An estimated 40,000 trade union members took to the streets of Prague on Tuesday to protest against public sector pay cuts planned by the recently appointed Czech government. Turnout at the first major rally against the austerity measures was double that expected, but the government has made it clear that it is not ready to give in to the pressure.
Police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, tax clerks and even undertakers: all will take a pay cut under austerity measures proposed by the Czech government. An estimated 40,000 public sector workers from all over the Czech Republic came to Prague on Tuesday for the first major demonstration to date against those plans.
Along the route from the Interior Ministry to the city centre, I asked some of the protesters about their concerns. Among them was fireman Petr Mikula from Děčín.
“If they take ten percent it won’t actually be ten percent – it’ll soon rise to more like 20 or 30 percent. We will do the same work for the equivalent of what we get paid for only eight or nine months now. I’m single, but what about those men with families and children who have mortgages and car payments – what are they going to do?”
Marie Troučová, a 21-year-old nurse, is from Plzeň.
“We’re about to finish our training, and they’re planning to cut wages and our starting salary is already low. We are young, and we can’t even get a mortgage or afford to have children. The state needs young people to have children, so that people spend money and the economy grows.”
The government wants to bring the state budget deficit down to some 135 billion crowns next year from this year’s 169 billion, the biggest deficit in history.
To achieve this, the coalition is planning, among other things, to cut salaries in the public sector by 10 percent. State employees will either have to accept a 10-percent cut in their salary, or some of them will have to be let go.
The unions say this is unnecessary; they suggest the government raise taxes to fill the coffers rather than cut salaries. The protesters also said they saw no reason why they should pay for the deficit, saying the politicians should clear up the mess they themselves have made.
Union leaders have called for further talks with the government but Prime Minister Petr Nečas made it clear that he stands firm by the government’s plans. For his part, Labor and Social Affairs Minister Jaromír Drábek said the cuts were the centre focus of the government’s policy programme.
And the Czech president, Václav Klaus, told reporters on Tuesday that even bigger cuts are being implemented in countries around Europe.
“The state has evidently been spending more than it could afford; people like me have been pointing to this for nearly a decade. It was bound to come to an end, and that’s what’s happened. That’s why this year, there needs to be cuts. Governments all over the world are cutting expenditures, and many European countries have adopted much more severe austerity measures.”
The unions say if the government doesn’t listen to the opinions vocally expressed in streets of the capital they say are ready for more rallies, and even strikes.