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Tbilisi Metro resumes service as drivers and Mayor Kaladze reach agreement

6 June 2018
(Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

The Tbilisi Metro resumed functioning Wednesday afternoon, after metro drivers union Ertoba 2013 reached an agreement with Mayor Kakha Kaladze and his office. The metro had been closed since Monday morning, when after being barred from going on strike by the courts, drivers began a hunger strike instead, making them physically unfit to work.

Kaladze thanked the metro drivers and said the Mayor’s Office had ‘reached a compromise with workers’, saying that the matter of pay rises would be revisited in 2019. He also thanked bus drivers for taking on a ‘bigger workload’ during the strike and Tbilisi residents for ‘supporting’ him during these days.

Kaladze had said on Saturday that it was his and the Tbilisi government’s decision whether the metro would open or not, but in an apparent about-face following the first round of successful negotiations, he was quoted as saying that ‘it is up to drivers to decide if metro resumes or not’.

Speaking to local media, the leader of the strike, Rati Kapanadze, said their demand for a salary raise of 45% would be satisfied ‘gradually’, and that details would be specified and agreed upon during later meetings. According to Kapanadze, Kaladze had vowed to personally ensure their demands were met.

Union members told OC Media that the meeting happened late Tuesday night, and that the Mayor’s office did not want any other party — including workers’ lawyers — to attend the negotiations. City Hall had similar preconditions for the previous negotiations on 5 June, which ended with metro workers walking out of the meeting.

The three day paralysis of the Tbilisi Metro was the first in its history. The Solidarity Network — Workers Centre, an independent union that supported metro drivers, hailed the end of the strike as ‘historic’, urging other public workers to ‘unite and demand better wages’.

‘Blackmail against residents of Tbilisi’

The Tbilisi Metro shut down on 4 June, less than a day after metro drivers went on a hunger strike. Passengers were not warned in advance about the possible shut down, only to see a message about it posted on station entrances, offering free bus rides instead.

In response to the shortfall in public transportation, Tbilisi City Hall added several routes and buses from its reserve. Nevertheless, Tbilisi residents still experienced trouble getting around the city, with overcrowding reported on buses and minibuses, and higher prices for taxis.

A sign appeared outside Metro stations announcing the closure on Monday morning (Shota Kincha/OC Media)
Social media users posted pictures of overcrowded buses (Mariam Ghuchashvili/Facebook)

After the metro shut, Kaladze described the strike as ‘blackmail against residents of Tbilisi’, calling on metro drivers to stop ‘violating the law’, ‘disobeying the decision of the court’ and ‘putting their own interests above the welfare of the public’.

On 21 May, Tbilisi City Court indefinitely forebode metro workers from going on strike ‘during working hours’, a decision that was criticised by a number of human rights groups, with Public Defender Nino Lomjaria calling it ‘a dangerous precedent of restricting the right to strike’. On Tuesday, Lomjaria visited drivers on strike and called on them to engage in negotiation. Public Defender also reiterated her disagreement with the court ruling which she promised to be reflected in amicus curiae filed for related court hearings.

Ertoba 2013 argued that although they deemed court ruling ‘unconstitutional’, they respected the decision by going on hunger strike during their non-working hours. They said that this affected the health of drivers resulting in their failure to pass medical examinations at work.

Dispute over pay

Kaladze and his office claimed both before and after the strike began that metro drivers had higher salaries than other public employees like police officers, emergency medical and rescue workers, and firefighters.

On Monday, the Mayor presented a document purportedly showing that metro drivers earn ₾1,400–1,800 ($570–730). Kaladze also argued that the demands of drivers and ‘so-called workers’ rights advocates’ to raise metro drivers’ salaries by 45% would ‘automatically raise the price of metro tickets’, something he said workers were not against during negotiations.

The Tbilisi Transport Company, who operate the metro, also released a copy of a collective agreement showing that since 2017, ‘line drivers’ received salaries of ₾1,827, with information about bonuses in addition to this.

Workers and their supporters challenged these claims, insisting the numbers were not accurate and claiming they were not to blame for the low pay of other public employees.

A number of striking workers shared images online of bank statements showing their salaries, and Lina Ghvinianidze, a lawyer from rights group the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC), reiterated that first-class drivers receive a salary of ₾1,150 ($470). Ghvinianidze also argued that ‘workers actually obeyed the court’s ruling’.