Unions in Hungary protest government measures

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungary’s biggest trade unions held protests across the country on Thursday in opposition to a series of government measures they say curb workers’ rights.

In several cities, including Budapest, the capital, union members drove their cars in orderly processions to slow down traffic and call attention to what they say are unjust and one-sided government decisions.

Backed by a two-thirds majority in parliament, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has “declared war” on Hungary’s high state debt level — currently at over 80 percent of gross domestic product — and is seeking to boost economic growth and budget revenues in part by raising employment levels, currently among the lowest in the European Union.

The biggest rally was the one held outside parliament by thousands of members of Hungary’s law enforcement and defense forces — including soldiers, police, and firefighters — especially upset because of the decision to retroactively eliminate their early retirement privileges and send tens of thousands of them back to work.

Early pension benefits would be renamed and taxed, likely lowering the income of those who retired at a relatively young age.

Currently, police, firefighters and those working in other high-risk jobs, like mining and the chemicals industry, can opt forretirement at age 57, five years earlier than others, or after 25 years of service if they are no longer fit to work for health reasons.

“We are clear about the state of the Hungarian economy and are willing to accept some of the changes sought by the government, but we won’t give up our acquired rights,” said Peter Konya, a military officer and leader of the federation of law enforcement and defense force unions.

Many of those attending a rally outside parliament wore clown makeup as a riposte to Orban, who said earlier he would send his “Secretary of Clown Affairs” to negotiate with them.

“They can call it something else, but what the government is imposing are austerity measures,” said Kornel Arok, leader of the firefighters’ union. “We are experiencing only the negative aspects of the changes and none of the positives.”

In voting booths set up at the site of the rally, protesters cast ballots in a symbolic vote against the government. On the voting slip, they could choose between “yes” and “certainly” when deciding whether to withdraw their support from the government.

Hungary’s economic struggles — and the response from those pressured by the new austerity packages — are not unique to the region.

In the Czech Republic, a public transportation strike was held on Thursday to protest reforms, including plans to raise the retirement age and health care fees. Protests against the governments’ handling of the economic crisis have also been held recently in Romania and Serbia, among others.


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