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Mapping Workers’ Struggles: The Position of Workers in the Post-Socialist Balkans


This is the third instalment of contributions from the Balkan Social Forum’s working groups. This week’s instalment is by the Working Group on Workers’ Struggles, which was composed of: Mersiha Beširović, Heiko Bolldorf, Maja Breznik, Stipe Ćurković, Petre Damo, Robert Fai, Marko Grdešić, Mario Iveković, Jovica Lončar, Branislav Markuš, Tibor T. Meszmann, Davor Rakić Kićo, Jasna Petrović, Milenko Srećković, Romana Zidar, and Jovica Lončar (coordinator)[1]


The discussion of the group had several general goals, both aspirational and concrete: sharing information, connecting union activists with other civil society organization activists, and members of the academia, finding overlaps in knowledge, connecting theory and practice, searching for a common vocabulary, inclusive solidarity-based identities and agendas, locating national and sectorial similarities and differences and searching for tentative strategies which can be effective in a variety of settings. The group agreed that any prescriptions that are to be made should be articulated in an organic way: they should not be formed from above but in interaction with those who are most familiar with the daily struggles that are being fought. Small but firm, doable, emancipatory steps have priority.

The present context for workers’ struggles is very unfavourable: aggressive neoliberalism, privatization by all means, outsourcing to boost competitiveness as a main tool of capitalist ‘development’, rising inequality, employment insecurity, a race to the bottom in work and social standards, and a strong and aggressive stance of the economic and political elites. While unemployment, and more generally, precarity continues to grow, those who work under contracts are facing constantly worsening working conditions and insecurity.

Workers, if not organized, are atomized, individualized and vulnerable. The group thus recognizes the importance of developing strong workers’ organizations, as they are instrumental in developing solidarity and fighting for the common interest.

Trade unions


Squeezed between increasing precarity and the neoliberal demands of business elites and their allies on various political levels, trade unions face a slow, but imminent decline. Today, unions face a definite challenge in staying afloat. Membership is decreasing across the region. Challenges are manifold, and often different in different national, regional and sectorial environments. Privatization, austerity measures, increasingly unregulated capital-labour relations all pose challenges for unions. Furthermore, all these issues consume union resources and energy, presenting unions with daily trade-offs in the battles they choose to fight. Some battles require resources and a large membership base. Others require legal expertise which only large bureaucracies have. Complex legislative regulation of, for example, strikes makes activism difficult. It is difficult for unions to meet such manifold and often conflicting demands.

The deficits of the union movement in the region are numerous. The group discussed union failures and strategic miscalculations in detail. Union corruption and a bureaucratic and complacent attitude are key among them. Unions across the former Yugoslavia have also neglected their territorial organization and opted instead to focus on a sectorial approach. However, a territorial approach can be more advantageous in connecting unions to local labour markets or in reaching out or opening up to the unemployed and those without stable employment. Instead of a heavy-handed top-down approach, unionists need to ask members and non-members what their problems are and customize union services accordingly. Collective bargaining and legal services at national, branch and company level are important but are not the only service that unions should offer. More innovative approaches at the territorial level are needed.

In addition, trade union strategy still tends to be based on notions of ‘social partnership’ and assumptions derived from it. The fundamental shift in class power, both in the region and globally, have in the past decades not produced adequate responses in union strategy or the perception of their role vis-à-vis the state and capital. These new and detrimental conditions for working class organizations will have to be reflected and acted upon in a manner adequate to the challenges unions today are facing, if the decline of their social relevance as active protagonists is to be halted, let alone reversed. Narrowly sectorial and particularistic modes of thought and action will have to be abandoned in favour of a return to a class- based perspective in the broadest sense possible.

Although unions often face criticism, it is important not to overlook what they have done well in the past. It is especially important to recognize the importance of unions in keeping collective agreements as the basis of workers’ rights. Moreover their present choices and actions, especially in the right direction, need greater publicity, discussion and social support.

Other workers’ organizations

Yet, worker struggles are not necessarily only union-centred. This is especially evident in the case of ‘yellow’ unions, which act in tandem with management or political elites against the interest of workers. Similarly, trade unions at higher levels are often alienated from their base. Nevertheless, in principle, alternative worker organizations can also operate parallel to socially responsible but overburdened trade unions. Irrespective of whether socially responsive unions are active or not in a given space, workers’ struggles have to include the broadest array of self-organization, including civil organizations capable of collective action.

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in civil society organizations (CSO) created and run by worker activists, including inclusive organizations which aim to empower and support workers to express their voice. These organizations typically bring together workers, irrespective of whether they have a signed work contract or not. There is a remarkable trend in the use of social space and experimentation, discovery of possibilities for collective action and self-help. Although experiences are still segmented and remain at the local level, these experiences in public presence and action, creating inclusive social spaces are valuable and informative. Although there are important initiatives in the region, the capacities of these are still underdeveloped or unrecognized. They know relatively little of each other’s work, a state of affairs that should change in the future.

There are also worker initiatives and actions operating within loose grassroots organizations. In their race to the bottom, plants and companies increasingly desire to employ fully alienated, individualized, flexible employees deprived of their human character and social responsibilities. Consequently, there is not much space for workers in these plants to self-organize. In case they do manage to form organizations for action, these actions should be considered as the expression of the voice of workers struggling for autonomy and human dignity, in conflict with the interests of capital and its repressive machinery. Such conflicts come to the fore on plant or workplace levels, but they either remain stifled or condemned in business-financed media so it is important to counteract a mainstream media pressure by giving alternative social visions of reality.

History, experience sharing and education

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More generally, it is important that we do not forget the history of workers’ struggles, first of all in the region, but also most broadly. These are important as they give inspiration, encouragement, and provide us with a legacy we can build upon, and inform our present and future action.

Future labour activism should be built on the conscious knowledge and awareness of the history of past workers’ struggles. If there is going to be a future, it will be built on the past, its social roots. One of the goals of the discussion was to highlight the existence of an alternative history of labour resistance and activism and highlight the positive examples that can be built on. Some elements in the history of socialism also provide a foundation that can be built on. Workers under state? socialism had a sense of confidence, a feeling of a shared collective fate, and a usable reference to a state-sponsored worker identity. These aspects are now gone. Even so, the past twenty or so years have witnessed several effective episodes of labour activism that could be the starting point. It is important to build the collective memory of this “subterranean” history, and not to allow cultural amnesia to always force us to start over from scratch.

In this respect, efforts could be made to start building the institutional foundations of collective memory. Gathering data and documentation regarding workers’ struggles or other phenomena of interest to unions and workers is weak to non-existent. Such efforts to collect data and make it publicly available could be linked to a more coherent attempt at what could be called “ideological” work, or as it was called under socialism, “ideational-theoretical” work. This refers to the construction of new identities and ideologies, which can form the solidarity basis of a revived labour movement. An effective forum which was mentioned by the group were film groups which provide a way for unionists to meet with ordinary workers, members of the academia and others, exchange information, build social ties and a sense of common fate. This would also allow for work on the dis- courses necessary to fight neoliberalism. Alternative terminology in framing worker struggles is necessary. Words used recently in public discourse, such as ‘employees’ or ‘citizens’ should be demystified while more stress should be put on various communities of workers and class identities.

The group discussed the potential of the struggle against “corruption” as a way to make worker struggles legitimate. This language offers an entry-point but is also problematic given its lack of political charge. Building new languages and discourses is an important way of fighting the idea that “there is no alternative.”

Unions face not only the problem of limited or shrinking organizational capacities, but also negative portrayals in the media and perceptions of “being part of the system.” The group discussed the issue of union corruption at length. This lead to an interesting discussion on the relative merit of establishing new unions or reforming existing unions; some have launched an idea of a Balkan confederation. Is it better to form new organizations and circumvent the existing ones since they are corrupt and ineffective? Or should we work through existing organizations and make use of existing infrastructure? Such debates will no doubt resurface in various forums. What was clearly agreed on was the need for international and transnational action: the neoliberal offensive can be more successfully fought if cross-border cooperation is stronger.

Yet, the largest advances can be made through a rediscovery of education. This means learning from others, teaching others and building a sense of solidarity and equivalence of fate with those who are in vulnerable and precarious positions. It is crucial to create space for sharing experience, organize public discussions and debates, film club sessions, all in order to fortify and develop inclusive social identities and common interests. In case a collective action or a crucial struggle appears it is important to reflect on these events in an inclusive manner, and if possible, take some form of action. For example when workers in company A strike, unions in company B should explain to their workers that what is really at stake is the jobs and benefits of workers in company B. A solidarity-based logic means a lessened emphasis on competition either between individuals or groups and a renewed emphasis on cooperation.

Education means an interactive sharing of information and experience and overcoming particularism, sectarianism and envy. Such education would be better fostered if mass media was more labour-friendly: for example, if an established daily newspaper was consciously struggling against neoliberalism. But, as this is an unrealistic desire, advances can be made in a capillary way as well: establishment of blog entries, in starting on-line documentation centres, media and collective action observatories and research centres. In such a way, a slow build-up of a network on the bases of trust and solidarity may happen.

Politicization of the unions

Furthermore, a common theme in the discussion was the need for unions to reach out to other actors in society.

On the level of ideology, unions on various levels should not be afraid to counter neoliberal discourse. They should reassert themselves as social actors and struggle over interpretations of reality. Another step is building a wider social front, through building an inclusive interactive community among unions, various civil society organizations and academia. It should be noted that for the most part of the transition period there was not much interest in labour questions among CSOs and academia, which made the burden for the unions even heavier. In recent years this situation is increasingly changing CSO activists and parts of academia are becoming increasingly aware of labour issues. In that respect, it becomes possible to envision what the next steps could look like. The triangle described above could be expanded into a wider solidarity-based network with four or five nodes. Unions are increasingly aware of the need to reach out to other social actors if they are to stay afloat or score victories. Such unions would rebuild their social legitimacy through horizontal linkages with other actors in society. As we discussed in the group, for example, Croatia has seen volunteer work by social activists in trade unions, which has been to the mutual satisfaction of both sides.

The segmentation of society in isolated groups and sectors was located by the group as a key problem. There is a need to break out of the ideology and practice of isolation of individuals, groups, and organizations. Mutual suspicion, sectarianism and disinterest in the struggles of others is a significant problem. Unions, civil society organizations and social groups, in particular, suffer from these problems, when they could build links and be more effective together. Naturally, this requires patience, a slow building of trust and careful inter-organizational diplomacy. But several successful practices in the region, the example of trade union women’s groups cooperating and acting closely with the national umbrella feminist organization being the most recent and successful one, show that such a strategy is both possible and effective. Without such a wider struggle, even those very successful unions may find themselves in a situation where they won victory after victory but end up losing the war.

The political activation of unions is a complex issue. Unions and workers have had bad experiences with union involvement in politics since they often become mere appendages of political parties. The politicization of unions requires a tactical maturity that only some unions and other civil organizations have managed to demonstrate. The use of the existing institutional framework of “social dialogue” is a case in point: if unions rely solely on this mechanism they will most likely be on the defensive. In theory, social dialogue does offer unions “a foot in the door.” If they can skilfully combine it with campaigns which take place on the streets or outside of political institutions, they have a higher chance of success. However, as capital and its representatives at present are unscrupulously aggressive, we do not see that even the basic requirements of social partnership are fulfilled.

Admittedly, this is difficult since it stretches the resources of unions, which are thin to begin with. However, the market system provides certain entry points that can be turned against it. For example, consumerism gives us powers as consumers. We can ask questions regarding the products we buy and consume: where do they come from, who produced them, and did those who produced them have decent work conditions or union protection? This line of thinking in which the system is turned against itself – as in “jiu-jitsu” where the force of the opponent is used against him – deserves more attention.

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, it is important to emphasize once again that any suggestions for further action need to be discussed with the protagonists who work on the ground. Solutions should not be asserted in a top-down manner. Instead, the goal should be to support those small-scale initiatives which have already proven successful. This path may appear to be the longer path, but it is more organic. Instead of telling workers what to do, the motivation behind such an approach would be to support those capabilities that local agents have already manifested and build-up such capacities over time. This also concerns a slow construction of a solidary front aimed against neoliberalism, which should include unions, other CSOs, social movements, sympathetic members of the academia and other intellectuals.

[1] This report was prepared by the ”Mapping workers’ struggles” group during its sessions on 10-11 May, 2013 at the Balkan Forum in Zagreb.