We publish the report of the online meeting with trade unionists and activists organized by LevFem (Bulgaria) to discuss the possibility of solidarity and strike action in Bulgaria and carry on the global potential of the feminist essential strike well beyond March 8th. The discussion revolves around the possibility to broaden the way in which strikes are conceived of, in order to trigger new struggles and connect existing ones, by confronting the obstacles due to trade unions stances, to the harshness of conditions of exploitation and racism and to legal limitations to the right to strike.
On 28 March, LevFem organised an online meeting with the participation of activists, trade unionists and representatives of NGOs on the topic “Strike as a method?”. The aim of the event was to discuss what are the horizons and obstacles to building effective, lasting, practical solidarity among those most threatened by the effects of the multi-layered crisis that unfolded during the pandemic. It is part of a series of meetings across Europe, organised in response to the call for a vibrant strike by the international feminist network E.A.S.T, the Women’s Rights March “Always on the frontline!”, and the publication of LevFem’s collection The Pandemic: Feminist Fronts.
The first part of the event took the form of a panel discussion with the participation of Vanya Grigorova (“Podkrepa” trade union), Miglena Mihaylova (Permanent Roma Conference), Gloria Filipova (Bilitis Foundation), Todor Kapitanov (KNSB union) and Maria Ivancheva (LevFem). The discussion was moderated by Kalina Drenska (LevFem). The starting point of the conversation was the question of the strike – both the specific legal framework and the possibilities for organizing, and the consideration of the strike not only as a mechanism for resolving labor disputes, but also as a mechanism for broader solidarity in society, for improving the socio-political situation of the working class.
Vanya Grigorova, economic advisor of the Trade Union “Podkrepa”, drew attention to the calls for a “national strike” during the protests of the summer of 2020 and clarified that in Bulgaria there is no legal possibility to organise a national strike. Unlike protests, strikes are a specific tool for resolving labour disputes when negotiations with a particular employer have failed.
Grigorova also presented the conditions for organising a strike. In order to organize a strike in the workplace, it is not necessary to have a trade union, as employees can self-organize with the consent of 50% of the workers. Even the slightest breaches in form can result in the strike being declared illegal. She pointed out that Bulgarian strike legislation is severely restrictive. She concluded that solidarity among workers is key to defending their demands.
Miglena Mihailova, lawyer and Roma activist from the Permanent Roma Conference, drew attention to the possibilities of solidarity and uniting the struggles of different groups of people. “When we talk about a strike in a purely legal sense, this is the relationship between worker and employer. But when we have a community that is excluded from the labour market, the strike has to be seen in a broad sense – in how we can together defend our collective economic and social interests as separate communities,” said Mihailova. “Interdependence is inevitable because as a society we need each other.”
She noted that racism and discriminatory attitudes towards Roma isolate this group of workers from the labour market, and the state does not invest in the community. Mihailova noted that the Roma community is the most affected by the multilayered crisis caused by Covid-19. The neglectful treatment of the Roma community has put it at great risk of infection and death, and high inequality and isolation have combined with low incomes and a lack of savings for Roma to meet the closures.
Mihailova reminded that whole sectors of the economy, such as construction and cleaning, are dependent on Roma workers, and those employed in the arts and culture, such as musicians, have been left without support for a year. “It is the prejudices and stereotypes of Bulgarian society that largely lead to the exclusion of the Roma community,” Mihailova said.
Gloria Filipova from the Bilitis Foundation said that the employment sphere is one of the areas where LGBTQI+ people face the most difficulties, be it discrimination or homophobic environments. “The media very often creates the image of the rich white gay man sitting in his mansion drinking champagne in his crystal glasses… This sets the wrong image of who is actually in this community. There are all kinds of people in it.” Filipova noted that trans people are among the groups with the most limited access to the labor market. Working with the community on a day-to-day level reveals how much the pandemic affects LGBTQI+ people and especially trans people. The lack of jobs increases competition between applicants, which affects LGBTQI+ people disproportionately: “In recent weeks I have spoken to people who have been invited to a job interview and have been told at the door that they are a ‘sick case’ and not allowed to interview at all. A lot of people say this has intensified,” says Filipova.
In response to what is happening, the foundation started a humanitarian fund that provides food and medicine vouchers and helps with housing costs for people who are on the brink of homelessness or are already homeless. In times of crisis, the natural source of support – family and loved ones – is cut off for many gay and trans people due to homophobic and transphobic attitudes within the family. Filipova outlined some examples of solidarity in recent years, such as the participation of LGBTQI+ people in the protests in support of nurses, the protest against racist violence, and the protests in support of the Istanbul Convention. For her, such solidarity is key in the fight against nationalism and hatred. Another important aspect is the meetings with trade unions.
Todor Kapitanov, National Secretary of the KNSB, shared his experience in organising strikes and protests. He drew attention to the difference between these two forms, as well as to some specificities of the strike. The strike is regulated in the Law on the Settlement of Collective Labour Disputes on issues related to labour relations, social security relations and the standard of living in general. Strike funds are needed to ensure that strikers receive some income. In order to organise a strike, a collective labour dispute is necessary.
Kapitanov also identified the important steps in organising a strike. First of all, it is necessary to make sure that the workers understand that further negotiations with the leader are futile, and all possible means of peaceful pressure on him have been exhausted. The strike is the ultimate instrument for achieving the workers’ objectives. For its successful implementation, it is necessary to set clear and specific final objectives that are neither unacceptably low nor excessively high.
Kapitanov also mentioned the so-called “direct worker actions” that quickly and directly affect the labour process and can be used to achieve the strike’s objectives without its risks. Such actions can be the slowing down of the labor process in the literal, even absurd, implementation of technological prescriptions concerning the implementation of the labor process itself; stopping the labor process due to the employer’s failure to comply with all, even elementary, occupational safety requirements; calling on the labor collectives of the employer’s partners to refuse to perform the supply contracts concluded; or persuading the public to boycott the employer, i.e., to refrain from buying the products of the enterprises
Maria Ivancheva of LevFem outlined the possibilities of expanding the concept of strike to include people who have traditionally been excluded and through it to think of new ways of solidarity, boycott and disruption of capital.
Ivancheva spoke about her experience as a participant in general strikes by the UK university employee sector. Strike legislation there is also extremely restrictive and requires a ballot by workers six months before the strike, in which over 50% of workers must have voted in the affirmative. This allows employers to prepare to sabotage workers’ efforts, which happens in two ways. On the one hand, this is done through outsourcing various functions such as gardening, cleaning, etc. so that these workers are not employed by the university. On the other hand, strikes are prohibited on private property. Since much of the university’s land has been privatized, it is impossible for strikers to organize a so-called picket line at the university’s entrance.
According to Ivancheva, many of the strikers were precisely migrants from countries like Bulgaria, Greece and Italy, who could not find work in their own countries and felt displaced from them: “Our choice to be migrants is not because we think that English higher education is greater and more worthy of us, but because there is no possibility of returning to some level of basic qualifications and a decent life that is not a life of fear. What we are seeing with the English unions, and it is very much leading the way, is the fear of the workers to strike because there is a great fusion of power with business which makes strike action difficult and impossible.”
In the second part of the event, it was open to the rest of the attendees. One of the first topics touched on was the fact that LGBTQI+ people and Roma often do not turn to trade unions but to their community organisations for help. According to Gloria Filipova, cooperation with trade unions is important to encourage people to seek their rights. Miglena Mihailova drew attention to the disproportionately low incomes received by Roma. Discrimination against Roma makes it difficult to find work, so they often tend to work for lower conditions. She drew a parallel with Bulgarians abroad – as they are seen as “second-hand” people there, the pay is very low, but Bulgarian migrants agree to low pay as it is “still something”.
Maria Ivancheva defined the need to talk about the strike not only in the specific workplace, but also as a general mechanism for social solidarity: “If LGBTQI+ people and Roma come out in support of the nurses today, the nurses or other workers can come out in support of them tomorrow when other rights are sought through strike or protest”. She also addressed the issue of women’s work, much of which (e.g. domestic work) is not recognised as work. “The women’s strike – and the life strike – includes this work,” Ivancheva added.
Different approaches and definitions to the concept of strike were clearly visible during the discussion. While for trade union representatives it should be read as closely tied to labour disputes and protests used for all other forms of political pressure due to the specific legal framework and strike legislation, others in the exchange pushed for a broader definition of strike as a mechanism for political and social pressure at the hands of the working class. Examples were given of women’s strikes in Bulgaria in the early 20th century, when women struck to bring men back from the front; of the women’s strike in Iceland in 1974, when on a single day nearly 90% of the country’s women refused to go to work and do domestic work; and of women’s strikes in Poland and Argentina currently for the right to abortion. The argument of this side in the dispute was that if women and workers had only their labour at their disposal, then their strongest social and political weapon should be the abstention from labour, the shutdown of the economy and the blocking of capital.
An interesting debate unfolded within the discussion regarding the practical dimensions of the women’s strike. For Vanya Grigorova, demands for recognition of domestic work are essentially political, but must be asserted in the political and public spheres. She does not see the strike as an instrument to achieve such goals because there is no employer-employee relationship in the family. In her view, abstention from domestic work does not affect capital, but rather reduces the issue to the relationship within the family.
According to Maria Ivancheva, capital is actually affected when the husband has to go home to do the care work instead of the striking wife. Strikes in domestic work are key because they have the potential to seriously affect the reproduction of the productive workforce.
Maria Ivancheva gave a final message, “In many communities there is talk about how the strike needs to move out of the workplace and think about how it functions in the community because many people don’t have jobs – especially with the platforms and flexible forms of work. But both in the factory and in these new flexible forms of work, the most important thing is the community that supports the strikers. People who take it upon themselves to give money, to look after the children of those who go to the ‘picket line’, to support each other. This is institutionalized now, but it wasn’t like that at the time. And we have to think about these forms of solidarity that we think of as institutionalized, but they were achieved through bloody struggles for human and labor rights. And that’s why I want to invite us to think of the strike as a broader tool for opposing capital.”