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From Blockades To Axes: Radical Workers’ Actions Then And Now

Photo: Ivana Perić 

Note from the LeftEast editors: This is a translation of an article that appeared with Radnicka Prava on October 21 2022. The article is based on articles from a publicly available archive, The Archive of Workers’ Struggles. The archive was established by the Organization for Workers’ Initiative and Democratization (BRID), which started as a research project in 2012. The project involved collection and analysis of media content about labor protest actions and strikes for the protection or improvement of labor rights in Croatia since 1990. The archive was designed to support the social memory of the workers’ struggle of the 1990s and the post-socialist transition.  These materials are available in an open access digitized database, which contains original printed media articles but also articles from electronic media. The archive was set up for the academic community, researchers, trade unions, civil society organizations, and the Croatian general public. LeftEast recognizes the pioneering importance of BRID”s project, especially for peoples and societies of Eastern Europe. We hope that the archive can be an inspiration for other collectives who are nurturing collective memory as a public good, for groups engaged in public sociology, and for activists building cross-class alliances between social groups.

The publication of the original article in Croatian was supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation – Southeast Europe with funds awarded by the Federal Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany.The English translation of the text is published in collaboration with Eastern European Leftist Media Outlet (ELMO).

Blockades, abducting employers, death threats, confiscating property are all just some of the unconventional methods used by workers to defend their rights.

Strikes are the most common and most effective form of workers’ actions, which we have seen in numerous examples of workers’ struggles in Croatia during the 1990s, collected in the Workers’ Struggle Archives and analyzed in the section ‘Snippets from the Archives’ on Radnička prava. In addition to strikes and street protests, workers found in particularly desperate situations were sometimes forced to take far more radical actions, such as taking over factories or even resorting to violence against their employers. In this article, we will go through some of the more unconventional and sometimes violent actions that workers resorted to in their struggle for their rights from the 1990s onwards.

A workers’ takeover of companies?

Unusual examples of workers’ actions found in the Workers’ Struggle Archives are those instances where workers would “detain on site” the managers or the new owners of their businesses to force them to negotiate. One such example is the case of the Dalma department store in Split, where the female workers blocked the administrative building of the company and kept the general manager in her office, all because they had not been paid the promised severance payments after the bankruptcy of the department store. On 9 November 1999, the female workers blocked the administrative building of the company, where they also detained the then general manager Ana Tijardović, demanding that they be heard. According to the Feral Tribune, despite calls from union representatives to support the workers, the general manager gave no such support (Ljutog Megdana, Feral Tribune, 15 November 1999). The next day, the workers expanded their operations by blocking the entire storage area of the department store. They intended to persist in the blockade until they were given their severance payments or offered solid payment guarantees, but on the third day of the blockade they were thrown out of the premises by security guards contracted by the Dalma administration, after which the workers continued to protest in front of the company building.

Another similar case allegedly occurred in the Krapina Textile Industry (KTI), as reported briefly by the Feral Tribune (Skladište Hrvatska, the Feral Tribune, 20 May 1996). In the factory privatization process 19.3 million Deutschmarks mysteriously disappeared. In February 1996, workers went on strike after months of unpaid wages or contributions. In May, the Feral Tribune reported that the new general manager, who came to the company to fire more than 600 workers, was detained at the factory by the workers, who kept him there until he signed a contract, which he later annulled after his ‘liberation,’ claiming he had been coerced.

In a series of strikes, protests and factory seizures in 1999, the workers of the Croatian sweets factory Kraš detained the representatives of the Diona administration due to unpaid debts. Like many companies, Kraš was hit hard by the way Diona did business, owned by tycoon Miroslav Kutla. Diona at the time (according to the Feral Tribune, Radnička klasa, 25 January 1999) was in debt with its suppliers at 340 million Deutschmarks, and the entire Kutla’s Globus Group owed 1,35 billion Deutschmarks. The Union of Autonomous Trade Unions of Croatia (SSSH) proposed that the problem of Diona be solved by taking over the ownership of the company in lieu of the money. According to the plan of the union headquarters, agreed upon by the majority of the creditors, their claims were to be converted into ownership shares. They would thus take over Diona, in which no one would be the majority owner anymore, after which they would further develop Diona’s business. Prime Minister Zlatko Mateša accepted the proposal, but after that the SSSH could no longer enter into a contact with anyone. Just 48 hours later, the news came that Ivica Todorić, owner of the supermarket chain Konzum, was ready to buy Diona. The Feral Tribune also reported that Kraš workers detained representatives of Diona’s administration for five hours trying to collect their debts.

The Feral Tribune (15 November 1999)

In July of the following year, due to the non-payment of wages, a strike broke out in the Sisak Ironworks and took on dramatic proportions. The workers blocked all three exits from the Ironworks without notice at noon on July 4th. Business partners from Italy were also detained within the plant, so no one could go inside or out, and there was a risk of a large-scale open physical conflict. This workers’ action was initiated in breach of the legislation on the organization of strikes, so workers were deprived of the legal basis for presenting even their most justified demands. At the initiative of the union commissioner, the workers drafted an initiative committee, highlighted their demands and unblocked the entrances – all within two hours. Strikers’ guards were also in place, being on 24-hour duty. After 14 days of drama, the workers received full pay for May and half the wages for June, after which the strike was over (The Feral Tribune, Novac za taljenje, 5 August 2000).

Endless strikes, company takeovers, and in particular the increasing number of ‘headquarters for defending businesses and workers,’ have been seen by some as a possible first step towards the return of workers’ control over companies and the revival of self-management. In the late 1990s, workers’ headquarters sprang up in various companies and openly disputed the right to property obtained by the tycoons. But this does not mean that the workers started managing the company, nor did they ask to do so. They did not even raise the question of their rights to ownership of the companies in which they worked. In those times, the Feral Tribune stressed, the focus was only on employment security and wages. The Tribune also emphasized that calling into question and disputing privatization was the only thing the government could not allow – you could sacrifice a tycoon, but not the concept of privatization because it in itself had already established the desired social order.

If it was ever a historic opportunity to regain workers’ control over companies, it definitely missed the mark. After the struggles in the 1990s, the number of strikes, protests and organized actions declined drastically, even though workers’ rights continued to decline steadily. Membership in trade unions decreased while the unions in turn, gradually – and probably due to the changes in legal framework, as well as other circumstances – mitigated their tactics.

From breaking news to crime reports

Instead of large union protests and radical workers’ actions, after the 2000s unconventional workers’ actions increasingly started to be found among the crime reports. How drastically the situation changed is also evident in disputes between workers and employers that ended with severe injuries or even attempted murder in extreme cases.

For example, in 2009, a worker fired three shots and seriously wounded the CEO of Bačani-Transporti, where he had worked for ten years. After the attack, the worker left the scene of the accident and turned himself in to the police. From the reports we can learn that the disagreements between the employee who worked as a driver and his employer started two years earlier when the worker was fired. Apparently, he brought a lawsuit against his employers, and they brought him back to work before the end of the proceedings, seeing that it was clear the company would lose the dispute. Despite this, the worker claimed that “they did not want to let him anywhere near the steering wheel, instead they offered him a position as an assistant driver. The family of the wounded employer claimed that he had threatened them before, that they had no confidence in him because he was suffering from depression and that they had had problems with him because he would refuse to go on the road, and that he should have retired for health reasons” (Večernji list, 9 December 2009).

We often see news of workers physically attacking, threatening employers or taking their assets in an attempt to recover what they’re owed as compensation for wages they are likely never to receive. From newspaper reports we often do not even know who the employer is and why the workers were not paid their salaries, but only how the crime took place and what the perpetrators were accused of. Moreover, what we see are just those cases for which there is an official record and have had the police involved (thus reaching the public), while the real number of similar ‘actions’ of desperate workers is certainly much higher. It is also clear that in most cases the actions of workers are impulsive, unplanned and escalate into violence and, as a rule, these lead to negative outcomes for the workers.

In 2010, three workers kidnapped the owner of the construction company Žare to collect a debt of € 2.000 for the construction of the Vrtovi Sunca Hotel in Orašac. The workers reportedly met with the employer to collect the debt. It is not known whether the kidnapping was planned, but since the owner did not have the money with him, the three workers forced him into the car against his will and drove him to an ATM, where they were left empty handed yet again because the employer’s account balance was low. After that, he was reportedly thrown back into the car, physically assaulted and threatened. Then they kicked him out of the car and drove away (T-portal).

In 2011, two employees of an unknown company received criminal charges for attempted wrongful collection of debts after they attacked their employer and stole his two cellphones. The incident began with workers jumping their former employer at a café insisting the debts be settled. As he persistently ignored them, they followed him from the café, started threatening him and insisted that he go with them to the nearest ATM and withdraw at least some of the money they were owed. In the end, so as not to go home empty-handed, they stole his two cellphones. According to the employer, their actions were way over the line and, after he managed to escape, he went on to report them to the nearest police station. The police quickly found and arrested both workers, who were later released on bail (Novi list, 24 July 2011).

In the same year, we learned about the case of a 29-year-old driver who tried to retrieve the money he was owed by threatening his 33-year-old employer. The worker called his former employer and asked him to settle his debt, and since this did not go well, he began to hurl death threats. The employer reported the former worker to the police, and during the criminal investigation, he was found to have committed the criminal offense of unlawful collection of debts. He too was released on bail (Novi list, 22 August 2011).

Furthermore, after his employer did not pay him his severance pay of HRK 7.500 [€ 995], a young Paulchen S Komet worker decided to collect the debt himself. Outside working hours, he took the opportunity to steal the company vehicle he used while he had been employed, and the co-owner of the company filed a criminal complaint against him. The police soon found the vehicle in a car shop, and due to the crime, the information about the perpetrator was handed over to the company to file a private lawsuit. The car was returned to the owner (Jutarnji list, 21 May 2009).

Illustration, photo: Wikimedia

In 2010, Andrija Mandić from Otok was given a one-year prison sentence for taking a laptop from his boss, outraged that he had not received a salary for two months. He found a job in a private wall painting company in Zagreb through a job listing, and the owner of the company falsely introduced himself. After two months of work, the employee asked for his salary, to which the owner replied that he be patient and that he should feel happy to be working at all. He took the laptop in an attempt to get his employer to pay his salary, returning it the next day. Since he had not been officially employed, Mandić could not prove during the suit that he had been working as an interior painter for that employer. During the criminal proceedings, he agreed to six months in prison, but the prosecutor demanded a higher sentence, which was then increased to one year in prison. The employer was never charged or held liable for non-payment of wages to the worker (Večernji list, 3 May 2012).

Last year in Zagreb, a worker demolished an expensive car that he thought was owned by his employer. The worker immediately confessed to the police by explaining that he had done so because his employer owed him more than he was willing to pay. The worker thereby committed the criminal offense of destroying property, and the prosecutors demanded 10 months of probation. During the investigation, it turned out that the worker went after the wrong car (, 12 October 2021).

Finally, it is worth mentioning the case of census takers who decided last year to express their dissatisfaction by keeping the equipment, all due to the sudden amendments to the decision regulating the fees for census takers. The Croatian Bureau of Statistics (DZS) had changed the decision on the amount of cash compensation the day after the census was completed, which is why some of the census takers would have received as much as HRK 2.700 [€ 358] less than the planned amount. Part of the census takers from the Upper Town — Medveščak branch office decided to keep the IT equipment assigned to them – laptop, charger, bag and accreditation. Some census takers also complained that they did not receive compensation for the working well beyond their target area, despite the fact that they covered Zagreb’s Upper Town with plenty of non-residential buildings, but also those abandoned because of the earthquakes – this additional compensation was in fact received only for rural areas under the amended rule.

The case ended with DZS finding a way to pay the agreed fees to a part of the census takers, invoking special circumstances. The census takers who, according to the new DZS decision interpretation, were entitled to compensation did not wish to accept it because they believed the compensation should go to everyone, not just a small number of census takers. Nevertheless, they were told that they would still be paid and that they had to return the equipment by a certain date, otherwise they would be sued for a criminal offense (Novi list, 20. 11. 2021).

The unusual, radical and violent actions of workers against employers today are noticeably different compared to the 1990s. The gradual reduction of influence and organizational power of trade unions, as well as new, insecure forms of work have led to disorganized, sporadic actions against employers in which workers primarily try to fight for themselves and their immediate needs. Trade union action has also been regulated by law since the 1990s, so strikes are now their most radical option at hand. The violent actions we’ve seen in the last decade are spontaneous and rooted in bursts of anger and feelings of personal injustice. Sporadic violence is not directed against the system, it is not used as a means of coercion to solve the problems of the entire work collective or to expose the criminal activities of the employer. Instead, these kinds of actions seek only small individual victories, without wider implications. It is also interesting that employers who do not pay wages are portrayed as victims, while labor exploitation is not perceived as violence. At the same time, workers who claim their rights by force are drastically punished, even in the case of petty thefts in which the employer’s property gets stolen. Given the system on which the workers cannot rely and considering the ever-decreasing and unstable work collectives that are difficult to organize, it is no surprise that workers in particularly difficult times decide to make independent violent measures. Sometimes they are motivated by a simple demand for payment of earned wages, and sometimes this is only a desperate act of revenge. In only a decade, the notion of a potential return to self-management and the unpredictable political power that workers possessed in the late 1990s transformed, alas, into half-reported news and unfortunate crime stats.

Translated by Borna Karanušić

Martina Domladovac graduated in History from the University of Zagreb. She participated in the research of the 1990s railroad workers strikes in Croatia. She has been writing for different Croatian independent media outlets.