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Elton Debreshi: the way to Parliament passes through trade union organizing

The candidacy of Elton Debreshi – a mineworker from a peripheral town north of the country – in the upcoming general elections in Albania could be genuinely considered as an unwarranted intrusion into politics as usual.

Elton Debreshi
Source: Sindikata e Minatorëve të Bashkuar të Bulqizës

Thirty years after the collapse of the old regime, the political scenery has crystalized into the systemic rule of two mainstream political parties whose benefactors are a handful of oligarchs, some of which allegedly have ties with organized crime. Traditionally, the current party in government – Socialist Party (PS) – has found its support base in the professional caste of the old regime: teachers, ex-military men etc.; whereas the centre right Democratic Party (PD) has fed on the anger of the families persecuted during that time. Heading into the elections of 25th of April, it appears that the two parties have been devoid even of the decorative façade of ideological differences, coalescing into the desert of neoliberal capitalism. Indeed, this has been the terrain where they have operated for all these years: massive privatizations of the industry, social services and natural resources, as well as low taxes and injection of cash into private hands via the infamous Public-Private Partnership (PPP) schemes.

The electoral system in Albania is discriminatory of people’s vote, especially for independent candidates, not only due to the high margin for entering parliament, but also because the rule for political parties to gather 1% of the votes on national level absurdly applies also to independent candidates that run in a single district. The electoral lists of the candidates are compiled by the leaders of the parties, which means that those MPs who routinely enter Parliament are obedient servants of their leader and do not answer the calls of the people who vote for them. This is the first time in the history of political pluralism in Albania that an initiative for going to parliament springs from a concrete demand – the legal recognition of the Miners’ Status (a special law that is recognized by the Parliament for professions with a higher degree of danger or causing professional illnesses, such as the profession of the miner, oilmen, metallurgic workers etc.). This decades-long call of the mineworkers of Bulqiza constitutes the precondition for the profession of the mineworker to obtain the dignity it deserves: higher wages and better retirement benefits, special healthcare for the miners and refunds for medicaments, as well as life insurance in cases of serious accidents and fatalities.

The decision for Elton Debreshi to run as an independent candidate in the upcoming elections was not a personal one, but it can be considered as the next step in the on-going battle of the mineworkers of the region of Bulqiza to make their voices heard. Elton is the son and grandson of miners, who at the age of 14 had to quit school in order to earn a living inside the mine. He was elected leader of the new and independent United Miners of Bulqiza Trade Union (SMBB), before being fired from work as soon as the union was recognized by the courts. Through many of their struggles, the miners came to the realization that the state institutions responsible for overseeing violations in the workplace – regardless of which party is in government – would always look after the interests of the oligarchs who control both industry and politics. This is why the recognition of the Status is the first pillar of Debreshi’s programme and he himself declared during the campaign that he would drop out of the race if the Status were to be approved before election date.

The campaign video of Elton Debreshi (subtitled in English & French)

Working conditions for miners in the region of Bulqiza are miserable. Deaths from underground rock falls or suffocation from gases inside the mine pits have become regular monthly events, where according to official data 48 miners have died in the last 5 years. Whoever dares to raise their voice is immediately fired from work, not just because until very recently there were no real trade unions defending the workers (in a meeting in 2015 with Italian entrepreneurs, Albanian PM Edi Rama invited them to invest in the country because it lacked trade unions), but also because the state works in partnership with the mine owners. These conditions are not specific to the miners, but hundreds of thousands of workers all over the country face similar hardships. Construction workers fall frequently prey to accidents due to lack of any safety measures in construction sites. The manufacturing industry, a growing sector in the country employing largely a female workforce, pays the workers less than the official minimum wage (in a very recent meeting with a factory owner, Edi Rama invited him to hire workers from Bangladesh and get rid of them “before they learn Albanian and start talking about politics, freedom and democracy”). That is why without the broader solidarity of workers across the various sectors of the economy, nothing substantial can be achieved. One of the key points raised in Debreshi’s programme is the struggle for trade union organizing to spread among all public and private companies, together with the increase in minimum wage, job security, and the abolition of pay gap between men and women workers.

The regions of Bulqize and Klos in the district of Diber are rich in the mineral of chromium that has been the primary exporting good in the country and a major contributor to the economy, especially during the 1980s. Today, it is estimated that exports reach up to 100 million euros in value every year. Nevertheless, this is also one of the poorest regions in Albania, drained off by oligarchs and abandoned by politicians. The owner of the most important company for mineral extraction (Albchrome) is Samir Mane – the richest man in Albania who administers various trademark brands, chain stores, shopping malls, luxurious resorts etc. under the umbrella name Balfin Group. The highest annual revenues of Balfin, however, are due to the chromium industry. Albchrome is the only exporter of chromium in Albania. Due to the fall in price of chromium in the international markets, the Albanian government recently annulled for three years the tax that private contractors pay to the state for the extraction and processing of the mineral. This decision did not even come on condition of securing job positions or even wages for the mineworkers, even though in some cases they have not received their wages for months on end.

Diber is a region that is lacking in basic necessities such as road infrastructure that connects rural and urban areas. Although very rich in water resources, most of it has been channelled off to the numerous privately owned hydropower plants, so that drinking and irrigation water is missing from many villages and cities. The majority of the population makes a living through agricultural and stockbreeding activities, therefore lack of irrigation water and the impossibility to take the produce to the market has caused a massive depopulation of the area. These are some of the issues mentioned in Debreshi’s programme too. People in the region are so destitute that the adoption of a living wage is the only means of subsistence with some dignity. Instead of this, poverty is being exploited by local politicians who distribute food products during electoral campaigns in return for votes. Furthermore, the severe lack of education facilities and staff, healthcare services etc. make for a core demand of Elton’s programme the increase of taxation to those who administer the chromium, so that the municipality can pay for these basic services that would ameliorate people’s living standards.

The decision for a miner to run as independent candidate cannot be understood outside the broader context of the social composition in Albania and recent social struggles.

The deindustrialization process that started after the fall of the Hoxha-ist regime and continued through the three decades that followed, has pushed many Albanians towards migration. From 339,000 industrial workers in 1990, only 79,000 were still active in 2004, and only 10% of all employees worked in industry in 2016. The garment and shoe manufacturing industry has been expanding in the last years, with Albanian entrepreneurs acting as subcontractors to prominent Italian fashion designers. The women workers employed in this sector in some of the factories are forced to return part of the minimum wage that they officially receive to the administrators before they walk out the doors. On the other hand, a recent phenomenon is the rise of the student-worker or overqualified worker employed in call-centres. For many students during their university years and long after they graduate, the only means of employment have become call-centre enterprises where the only qualifications required is knowledge of a foreign language and a neck for conning people over the phone.

Faced with a neoliberal reform in higher education that promised to increase tuition fees and as well as student debt, the protests of December 2018 that brought 20,000 students on the streets of Tirana were the culmination of a series of protests undertaken by Lëvizja Për Universitetin (Movement for University) over many years. This event uplifted the hopes of many Albanians, seeing in this protest the revolt of the new generation over the establishment that has impoverished them. Although it could not bring the much anticipated radical change, by the end of the protest half of the cabinet of ministers in government was replaced. Almost exactly one year later, in November 2019, the United Miners of Bulqiza Trade Union (SMBB) was formed, with its elected leader Elton Debreshi and three other trade unionists being sacked from work immediately after its proclamation. The influence of Samir Mane on the mainstream media, imposing an absolute silence on the week-long protest of the miners, was unprecedented in the history of Albania since the fall of the dictatorial regime. In October 2020, oil refinery workers from the city of Ballsh – after founding a new and independent trade union and staging numerous protests – entered a hunger strike. The strike of men and women workers ended 44 days later, after their demands were partially met. On the 8th of December, 2020, at the peak of the pandemic, the police shot dead a 25-year-old in the outskirts of Tirana during lockdown hours, prompting massive and violent protests in the streets of the capital. On the 13th of January, 2021, the newly formed independent trade union Solidariteti (Solidarity) in the call-centre sector, after various legal battles, won the right to protect workers from the demand of the biggest employer – Teleperformance – to monitor them with cameras while working from their homes.

From this perspective, Debreshi’s candidacy for the Albanian Parliament seems like the cannonball that has travelled a long distance. As activists of Organizata Politike, our support for organizing Elton’s campaign is our first attempt to grapple with electoral politics. Politics – the way we always understood it – had to do with activism rooted in the workplaces and communities, and therefore our approach has been to talk to the people – not as electorate – but first and foremost as potential fellow activists involved in the next common struggle. In 30 years of pluralism in Albania, the role of the electorate appears to have degenerated to that of the passive consumer, sitting in front of the television set and expected to “choose” which of the three colourful “soda cans” better suits their taste. What is beyond any doubt is that the level of sugar in blood will go off the charts regardless of their choice. The point, however, is to shake them away from their comfortable couches and into the streets.

In the 10 short years of our existence – since the tragic events of 21st of January in Albania, where during a protest 4 people were shot dead by the National Guard – we have been present in students’ as well as workers’ struggles. We started a student movement – Lëvizja Për Universitetin – for opposing the neoliberal reform in higher education and from there moved on to organize workers in forming new and independent trade unions. First, we helped Elton and his fellow miners to form the miners’ trade union (SMBB). Then we worked with call-centre workers to set up Solidariteti, followed by the United Oil Refinery Workers Trade Union (SNB). Always haunted by the ghosts of the dictatorial past of the country, it has not been easy for us to bear the mark of left-wing activists. It is thanks to the brutality of daily life under capitalism, that we managed to make people see beyond the usual divide along party lines and acquire a new identity: that of the student-activist and the worker-trade unionist. Our vision of society is one that through taxing the oligarchy the government must provide public services for its people. We need to strengthen democracy and public institutions in the country, and the way to do that starts from building strong and independent trade unions.

Elton Debreshi is not simply a candidate; he is not simply the candidate of the miners that emerges from their organized struggle. Elton is the voice of the vast marginalized strata of society who have been trampled upon by corrupt politicians and gangster-oligarchs. The candidacy of Elton in Albanian politics is unprecedented for another reason: no worker has ever dared to dream so boldly. No one has ever ventured to take on the richest and most powerful man in Albania – the oligarch Samir Mane – along with the whole political establishment. If Elton walks through the front door of the Albanian Parliament, many others will follow. This is the reason why international solidarity is a key factor of our campaign: because the people of Albania need to understand that this is not just the struggle of mineworkers, but its scope and dimensions stretch entire continents and call on the solidarity of all those workers, activists, trade unionist, political parties and individuals who are fighting for a more just society.

Editors’ note: We will update the article with the election results as soon as get the final results.

Read also Redi Muçi’s article about the Albanian miners’ struggle published on LeftEast on February 26th, 2021, ‘There is power in a union: Reflections on the Albanian miners’ struggle’.

Redi Muçi is a lecturer at the Polytechnic University of Tirana and an activist in the left-wing group Organizata Politike.

By Redi Muci

Redi Muçi is a lecturer at the Polytechnic University of Tirana and an activist in the left-wing group Organizata Politike.