Josef Středula


“We NEED RESPECT for different professions”


Josef Středula, President of the Bohemian-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions

The President of the Bohemian-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions has the reputation of being a tough negotiator. He is to-the-point and empathic, human, but always uncompromising in his readiness to defend the interests of Czech employees. This provides him with a truly strong mandate.

The Bohemian-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions (ČMKOS) is the largest trade union headquarters in the Czech Republic, and its mission is to protect the pay, labour and living conditions and rights of workers. It brings together 32 trade unions and, with its three hundred thousand members, is one of the largest and most influential social organisations in the Czech Republic. 15,000 new members join ČMKOS every year. To compare, this figure is higher than the membership of most traditional political parties.

ČMKOS is actively engaged as one of the social partners in tripartite negotiations, with the government and employers, within the Council of the Economic and Social Agreement of the Czech Republic. ČMKOS is also a member of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) to the OECD.

Instead of ideological trench warfare, let’s try listening. After all, the original meaning of the word respect, which comes from Latin, is another view. From the negotiator’s perspective, respect is the easiest concession to the other side. Let’s move on to the issue of employees and other vulnerable groups from the perspective of their greatest advocate. For my own part, as an entrepreneur, I would like us to have the support that we deserve. For now, I will be glad that other groups have it, rather than envy them for it.

A few interesting pieces of news:

There are around 45,000 occupational injuries leading to incapacity to work in the Czech Republic every year, with around one hundred employees dying at work.

The start-up Survio compared the opinions of 1,500 people and those of 100 representatives of Czech companies to find out where their views of the workplace differ the most. Whereas 97 % of the employers asked think that their staff see their work as being meaningful, only 77 % of employees actually do. In the same way, employers believe that their employees are satisfied (95 % say so), but only 67 % of employees actually are, according to the questionnaires. I should point out that those asked were employees of IT companies, not production staff, where we could expect greater divergence.

“Some employers are now sending out signals that cancellation of the super-gross wage is an opportunity not to raise their employees’ pay, because the government has done it for them. We think it is very dangerous and unacceptable for employers to block negotiations on increasing wages using the excuse of cancellation of the super-gross wage,“ says Josef Středula.

I met Josef Středula at the beginning of September. We spoke about the torrid autumn to come, possible candidature for the post of President of the Czech Republic, innovations, and his time for family and interests. What gift does he value the most? And what is it like to represent 32 different professional associations likened to shareholders? What does he wish for the Czech Republic?

My first question is about your candidature for the post of President of the Czech Republic. Should I treat this interview as one with a candidate for the Czech presidency?

The people decide who becomes a candidate and who does not. Running for the position should in itself be a reflection of who people can see being in the post. And of course there have been many candidates in the past that people were not convinced by. People themselves should send out a message to potential candidates as to whether they want them to run or not. That is what public choice is all about. So it depends on the circumstances.

I understand. The presidential elections are currently more in the realm of the distant future. Let’s concentrate on the reality of the present. Are we in for a torrid autumn?

I think we can expect more than just a torrid autumn. We are living through something that we could never have imagined. We had an economic blackout, we are living through a pandemic, we are experiencing fears that we never had before, we are scared of things that did not previously scare us, and sectors that we thought were untouchable are crumbling. If someone had told me that planes would stop flying and people stop travelling, I would only have been able to imagine it happening in relation to a natural disaster or a war. I think that we should learn from all these things. For my part, I am trying to start a debate on critical infrastructure. And this is a discussion that should open up within the European Union and the Czech Republic alike.

What should we understand by the term critical infrastructure?

Critical infrastructure truly is a broad concept. We can ask, however, in connection with the pandemic, whether we have a supply of face masks and medicine in place in the Czech Republic and the European Union. We are also interested in a system of electricity and heat production that functions to an adequate extent, because a pandemic could threaten miners, for example, who mine for coal and will be unable to supply it for the generation of electricity, which could lead to a blackout. Let’s imagine that the people who take care of our sewers fall ill. Sanitation workers are therefore exposed to new threats and risks. I do not want to imagine sanitation workers being unable to work because of quarantine, for example, and all the different types of diseases that would begin to spread. The supply and production of basic foods is another issue. During the pandemic, queues of trucks at border crossings returned, and we saw how vulnerable a large common market can be. Last, but not least, are water supplies. You can see from my answers how unions view the issue of critical infrastructure, and that is why we want some serious discussion about securing it. The pandemic might therefore be a textbook example of how to prepare not for the “war of the past”, but for the “war of the future”.

I think that remembering professions that are often neglected is a good lesson for us all. What else do we have the tendency to forget?

We should not forget individual groups and their experiences of the pandemic. If an employee goes into quarantine, he or she immediately loses 40 % of his or her earnings. Why are we not talking about this? It is right that support has been given to other groups and I am an advocate of supporting and rescuing the Czech economy. But consumption accounts for more than 50 % of GDP, consumption mainly by the more than 4 million employees. So why is there a difference between a German employee, who does not have to limit consumption, and a Czech employee, who has to notionally put the brakes on as a result of losing his or her income, and limit what he or she consumes? I think there are lots of serious topics and it makes me sad to see how the discussion is being led.

It strikes me that there is relatively low solidarity among individual groups of the population in the Czech Republic. The latest discussions on a one-off contribution to pensioners is an example of this.

When the economy collapsed, we looked for a suitable form of help. And I agree with that. It was right to help companies and the self-employed. However, we often heard criticism that it was not well prepared. Why, then, did subsequent discussion regarding pensioners escalate, with specific pensioners being asked how they would use the CZK 500 a month? Does anyone ask entrepreneurs what they will do with CZK 500 a day? Why is there any discussion of whether pensioners are entitled to something? Was it not, even in the case of entrepreneurs, the same pre-election package that is now being discussed for pensioners? What is more, pensioners generally return the finances they receive to consumption. Should the crisis not lead to learning a greater degree of solidarity between one group and a second, third and fourth, and so on? If we do not learn, we will have to repeat the lesson. Dividing society could lead to radicalisation of the political scene, which perhaps nobody wants to experience. I point out that employees did not receive any special contributions. It even happened in Litovel, where a whole zone was shut off, that employees outside the zone were at risk of not receiving any compensation. I am glad that a solution was eventually found. The situation for employees was as follows. When schools closed down, care benefit was originally 60 %, but was then increased to 80 %. Another group got CZK 500 a day, care benefit on top of that, and temporary cancellation of social security contribution payments, a total of around CZK 55,000 gross per month. Employees were not given care benefit and their pay was automatically reduced if they were quarantined. The help went to companies and businesses. This naturally results in a reduction of consumption because people are worried about the future. The “super-gross wage” is now being used in a very crude way. The government wants to replace its cancellation with freezing wages and salaries. In doing so it is preparing a double minus hit on the state budget. We estimate minus 110 billion koruna. Cancellation of the super-gross wage will not bring low-income groups more money. It would be far better to increase deductible items from the tax base or increase the minimum wage. Investment should be made in people as well as technology. If people have no money and are afraid, we will cause a crisis ourselves, just as happened in 2012. And incidentally, all political parties have the tendency to plan some sort of activities that will bring voters on their side before elections. Voters are not puppets. They have their own mind and opinions and take their decisions regardless of any declared support.

Let’s move on to the concept of the cheap economy, now a popular term among experts and economists. If I am not mistaken, it was you who began pushing through the concept of an end to cheap labour and pointing out the necessary structural changes to the Czech economy.

We came up with the concept of “an end to cheap labour” in 2015 and it has shown to be a step in the right direction. Real wages and salaries in the Czech Republic have risen dramatically since the campaign began. The tempo of introducing new technology could be faster, of course. We are aware that the arrival of new technology will mean the end of certain jobs, but we would like technology to replace people where the work is hazardous to life and health, for example, and there are plenty of jobs like that. In the Czech Republic, for example, we have 9,500 workplaces that are carcinogenic, and the health of the people that work there is at risk. Life, though, is the most important. Over the past 30 years, the unions have not fought against technological changes. We merely point to technology that turns a free person into one who is not; by misusing data, for example. Technologies that improve people’s lives or make it possible for blind people or visually-impaired people to return to life are fantastic. I would like the Czech Republic to have the same potential for innovation as Israel. We are currently looking for a path toward innovation, but I am convinced that we have a huge number of intelligent and skilled people and that we will reach the level of technologically-advanced countries. This, of course, should be done in a way that balances the interests of politicians and the people. I am proud of everything that Czechs have managed to do during the pandemic. From sewing face masks and the help of companies such as Research 3D, to the repatriation of Czech citizens and help provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to other countries. We are capable of international solidarity and that is good news for the future.

How do you relax and take care of your mental well-being? What puts you in a good mood? You mentioned at one of our meetings that you only drink coffee in the morning, waiting to have a second cup with your wife when you come home from work. Your own, private coffee ritual.

hat’s right. I always find time for that ritual, although I frequently have to go off to appear on television or radio after the coffee. I like taking photographs. It’s something I enjoy. I simply go out walking, see the world a little differently, and capture the moments. I put some photos on Instagram from time to time and let people see into my private life. My family is a huge source of inspiration to me, a place where I can switch off. Without family, you can’t even do your job. I completely understand all those who place such huge importance on harmonising family life and working life. After all, a family can be lost very quickly. I like music. It doesn’t matter what kind. Sometimes I listen to classical, other times to film scores. In my youth I played the alto flute and the flugelhorn. And now I’m going to boast. When I started working at ČMKOS, I received this rare baton from Jiří Bělohlávek. Did you know that the Czech Philharmonic was founded 125 years ago through a strike by dissatisfied actors from the National Theatre? That’s right: unions have this sort of role and history. And one of our organisations is the Union of Orchestra Musicians.

You bring together 32 organisations, which have been likened to shareholders. How are you able to maintain a bird’s-eye view and stay impartial in this day and age? I can imagine that musicians and actors are joined by workers in the hospitality industry and representatives of production companies in finding it tough at the moment.

It is hard. I am able to stay impartial because I like supporting the legitimate interests of museum and gallery staff in the same way as I do the legitimate interests of employees at an industrial firm. It is the individual requirements that make our society colourful. Nobody should put themselves above others and nobody should demean others. Our respect for professions has been seen during the pandemic. Society had no idea of certain professions or did not give them enough importance. Did we know what we know now about the water and sanitation workers we spoke about earlier, the nurses, fire-fighters, police officers, or customs officials? Did we not begin, at least for a moment, valuing cleaners, sales staff, and refuse collectors because we can’t imagine life without them? Should we not take this as valuable feedback that we did not treat these professions with dignity? A driver carrying goods in a truck should not just be seen as someone who bothers us on the road, but as someone who supplies us. Let’s think about these professions for good now, not just at the times we need them. And keep the promises we made about valuing their work.

I believe we have come to the end. Or am I mistaken?

I have a great vision. I want the Czech Republic to become the Israel of Europe. Small in size, big in inspiration for others. We have what it takes.

Linda Štucbartová