VILNIUS - Three of Lithuania's largest labor trade unions led a 4,000-strong demonstration in Vilnius on Nov. 24 to protest rising food prices and call for the government to raise the nation's legal minimum wage.
The Lithuanian Labor Federation, Lithuanian Trade Union Confederation and the Lithuanian Trade Union Solidarity were joined by senior citizen organizations and NGOs for the march.
Ramune Bielagloviene, project manager at the Lithuanian Labor Federation, said it was the largest demonstration held by the three trade unions in the last 10 years.
"This one touches people personally in the stores and in the home," Bielagloviene said. "Everyone feels it is personal and that's why so many came to the demonstration," she said.
Estonian trade unions held their own demonstration in support of the Lithuanian groups. BNS reports that about 18 people from the Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions held a one-hour picket in front of the Lithuanian Embassy in Tallinn.
In Vilnius, the unions held flags reading "stop increasing prices" as they proceeded down Gediminas Avenue to the front of the Parliament building.
A few city government officials who attended the event attempted to offer words of encouragement to the marchers, but were shouted down, said Bielagloviene.
"Many participants knew it wasn't the right time for them [officials] to speak on the issues," Bielagloviene said.
Trade union officials worry that the government and Parliament are failing to solve the country's economic and financial problems, and invited elected officials to hold open negotiations with them before the end of the year.
Organizers delivered to Parliament and the government a large envelope listing their demands, which included increasing the minimum wage to 60 percent of the average salary, introducing a progressive tax, linking earnings and social allowances to inflation, eliminating privileges for officials and reducing the state's operating expenditures.
Lithuania's inflation rate was 7.8 percent over the January to November period. The nation has one of the lowest minimum wages in the EU at 709 litas (203 euros) per month, and 438 litas (127 euros) per month is considered the poverty line here.
"Nobody knows how the government calculates the minimum living standards. The government is counting it as calories in their methodology," said Bielagloviene.
However Mantas Nocius, financial advisor to Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas, disagrees with the gloomy assessment of the nation's living standards.
He said that wage increases were 20 to 30 percent over the same January - November period, much higher than the 7.8 inflation figure. He pointed out that inflation was impossible to avoid in a small country so dependent on world market prices.
In terms of rising food prices, Nocius said the government doesn't have the tools to control prices in the private sector, which are influenced by the cost of goods coming from Lithuania's trading partners in countries like Russia and China.
He did however say there has been governmental discussion on making sure that companies in the meat processing and grain industry were not colluding to set prices artificially high, and added that the government is willing to meet the unions' requests for discussion. "The government is always ready to talk with trade unionsâ€¦ People aren't complaining that they can't talk with the prime minister. It would be a reasonable idea to talk with the trade unions," Nocius said.
Trade union officials said that if agreements with the government aren't made by Jan. 1 they would hold larger demonstrations and possibly organize strikes throughout the country.