then we say, “We’re not going to take it any more.” Fidesz called it a “landslide election” when they achieved a two-third majority. And now we’re oppressed by our own government. Nothing really happens: no big demonstrations. People just complain. Probably for another four years, this will stay the same. But I think in 2018 there will be another “landslide election.”

But not for Fidesz.

No, not Fidesz. Someone else will come along to oppress us. So, I’m not very optimistic. And that’s what’s changed for me in the last 10 years because of the time I spent in the SzDSz and in the student union.

The last three questions are quantitative. When you look back to 1989-90 and everything that has changed or not changed in Hungary since that time until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?

I’ll go for 5.

Same period, same scale: your own personal life?

8.

Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate Hungary’s short-term prospects over the next 2-3 years, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

3.

Budapest, May 8, 2013

Interview (1990)

Pal Forgacs remembers Quaker relief efforts after World War II when he was a leader of social democratic unions in Hungary. Now, as the president of the Democratic League of Independent Trade Unions (FSZDL), he believes that Quakers and trade unions still have common interests in the field of non-violence and social justice.

Independent trade unions have existed in Hungary for between 2 and 3 years. The Union of Scientific Workers began the tradition though at first it wasn’t authorized (such unions were illegal under Kadar). Together with Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats), the unions preceded the political parties. Later, the independent unions participated with the emerging parties in the round table negotiations (begun in June 1989). FSZDL is structured along Western trade union lines and has close associations with U.S. trade unions: especially the American Federation of Teachers and the Hotel and Restaurant Workers. Kirkland has visited with them as well as the American Jewish Labor Committee. They have been assisted by the Free Trade Union Institute and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

The old communist trade unions, Forgacs said, still exist and retain all their assets. These unions further still receive government subsidies. Legislation has been introduced into parliament proposing that the government manage the official union’s assets as well as the holiday resorts run by the union. Another measure would force new union elections in the workplace so that workers could have free choice. 45 unions belong to the FSZDL and they expect 25 new members shortly. Roughly 80,000 members belong to the union. “Democracy is working on a parliamentary level,” he noted, “but there still are problems on an enterprise level.” It still requires a great deal of courage to establish independent unions in the workplace because two strong adversaries–management and the old unions–are allied against the newcomers. An independent union chapter can be formed if ten workers come together: by law, management must accept. “Normally, however, it is very difficult to get recognition.” Management threatens the workers with dismissal, for instance. Although FSZDL has legal advisors and Hungary has adopted the international conventions on labor, management still violates the laws frequently. If an independent chapter is recognized, collective bargaining is then determined by the relationship between the independent chapter and the “official” chapter. In some enterprises, the relationship is very good.

In terms of political influence, 74 parliamentarians from six parties belong to the independent trade unions. Echoing Ladislav Lis’s concern, Forgacs argued that “there is a danger that particular political parties will have their own influence.” Democratic Forum, for instance, supports the workers’ councils (similar to Polish workers’ councils, Hungarian councils were set up in 1956 as a symbol of national resistance and “a form of participation in management;” later they gradually came under party control) and in fact would like to control these councils. It has not made any clear statement on the independent trade unions. (Kirkland, after meeting with Antall, thought that the prime minister neither understood trade unions nor had a particularly clear economic program.) The Socialist Party still supports the old trade union structure.

FSZDL “tries to maintain neutrality.” They engage in traditional trade union activities: collective bargaining, organizing at the enterprise level. “This is an important job,” he noted, “because Hungary is now at the point of crisis.” 100,000 unemployed are expected by the end of the year. Pensioners and large families are being hit very hard right now. Lack of finances is beginning to affect education and public health. Privatization is moving slowly. Economic growth is slow. “The gap between the small rich part of the population and the poorest is deepening.” One third of the population, he estimated, lives below subsistence. People can no longer pay the rent, the electricity and so on.

A strike bill was adopted last year and Forgacs considered it “absolutely acceptable,” saying that it also got support from the AFL-CIO. The recent miners’ strike was undertaken by the workers’ councils, and Forgacs suspects that it was manipulated by Democratic Forum. “It was absolutely not in favor of the workers,” Forgacs says and the FSZDL was opposed to it. He thinks the Democratic Forum wants to split the workers’ councils from the independent unions. The future of workers’ councils is so far unclear but recently they have talked a great deal about workers’ ownership. “We are against this. Workers’ ownership is against free market principles. We want foreign investment and foreign companies don’t want worker ownership.” He considers worker ownership demagoguery directed at blue-collar workers. Workers’ councils are not elected and there are no legal definitions of their role.

I asked about ESOP. “We absolutely are not against it. But we don’t think that this is the solution. We don’t think that workers should give up their demands because they own shares.” The FSZDL position is similar to the AFL-CIO’s position. Critical at this stage is changing the composition of management. “Workers’ councils want the right to appoint managers. We don’t agree.” Rather, Forgacs thinks that in the state industries, the state has the right to appoint managers and workers have the right to participate in the process. Present managers, he thought, should not be removed because of their past or present political affiliation but because of their management skills. The Independent Small-holders believe that all managers should be removed in order to overcome the “Bolshevik” system. This, he thought, was simply demagoguery.

We talked about the Polish example, the problems within Solidarity the government and Solidarity the trade union. “Our conception is different. We want to separate government and trade union. We always stressed that we wanted to be only a trade union. We are independent of both government and of employers. Solidarity proves that you can’t have a union and a political party in the same organization or you discredit the trade union movement.” But aren’t the Poles trying to achieve consensus between government and workers in order to push through an economic program? “It is not necessary to have hostility between the government and a trade union. When the government takes a progressive position, we support it. But we should not give up criticism when the government does not follow such a path.” Therefore the FSZDL has criticized the government’s price increases because it hasn’t taken into consideration the poorer sections of the population. It has also criticized the lack of indexation (in unemployment benefits for instance); the lack of self-government in social insurance (the government takes surpluses from the fund and uses them elsewhere).

Would FSZDL try to find a political party to represent its interests, perhaps similar to the Social Democratic party in Germany, the Labor party in England or the Democratic party in the U.S? There is no Labor party in Hungary, he noted, and the Social Democrats didn’t survive the election process. “It would be wrong to follow a party then that is clearly not a Labor party.” If the Alliance of Free Democrats changed, became more social and less liberal, then perhaps FSZDL would work the them.

“In growing numbers people are dissatisfied with the situation in Hungary,” Forgacs said. FSZDL is not sufficiently well-organized to undertake major strikes. Were the government to enact serious anti-labor legislation, the unions would not be able to unite against it. A “dangerous vacuum” existed.