Labor Finds Its Voice

Vaclav Klaus has led a charmed life as Prime Minister of the Czech Republic. No opponent has been strong enough to challenge Klaus and his free-market policies--until now. With key elections coming in a year, Czechs are hearing a lot more from a labor leader who dares to criticize Klaus: Richard Falbr. Backed by a resurgent union movement, Falbr could force a slowdown in the country's rapid journey to full-blown capitalism.

Falbr, 55, does not advocate a return to the old communist regime. But he does believe Klaus's right-wing coalition has ignored workers' rights. "After 1989, there was the feeling that democracy was still fragile, and we shouldn't threaten it by criticizing too much," he says. "I think we lost some important battles because of that." It also hurt that the Czech Chamber of Trade Unions, the umbrella group for 36 unions, had lost all political credibility after decades of toeing the party line under the communists.

PENSION PROTEST. But Falbr has done a remarkable job of resurrecting the Chamber of Unions--called CMKOS--from irrelevance. A longtime attorney for the union who handled workers' complaints, he kept his distance from the apparatchiks running the organization. Last year, he easily defeated some old union hands for the job of running CMKOS. Then he gained nationwide recognition by appearing frequently in TV and radio debates with representatives of Klaus's ruling coalition. Audiences warmed to the handsome, articulate Falbr with his romantic, leftish pedigree: His father met his mother in Spain while fighting Francisco Franco's forces.

Falbr's deft handling of the media has turned him into the best-known opponent of Klaus's policies, especially the government's plan to lower national pension costs. Under the planned reform, says Falbr, workers won't have any say over the size of their pensions--and Klaus's plan does not index pensions for inflation. Falbr has also accused the government of unfairly using pension contributions to shore up the budget. To attract attention to this budget ploy, he called a short nationwide work stoppage last December. The government immediately withdrew from its monthly meetings with union leaders--only to resume its place at the table when a rally in Prague attracted 90,000 protesters.

Since then, Falbr has been on a roll. Nurses, teachers, and railway workers--all of whose poor pay and working conditions had earned them widespread public sympathy--recently won double-digit wage rises after threatening to strike. Union pressure forced a compromise over legislation that otherwise would have deprived many families of child support, a very popular subsidy. And Health Ministry moves to charge hospital patients $2 a day were quietly shelved after CMKOS loudly trumpeted its disapproval.

CMKOS has also begun publicizing the way individual members of Parliament vote on union-related issues--to the government's dismay. "It offends me that the unions assume the right to interfere with our policymaking," grumbles Labor & Social Affairs Minister Jindrich Vodicka.

KLAUS'S MATCH. Falbr doesn't mind being offensive as long as he's effective. Certainly, Falbr's members seem impressed. Says Vaclav Sulc, a road sweeper near the Prime Minister's office: "I think Klaus has gone too far with some things, but that's because no one ever dared stand up to him. Now that Falbr has come along, he has met his match."

Falbr has no plans to run for political office, but he is an acute political strategist nonetheless. He figures Klaus, who has slipped some in the polls, cannot afford the risk of completely alienating CMKOS' 2.4 million members. "The government has to face elections in a year's time," he says. "I think they've realized it's better to talk with us than to fight us."

Falbr doesn't want to jeopardize his popularity by appearing too radical. When the government, under CMKOS pressure, axed a bitterly resented 5% ceiling on wage hikes, Falbr pledged not to rock the boat by reneging on the modest wage agreements that most unions had already negotiated for 1995. Such shrewdness could solidify Falbr's position as a force to be reckoned with.

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