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Strikes in Eastern Europe: forbidden fruit of industrial democracy?

“Strike School” in Kaunas, October 2023. Photo: Emil Starodubov

From October 26th to 29th 2023, union organisers and researchers from six Eastern European countries gathered in Kaunas to exchange experiences on union organising and speak about the possibilities for using strikes as a tool to advance a progressive agenda that seeks to tackle important social, ecological, and economic changes.

The “Strike School” conference was organised by the May 1st Labor Union – G1PS in cooperation with the Social centre Emma and the Rosa Luxemburg foundation. G1PS is a syndicalist union in Lithuania that evolved out of protests against the reduction of workers’ rights in the new labor code in 2017. While the law was introduced in 2018, the protests managed to take out the “Zero hour” contract and bring back the legal principle that defines the worker as the weaker side in industrial relations, thus, providing more legal protection for the worker.

The “Strike school” gathered representatives of labour union organisations from Poland, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Estonia and Lithuania. Each of them shared perspectives on current struggles and debated what union or political organising strategies work best in local contexts. The common feature among these union initiatives is that they aim to break the barrier of unionisation in precarious sectors, such as services, retail, and care. Since the 1990s’, unions in the countries of Eastern Europe have faced the problems of rapid privatisation and deindustrialisation of the economy. These processes destroyed most of the factories and communities that formed the main body of the union memberships. Distribution of union assets inherited from state socialist central trade unions triggered conflicts between trade unions, resulting in further fragmentation of the labour movement.  

“Strike School” in session. Photo: Emil Starodubov

With these countries’ accession to the European Union, the dominant idea about union work has been perceived through the Scandinavian “social partnership” framework. The social partnership is based in the idea of tripartite format, where employers, state and workers’ representatives aim to find the best decision for all sides. Strikes are defined not as the core of advancing workers interest, but rather as “the last resort” of activity after a series of debates, meetings and other forms of dialogue fail to result in an agreement. Though perhaps successful and appropriate to the Scandinavian context, this framework  does not work well in the context of Eastern Europe, where trade unions and worker self-organising are both difficult due to economic hardships and due to the lack of any extra institutional support or guarantees. It has not brought any tangible gains for the workers as the Eastern European unions, where workers lack the political and financial power of the Scandinavian organisations. These methods focused union work on various meetings in tripartite commissions or peaceful consultations with employers. Building union power needs shop-floor organising, however, rank and file union members are rarely encouraged to get involved in union activities except for paying their dues. Despite these problems that stem from the hostile legal environment of many eastern European countries, some exceptional unions have continued to organise and call strikes. The most regular strikers have been public service workers, such as teachers or public transport workers.

At present, trade union membership in Eastern Europe has stabilised and even started to slowly increase again. There have also been a number of new union initiatives that have appeared over the last decade. These are led by a new generation of union activists, who aim to revitalise the union movement by focusing on shop floor organising. In addition to forming new unions, they aim to shift the understanding of what unions are; they strive to move away from the idea of unions as service providers towards conceptualising unions as organising platforms. They think of organising in a broader sense, as a way to engage the workers in struggles, show the potential of collective power, and raise expectations about what can be achieved. In communicational terms, such organisations aim to offer a more militant alternative to the “social dialogue” framework.

The panel on organising in precarious sectors provides a brief glimpse of these union initiatives in Eastern Europe. The panel included Jakov Kolak, a representative of the Croatian Regional Industrial Syndicate (RIS) and co-editor at Radnička Prava, Jakub Grzegorczyk, a coordinator of the Education and Training Work Group at OZZ IP from Poland. Slovenian organizers Tina Podbevsek and Matevž Hrženjak from Cedra presented their organisation, an educational centre for worker organising that recently mobilised Lidl retail workers in a successful bid to win the right to Sunday off. 

One of the important questions at the conference was about political education: how to connect economic issues with broader political struggles? A representative of Cedra, Tina Podbevšek, claimed that “political education comes through economic fights”. She pointed out that the best education comes through the process of organising economic struggles, which leads individuals to realise that our material problems are collective and political issues. Political transformation comes not only through realisation and recognition of structural problems, but also through building collective power. Thus, strikes are essential; they are the most powerful tool of the masses to exert collective power and force changes that are beneficial to society. The political potential for the broader left movement is not only about revitalisation of labour militancy. Even if such labour organisations are relatively small in membership numbers, they break through the usual progressive/ conservative divisions and are successful in recruiting people that would otherwise ignore left political agitation. This is a chance to try to engage people in political topics on a day-to-day basis rather than awareness raising on social media, which usually stays inside closed social circles. 

Of the countries represented at the Strike school, Slovenia is an exception in terms of laws defining collective negotiations. The laws around striking in Slovenia have not been changed since the Yugoslav era, they are fairly free, allowing workers to go on strike without requiring them to jump through bureaucratic hoops. This situation stands in contrast to Hungary, Poland and the Baltic countries, where strike is allowed only if channelled via a trade union, and only at the workplace level. Katarzyna Rakowska, Sociologist of Law and member of Iniciatyva Pracownicza, presented the history of strike regulation in Poland. The first ban on strikes in their contemporary form appeared during Jeruzelski’s martial law in 1982 and was reinforced after gaining national independence in 1991. 

Similar to Poland, the restrictive strike law was introduced in Lithuania in 1992. While the Lithuania national constitution grants the right to strike, the law allows it only after completing a number of necessary negotiation procedures. In reality, this means that strikes take up to two years to organise, and are very costly and burdensome for the initiating party. These timely bureaucratic hurdles benefit the employers, who have all the tools to prolong the procedures and prepare for possible disturbances in advance. For these reasons, most of the strikes have been organised in the public sector; only in 2021 has Lithuania witnessed its first strike since gaining independence in the private sector at the “Achema” fertilisers factory plant. Inga Ruginienė, the president of The Lithuanian Trade Union Confederation-LPSK, compared these instances with two cases of recent strikes in Lithuania and spoke about the legal obstacles that unions face in Lithuania.

The inability to strike forces Eastern European unions to look for other ways of collective action: work-to-rule strikes, protests, and picket lines. And while strikes are rarer in Eastern Europe than in the countries of Western Europe, there has been a slight increase in the striking hours in most of the EU member states in the last decade. This might relate to a major shift in understanding what union work means. Since the accession to the European Union, the Baltic countries have relied on the “social dialogue” framework, but the results have been rather meagre. Since 2013 new initiatives between Scandinavian and Baltic countries’ unions have appeared. The Baltic organising academy(BOA), for example, was established to promote proactive organising of the workers. Kairit Kall, an Estonian sociologist, has documented attempts to change unions’ organising methods from within and asked how successful the trade unions are in changing their strategies to revert the long-lasting fall of the membership over the last decades.

Because of the draconian legal environment in Poland and Lithuania, only the most well-organised and secure workers, such as public transport drivers, have employed such strategies. Agnes Gagyi, a researcher and representative of the Solidarity Economy Centre, claimed that these restrictive legal contexts can be explained by the idea of capital accumulation cycles. She argued that the control of the working class comes as a temporary fix of production and extraction of surplus value in Eastern European countries. Agnes raised questions about what union and political organising strategy for the eastern left would work in the present context of growing economic, political, and ecological instability. Some ideas could be sought in combining union and cooperative movements, to organise at the point of production and reproduction. 

The Strike School was an attempt to investigate union organising in a methodological way. While there are successful examples of union organising at the workplaces or sector-wide campaigns, the restrictive legal framework for organising strikes is one of the biggest obstacles to the union movement in the countries of Eastern European. As the old union wisdom tells us, without the ability to strike, the process of collective bargaining between workers and employers amounts to collective ‘begging’. While strikes are not the goal in itself, they are the most efficient method to revitalise the union movement and attract a new generation towards unions. We need successful campaigns and successful strikes to show that improving one’s life can come not only through individual careerism but also through collective struggle. 

One of the aims of the Strike School conference was to raise ideas about how we can liberalise the strikes in Eastern Europe. G1PS aims to unite with other trade unions to put the issue of liberalising the right to strike on the agenda for the 2024 general election. Maybe a similar campaign can be extended internationally? For the political wing of the Eastern European left, a demand to liberalise strikes laws could be an interesting discursive change in political rhetoric – instead of simply defending the rights of workers or demanding more social benefits, the demand to allow workers to freely negotiate could take back from the liberals and conservatives the ideas about what freedom for the working class can mean. However, for such cooperation between unions and political movements to appear the left political parties have to realise the importance of unions and, perhaps more importantly, the trade unions have to realise the importance of striking.

Participants’ biographies:

Kairit Kall | Lecturer in Sociology at Tallinn University.
Kairit has participated in multiple international research projects, her main area of research is focused on industrial and labour relations including transnational cooperation of trade unions and labour inspectorates, union strategies and power resources as well as platform labour. She is also an active member of the trade union at her university.

Katarzyna Rakowska | PhD Student at the Department of Sociology and  Researcher at the Centre of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw.
An anti-fascist, feminist, and union activist, Katarzyna’s research is focused on the right to strike, practicalities of collective labor relations and strikes, including strikes in feminized professions, trade unions’ strategies and tactics, and the political economy of labour struggles.

Inga Ruginienė | President of Lithuania Trade Union Confederation and vice president of International Trade Union Confederation.
Inga has been elected as the president of the largest Lithuanian Trade Union Confederation for two consecutive terms. Since 2023 Inga was elected as a Vice president of International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which represents around 85 million workers in Europe. Inga is one of the most visible public figures in Lithuanian media on topics of pensions, workers’ rights, and labor unions.

Agnes Gagyi | Co-founder of the Solidarity Economy Center in Budapest.
Agnes is a social researcher, working on East European politics and social movements from the perspective of the region’s long-term world-economic integration.

Participants of the panel discussion on organising in precarious sectors:

Jakub Grzegorczyk | Member of the National Commission of Workers’ Iniative (OZZ IP)
Jakub is a trade union organiser, coordinator of the Education and Training Work Group at OZZ IP, and editor of the Workers’ Initative Bulletine. Currently, he is working as an aircraft mechanic.

Jakov Kolak | Jakov Kolak | Co-editor of Radnička prava, published by the Organization for Workers Initiative and Democratization (OWID) and a Union Organizer in the Regional Industrial Syndicate (RIS).
The media outlet Radnička prava (Workers’ Rights) works directly with workers relying on their experiences through the selection of topics or targeted distribution of content. RIS is a general union that is open to all workers in Croatia regardless of their profession. It has union branches in the metal industry, transport, public utilities, shoe making, call centres, nursing homes, and assistants to people with disabilities. Its work is based on principles of workers’ involvement in decision-making and giving support to workers to fight for themselves.

Tina Podbevšek | Professor of History and Geography, Political Organiser in Cedra.
Tina has been actively working in Cedra for the past 5 years where she was involved in building new unions in the Slovenian retail, care, and culture sectors, namely in the companies Lidl, Spar, Tuš, Ikea, Fresenius/Neforidal, Zasuk, and is an experienced labor organiser. Moreover, she has been collaborating with writing and publishing Cedra’s research papers where Cedra’s activities are reflected and theorized. She is also collaborating in establishing Cedra’s educational programme. Tina is also active in the cultural field. She is a member of an informal Marxist theater group, where she directed a play based on Howard Zinn’s Marx in Soho. She also played in Emma, also based on Zinn, and she was also a part of the team that made an original play about the early day of the Communist Youth’s resistance against Nazi Occupation in the city of Maribor in 1941.

Matevž Hrženjak | PhD student of history and a member of Cedra.
Matevž studies socialist theory and participates in various Cedra’s activities in building and strengthening the workers’ movement in Slovenia and collaborating in writing Cedra’s research papers. He has been a collaborator in various projects, connected with the labor movement, workers’ struggles, the spread of atypical, precarious forms of work, participatory democracy, and participatory budgeting.

Other organisers of the Strike school:

Inga Popovaitė | PhD in sociology, Researcher at KTU
Inga Popovaite is a sociologist and researcher at Kaunas University of Technology. When she was a graduate student at the University of Iowa (USA), she was an active member of the graduate student union (COGS – UE Local 896). In Iowa, striking is illegal for public sector employees, and the scope for collective negotiation is extremely limited. Inga’s experience in the union’s leadership committee contributed to her personal interest in labor policies and struggles in the US, Lithuania, and other countries.

Viktorija Kolbešnikova | Communication Specialist at G1PS, LGBTQ movement activist
Viktorija has finished gender studies at Central European University (CEU). She is one of the curators of the Lithuanian queer archive “išgirsti” and a team member of the queer festival “Kreivės”. Viktorija is one of the founders of the G1PS union and since 2023 she has worked for the union as a communication specialist.

Agnė Bagdžiūnaitė | Cultural Worker at the Kaunas Artists House, Co-founder of Art Workers’ Union (MDPS)
Agnė holds an MA in Labor and Gender studies from Central European University (CEU). Currently, she works at Kaunas Artists House as a cultural curator and is one of the active organisers of the recently-founded Art Workers’ Union (MDPS). Over the years, Agnė co-founded several informal spaces in Vilnius and Kaunas that were centres for feminist and labor organising. She has done several research projects on Lithuanian labor history with a focus on women’s work and textile industries.

Jurgis Valiukevičius has finished BA in philosophy and currently works as a union organiser at the May 1st Labor Union – G1PS. He is assisting workers in the process of forming a union organisation at the workplace level. He regularly writes articles or creates audio stories about ongoing labor struggles in Lithuania for the Lithuanian left media channel He is also one of the organisers of the annual festival for left ideas, Kombinatas.