Zdravko Saveski is a member of the leftist movement ‘Solidarnost’, and Secretary of the multi-ethnic Union for Education.
“Since 2009, the leftist movements Solidarnost and Lenka organise protests on the 1st of May, and as of last year co-organisers are also several independent Unions. As a result, the commemoration of the 1st May, has ceased to be a date only marked by an insignificant number of marginal leftists, but has become an occasion for demonstrating workers’ revolt against the incessant violation of workers’ rights, and an increasing numbers of workers take part in the protests.”
LeftEast: May Day was once a symbolic day of struggle for the labour movement and then an official state holiday. How is it commemorated in Macedonia?
Zdravko Saveski: In Macedonia, the 1st of May still remains a public holiday, which as of 2007 is no longer the case with the 2nd of May, which also used to be a national holiday. Traditionally, the workers and the rest of the population commemorated International Workers’ Day by going for picnics in nature. Nowadays, it is considered an occasion for relaxation and fun, rather than a day for protest, and the connection between the day and workers’ rights does not seem to be made anymore. Yet, this is not the whole picture. Since 2009, the leftist movements Solidarnost and Lenka organise protests, and as of 2014 co-organisers are also several independent Unions. As a result, the commemoration of the 1st May has ceased to be a date only marked by an insignificant number of marginal leftists, but has become an occasion for demonstrating workers’ revolt against the incessant violation of workers’ rights, and an increasing numbers of workers take part in the protests.
LE: The post-socialist transition led to changes in the role of the unions in society. Could you tell us a bit about what it was like before and what it is like now? In particular, how would you say that these dynamics have impacted on the left in Macedonia, considering that traditionally Trade Unions have acted as the backbone of left mass movements?
Z.S.: The role of the Unions in Macedonia has not evolved during the period of transition. In the past, under Yugoslavia, the Unions existed not in order to protect the workers, but to protect the Government from the workers. This was the case for a long period since the end of socialism up until a couple of years ago when several independent and authentic Unions have emerged. They are not bureaucratized and perhaps signal the rise of a new Union movement in Macedonia, which might even become a mass movement in the coming years. These Unions, aside from their other activities, are also co-organisers of the 1st of May protests.
When it comes to the leftist movements, for a long time there hasn’t been almost any collaboration between them and the Unions. In recent years, they have started to work more closely together with some Unions and to maintain contacts with others. In addition, there are leftists who are active and vocal Unionists, and a significant number of employed leftists are members of their Unions. This means that in Macedonia there is an inclusion of the left in the workers movement, which is commendable, considering that in other Eastern European countries the left is supporting the workers movement only from ‘the outside’.
LE: Many commentators feel that globalisation has had an important effect on worker organisation (race to the bottom and threat of outsourcing, the rise of services, precarity, anti-labour legislation, etc). What are some challenges you have noticed and how have unions responded to these?
Z.S.: In general, the Unions have failed to keep up with the challenges which capitalism presented in the past two decades. Often their reaction is rather soft and is based on a commentary of the negative consequences of the violations of workers’ rights. Counter-measures are not suggested, and stronger resistance is not being organized. A significant recent step has been the campaign against the payment of social insurance for workers in precarious conditions, a part in which undertook also the Union of Journalists. Although at first sight, it may seem that this Governmental policy is in the interest of the workers, in fact it threatens them with further impoverishment, as most employers would not pay both a salary and a social insurance contribution. This would then mean that most workers would only work to receive social insurance and would not be paid any salaries. The success of the Union of Journalists has been in recognizing the threat to workers rights which was disguised as their protection, which has in turn received great support in challenging government policy.
LE: Eastern Europeans are both sending and receiving countries for migrant labor. What campaigns have been made in your country on migrant work either in reference to workers in diaspora, or to new migrant workers?
Z.S.: They are left entirely on their own. Aside from some international agreements relating to mutual protection of workers’ rights, there is no will for more to be done. Still, it must be mentioned that Macedonian workers abroad do not attempt to make contact with Unions in the host country and other organizations for workers rights. This is an indication of the low class consciousness of the workers in Macedonia, a mentality workers bring with them when they leave the country to work abroad.
LE: Female work – and especially care work – has been one of the main “exports” of Eastern European countries. At the same time, women who have stayed in the region have often been hired as domestic or unskilled workers by outsourced factories. Have the unions in your country addressed these issues, and has gender been a topic of their work?
Z.S.: The rights of male workers in Macedonia are violated, but this is even more pronounced in the case of female workers. They are often exposed to low-paid and precarious work conditions, and are often exposed to blackmails. Their rights and their dignity is violated. There hasn’t been research done on the involvement of women in Unions, but my impression is that their participation is no lesser than that of the men, so we cannot say that they are any less involved in the struggle for protection of their rights. On the contrary, there are numerous examples of women who have stood in defense of their rights. However, as it is the case with men also, this is more an exception that proves the rule of non-resistance. Both men and women workers need to be encouraged to stand in defense of their rights. In order to encourage women in their fight for rights, this year the leftist movement Solidarnost organised a public discussion titled “First Women’s May”, discussing women’s rights in the context of International Workers Day, instead of the 8th of March, the date when usually attention to women is paid. This gives a new and important dimension to the problem. When it comes to the Unions, they only pay as much attention to the problems of women’s workers as the power they hold. And they have very little power. Women workers in the textile industry are one of the most precarious category of workers. Their Union has little success in defending their rights, which to a large extent owes to the fact that these are privately owned factors, which makes Union organisation all the more difficult. There is a widespread fear shared by the workers in defending their rights, they distrust the honesty and effectiveness of their Union leaders etc. In any case, while all this goes on, the breaking of workers’ right goes on every day.