Ljubljana, 28 November (STA) - Braving the rain a sea of people filled the main square in Slovenia's capital on Saturday to demand a higher minimum wage and protest against the government's plan to raise the full retirement age. Trade union representatives urged the government to heed the call for solidarity or face an even greater backlash.
Dressed in trade union colours, blowing whistles and carrying signs, workers from all around Slovenia streamed to Preseren square for the two-hour labour protest organised by all seven union associations in the country. Organisers said that 30,000 people had gathered.
Addressing the crowd, Milos Utrosa of the ZSSS trade union association said that the unions were joining hands to bring the fight to the government for the "dignity of those who are not at the top and should not depend on the alms of those who want to grab up everything".
"Today is the day when the word 'solidarity' makes a return to Slovenia, when solidarity will again be an important value. Perhaps the message will be understood by those who are in power now and whose party has 'social' in its name," Utrosa said in a reference to the Social Democrats of Prime Minister Borut Pahor.
The protesters demanded an increase in the net minimum wage by around 40% to EUR 600 and the scrapping of plans to raise the full retirement age to 65 as part of structural reforms being drawn up by the government.
Solidarity is one of the most important values in fighting to achieve the demands, representative of the SVIZ trade union of teachers, science workers and artists told the crowd. "Four hundred and fifty-nine euros is too small a minimum wage for fair work," Davorka Pregelj said.
It is unacceptable that workers in the 21st century cannot earn enough from full-time work to survive their family, Dusan Lombar of the KNSS Independence association told the rally. "We demand the minimum wage be increased to EUR 600 at once."
A trade union representative from railways operator Slovenske Zeleznice meanwhile said the government's plans for pension reform were unfair. "Most workers will not be able to work to 65 as the government is demanding," said Hermina Sabanov.
The protesters were seen carrying signs saying "We've had enough of everything except bread", "I have not sold myself to capitalism" and "I feel Slovenia - in my pocket".
"What we have today is not what we've worked for - this is an oligarchy of capital and politicians", head of the Association of Pensioner Societies Mateja Kozuh Novak told the rally. "Slovenians have managed to keep our little piece of Earth surrounded by foreigners only because we developed mutual assistance and solidarity early on," she said.
Apart from pensioners, the protest was joined by students in a show of trans-generational support. "We the students oppose hasty changes of rights that weaken the position of students and workers," president of the Student Organisation of Slovenia Kazja Soba said. She added that "there will be no deciding on our future without our involvement".
Meanwhile, trade unionist Boris Mazalin said the government and managers were not looking for a way out of the crisis. "All they want to do is keep their power, capital and profits," president of the KS 90 union association said.
Dissatisfaction with the current conditions was also voiced by protesters in the crowd.
Holding up her paycheck, one of the protesters said, "I ask Pahor to tell us if he could get by on 400 euros a month." Another protester said that "workers have had enough of leading a miserable existence for this government." "No government has done anything to improve the conditions of workers. That is why we are here and next time we will be going to parliament."
Among those in attendance was a former worker of the bankrupt leather company IUV, who said she had come to voice her demand for a better life for young people. "I've done my bit. I'm here for young people, so that they could have more money and rights...I think it is important that young people will be able to lead a better life than our generation," said Vera Bikar of Vrhnika.
The trade unions voiced satisfaction with the protest and said that more would follow should there be no progress on their demands. Head of the Pergam trade union association Dusan Rebolj said after the gathering that a general strike would be the next step if the government failed to heed union demands.
As many as 150 buses from all around Slovenia jammed the main parking space for the protesters in Slovenia's capital, forcing other buses to park on the street. Many other protesters came by train and car, while people from Ljubljana walked to the centre.
ZSSS president Dusan Semolic said that organisers had counted around 30,000 people at the rally. We think that the message from the protests will be loud enough for the government to hear it, Semolic said.
A few government officials, including Education Minister Igor Luksic, were seen in the crowd, as was Ljubljana Mayor Zoran Jankovic.
Luksic told the press that he understood the protesters and their concerns. "It is much easier to provide for welfare in good times than during the crisis, but there are things that can be improved," the minister told the press. He added that he wanted to see a balance struck between higher wages and a competitive Slovenian economy.
The rally was accompanied by a strong police presence and there were no reports of incidents.
Police said that around 100 police officers from various sections, including mounted police, were in charge of crowd control. They did not want to give their estimates on crowd numbers after the event.