TALLINN - Estonian bus drivers are preparing a Dec. 11 strike that could cripple public transport nationwide as negotiations over wage increases and other benefits remain stalled.
After weeks of arbitration the Estonian Transport Workers' Trade Union (ETTA) and the Union of Estonian Automobile Enterprises have failed to come to an agreement on a minimum wage package for bus drivers, truck drivers and other workers in the transport field.
Representatives of both sides told The Baltic Times that it is doubtful that the issues would be resolved by the strike deadline, and that a walkout was likely.
"We're talking about a complete blackout," said ETTA chairman Peep Peterson. He said that the strike would start on Dec. 11 at 9 p.m. with a walkout by municipal bus drivers in Tartu and Parnu, then expand in phases to include bus drivers on rural routes, then drivers on inter-city routes. Tallinn city buses would be hit in the last stage of the action.
ETTA, which represents over 2,000 bus drivers, has asked for an increase in the minimum hourly wage for bus drivers, truck drivers, dispatchers and skilled mechanics from the current 30 kroons an hour to 45.40 kroons, and for less skilled workers from around 20 kroons to 33.10.
"It doesn't mean they are demanding a 50 percent pay raise," said Peterson. "In many cases they get 35 or 40 kroons already, so the actual pay raise will be much less."
He said, however, that the Union of Estonian Automobile Enterprises is not willing to go that far.
"The demand and offer gap is about seven kroons at the moment, which is not very big, but it is still big enough. We are not only talking about wages, but also about working time and vacations 's we have a few disagreements in that field too," he said on Dec. 3.
Under Estonian law, the minimum wage agreed by the parties would be applied to the entire sector, even to workers who are not union members, and to companies who are not members of the enterprise association.
Ivo Volt, public transport expert and member of the negotiation committee for the automobile enterprises, said that the disagreement is in fact more than just a question of numbers.
"We have some disagreement in principle about what to negotiate," he said, adding that in May the transport firms wanted to change to a system of minimum monthly salaries rather than continuing to calculate based on an hourly wages.
"We thought the system with the monthly salary would make the system more clear, without different categories of workers," he said. "In the first phase the trade unions seemed to agree with that principle, but a little bit later they changed their mind and said there should be an hourly tariff."
The two sides are set to meet for their next round of discussions on Dec. 6, but because the entrepreneurs' association representatives cannot change the mandate under which they're bargaining until the meeting of their general assembly on Dec. 12, it is unlikely that the dispute will be resolved by the strike deadline, said Volt.
For his part, Peterson said ETTA will continue to work with arbiters to reach a deal, and that discussions would probably continue right up until the eleventh hour.
ETTA has received letters of support from the headquarters of the International Transport Workers' Federation in London, the Nordic Transport Workers' Federation NTF and the leading Finnish transport union, AKT, BNS reports.