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Tbilisi court indefinitely bans metro strike ‘during working hours’

22 May 2018
Protest on Tuesday in front of the central Rustaveli Metro Station (Shota Kincha/OC Media)

Tbilisi City Court has indefinitely banned drivers from the Tbilisi Metro from going on strike. Protesters gathered on Tuesday in front of the central Rustaveli Metro Station in support of the drivers, with unions vowing to go ahead with the strike and to take the case to the Constitutional Court.

In its Monday ruling, the court forebode metro drivers’ union Ertoba 2013 from going on strike ‘during working hours’. A strike is the refusal to work as a form of organised protest.

Tuesday’s demonstration was organised by local rights group the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC), the Solidarity Network — Workers’ Center, a workers advocacy group, and student movement Auditorium 115. Protesters argued that the ruling was a restriction of the drivers’ rights. Speaking to the deomnstration, Rati Kapanadze, head of Ertoba 2013, said the union still intended to go ahead with the strike, but said they had not come to an agreement over when it would begin.

In its explanatory note, the court underlined that the right to strike is ‘fundamental’ but ‘not absolute’. They said given that the announced strike was expected to be long and open-ended, the strike would have prevented the metro from functioning.

Paralysis of the Tbilisi Metro, ‘the cheapest and fastest means of transportation, used daily by about 400,000 passengers’, would cause the ‘collapse of road infrastructure’, endangering not only commuters, but also personnel from essential public health, fire, and other services, argued judge Giorgi Gogichashvili.

A previous ruling on 3 May barred Ertoba 2013 from striking for a month, which unions complied with by postponing their strike.

[Read more about Tbilisi Court’s previous ruling on OC Media: Tbilisi metro drivers’ strike postponed by court]

‘Considering all options’

Rati Kapanadze, head of Ertoba 2013, told OC Media the union was considering all options, including an illegal strike. Kapanadze said that workers were ‘in shock’ at the judge’s ruling which ‘ridiculed’ employees and ‘disregarded’ their ‘labour and constitutional rights’. He said the union will decide in the nearest future how to proceed, but hopes for ‘support from society’, especially those also affected by inflation who have seen no rise in salary for years.

Vasil Varsimashvili from Ertoba 2013 told Netgazeti earlier that day that drivers would go on strike on 3 June.

‘All the drivers have the same opinion — no one plans to obey this nonsense. We will obey the initial lawful ruling [to postpone the strike for 30 days]. Thirty days have passed. I’ve never read so much nonsense in a single text in my life: when I am told I can strike not during working hours, but when I go home, then I don’t know. I cannot call it anything, I cannot see any truth in it’, he said.

Giorgi Beraia, a lawyer from Transparency International Georgia was quoted by Tabula as saying that ‘even Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek would be a bit surprised by the Georgian court ruling allowing employees to go on strike only during non-working hours’.

Speaking to Maestro TV, EMC’s Lina Ghvinianidze said this ‘badly argued’ ruling ‘fundamentally contradicts the concept of the right to strike’, and represents a ‘first and most dangerous precedent’ which could jeopardise workers rights elsewhere.  According to Ghvinianidze, the Tbilisi Transport Company, who operates the metro, failed to use the one month period after the initial suspension to negotiate with workers.

Speaking to TV Iberia, Giorgi Gogadze, chief lawyer for the Tbilisi Transport Company, said the company reached agreement with workers in 2017 to set up a joint committee to work on, among other issues, workplace safety as well as social and economic issues, but unions never sent their representatives to work in the committee.

On Tuesday, the Georgian Trade Unions Confederation (GTUC), the largest trade union in the country, put out a statement criticising the ruling as well as the overall legal situation concerning labour rights in Georgia. According to them, Georgian legislation, including labour law, is vague about when employees’ right to go on strike can be limited or suspended. This can happen where ‘safety of human life and public health’ are at risk or where operations are ‘technologically impossible to suspend’.

According to the GTUC, a lack of clarity in identifying such areas of employment impedes employees’ right to strike, and unions plan to challenge this in the Constitutional Court.

Drivers first announced their intention to go on strike in April, after the Tbilisi Transport Company refused to raise their salaries, saying that doing so for a ‘particular group’ could have caused discontent among other employees. Tbilisi mayor Kakha Kaladze echoed this rationale, assuring Tbilisi residents two days before the court’s decision that the metro would remain operational.

Metro drivers have been demanding higher salaries since 2016. Ertoba 2013 has said that high humidity, noise, vibrations, lighting intensities, strong electric fields, high pressure and other hazards to health contribute to a 60%–65% mortality rate by pension age among drivers.

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