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There is power in a union: Reflections on the Albanian miners’ struggle

Danish Jukniu, At the Shipyard of Light

Wealth concentrates while poverty spreads. While gravitational forces cause objects to fall toward the earth, market forces cause value to fall by the same place with orthodox rigorosity, year after year. The pattern is however cyclically interrupted. Social movements, financial crisis and technical advancements trigger systemic changes that open the way toward the reconstruction and redistribution of wealth.

The interruption narrative from Hesiod’s Theogony, where the titans fought the Olympians in the battles of Thessaly, to the wave of changes of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Eastern Europe, provides a clear lesson: power and wealth are finite and temporary.  Nevertheless, such a historical pedagogy has been unable to turn into militant potential in the Albanian social-political discourse. Oppression, structured manipulation, and lack of adequate information have in due course refrained public discontent from turning into a mass movement that could potentially serve as the moment of interruption with the status quo.

In today’s Albania, not only is wealth concentrating quicker than ever but is also forming such power structures that enable a few people to rule according to their interests. Aristotle called such phenomena a plutocracy: the rule of the rich. Albanian society, which emerged from the nineties with weak institutions, and an obvious and understandable lack of institutional trust, was vulnerable toward the apotheosation of individuals and waved its own narrative not only in justifying individual names that usurped the political space but also the economic one. To paraphrase Judith Butler, that model of the individual is comic, in a way, but also lethal. When the individual comes first, society comes second. What always should have been our struggles become “their struggles”. The students’ protests of 2018, although it attained some support, faded out due to class and generational marginalization. The ongoing mineworkers struggle has similarly failed to gain the support of either the media or of institutions but it has won the sympathy of the students and various activists, who showed solidarity with the miners’ condition. Such form of solidarity, originating from the intersection of struggles of a different character sources from the same condition: a neoliberal market that has as modus operandi privatization and deregulation.

In these conditions, in 2013, AlbChrome privatized the main mine-pit in the city of Bulqiza, the richest area of chromium mineral in Albania. Thirty-six other subjects operate in the area, many of which do so illegally.  AlbChrome remains the biggest extraction company employing almost 700 miners. This company is part of Balfin Group, which owns more than 18 other companies operating in Albania and in the region, and whose main shareholder is Mr. Samir Mane. Balfin Group has under its administration other branches of the metallurgy industry, such as the enrichment plant of Klos, ferro-chrome plant of Burrel and Elbasan, as well as the nickel production plant in Kosovo. Saimir Mane is the richest Albanian entrepreneur with activities in many other sectors, ranging from commerce, real estate, all the way to financing. Such a wealthy man, a billionaire in a country of 2.8 million inhabitants, where the average salary of a person employed in is 330 Euros a month, has undoubtedly both economic and political influence. The miners face in the persona of Saimir Mane a strong adversary, a sort of modern Goliath, who cannot be dealt in a single combat, as per the Biblical tradition, but must be brought down only through deep and clear institutional reforms. Collective bargaining is not enough to deter violations. Adequate legislation, constant inspections and law enforcement agencies are a sine qua non in achieving better and safer working environments for industrial workers.

In the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018 of United States Department of State, the working conditions in the manufacturing, construction, and mining sectors in Albania were described as poor and, in some cases dangerous. The mining industry along with the textile, footwear and construction industry was featured as one of the most vulnerable in terms of violations of wage and occupational-safety standards.  Since 2014, 43 miners have died, including eight at the AlbChrome mine-pit. Discontent among miners has been brewing for some time. The chronicles of their deaths barely make it on national television, whereas only recently a  prosecutor was accused of negligence in investigating seven deaths dating from 2006-2011 period. In April 2019, more than 200 miners from AlbChrome signed a petition listing a number of demands, among which greater safety at work, increase of wages, reduction of the workload (which had been constantly increasing year after year, while the wages had remained frozen), recognition for the various levels of difficulty and skill at work, as well as higher rewards for senior miners. The miners expressed their complete disillusionment with the existing trade union that had completely dismissed their demands.

They contacted Organizata Politike (OP) and were offered logistical and legal help for forming a new trade union. After an initial rejection from the court, the United Miners of Bulqiza Trade Union (SMBB) was established. The new union has a broad Council of 21 members and up to now it has reached a membership of 320 miners, making it the strongest and most representative union in the mine. Three days after the inauguration of the union at the central square of Bulqiza on the 17th of November, its democratically elected leader, Mr. Elton Debreshi, was fired by the company. The company claimed that Debreshi had violated the “ethical code of conduct”. This prompted an immediate reaction of the miners who went on strike, thus paralyzing production that allegedly fell to 20% of its capacity. The strike continued for seven days, during which another member of the council, Beqir Durici, was fired under the same pretence as Debreshi. Clearly, more than a breach of the ethical code of conduct, their dismissal is an anti-union act.  After seven days, the Labour Inspectorate intervened and started investigating  the miners claims that two of their union members had been fired in breach of the Albanian Labour Code, as well as numerous international conventions on the rights of workers to unionize. Since then, two more trade unionists have been fired.

When not dealt in national level, anti-union acts can be dealt with internationally via various legislative instruments. Albania, has ratified in 1957 the ILO convention on The Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining. Its first article states that “workers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of anti-union discrimination in respect of their employment”. In 2004, Albania ratified the Workers’ Representatives Convention stipulating clearly that the workers’ representatives in the undertaking shall enjoy effective protection against any act prejudicial to them, including dismissal, based on their status or activities as a workers’ representative or on union membership or participation in union activities, in so far as they act in conformity with existing laws or collective agreements or other jointly agreed arrangements.  Albania has ratified 8 out of 8 of the Fundamental Conventions and 4 out of 4 of the Governance Conventions. Conventions once ratified are legally binding and create international norms and standards. These conventions enable union members to bring allegations of anti-union dismissals and anti-union acts to the attention of the ILO Committees, which will then request the government to take necessary measures according to the situation.

The demands for better working conditions, increase of wages, etc. are now coupled with the demand to reinstate the fired miners. However, a more recent demand of the SMBB is regarding its legitimacy to negotiate the new collective agreement. The old agreement negotiated by the existing trade union, expired at the end of January 2020. The fierce response from AlbChrome, in complete violation of the law, could also be seen as a disciplinary measure aiming at discouraging miners from demanding the new trade union to enter negotiations for the collective agreement, thus leveraging for more favourable conditions. AlbChrome claims that this is a dispute among trade unions and that the miners were fired regarding issues that are not related to the initiative to form the new trade union. The old trade union has the full support of the company and is struggling to prove that it has the majority of miners among its ranks. This, however, is not the case. A legal battle is expected to take place in court very soon. The old trade union has called for the negotiation of the collective agreement to be postponed until end of May, in a desperate attempt to blackmail the miners into signing back with them. Meanwhile it has accused the new trade union leaders as vagabonds who are pushed into action by “behind the scene” machinations with political undertones.

This is an unprecedented case in which both the government and the opposition have remained completely silent. Furthermore, the influence of Samir Mane on the Albanian media has muted most of the tv stations, newspapers and online portals. A very limited number of portals have reported on the events. Some media outlets have made efforts to promote the changes that Albchrome had brought to the mining industry. Such efforts not only are done through a pre-assumed condescending superiority but are an attempt to paternalize the discourse, to represent every amelioration not as the fulfilment of a need for which Albchrome is obliged to provide, but as courtesy. This is a manifestation of inability to compromise, of lack of empathy toward their workers struggle, and the deliberate and blatant substitution of the workers’ needs and goals for the shareholder’s. Albanian intellectuals have also refrained from commenting, at least up until OP and other activists managed to bring the issue to the public attention with a call for boycotting the products from companies of Mane, followed by graffiti, banners, and eventually distributing leaflets in TEG (a shopping mall under his ownership) that resulted in the maltreatment and prosecution of three activists who are still subject to court procedures. In the meantime, the investigation from the Labour Inspectorate concluded that no wrongdoing was found on the part of the company.

The figure of the Albanian miner today remains as tragic as it was during the dictatorship. During the former regime, there were two categories of miners, the largely invisible political prisoners, who were forced to hard labor in copper and pyrite mines, and the others who were miners by choice, who were publicly valorized for their self-sacrifice through the model shock-worker images of Alija Sirotanovic and Alexey Stakhanov.  Stepping out of this imaginary of the mineworker figure during communism is a necessity. Our societies should refuse to interiorize the self-sacrifice narrative since in a neoliberal market it translates only as exploitation based on an asymmetry in a power relationship between workers and their employer.  The current politics on industrial workers must be delineated by two poles: ethics and jurisprudence, which would simultaneously confine them within a space of legality and political morality.

As Camus duly noted in The Plague, there are more things to admire in men than to despise. For each of the likes of Saimir Mane, there are in thousands those who with their integrity, hard work, and sacrifice become the women and men Diogenes searched during daylight with a lighted candle. As the miners organize yet for another strike, we, whom luck or circumstance brought far from the mine pits must recognize in the miner, our fellow citizen, the colleague, the brother, the father, the son. Our responsibility must extend beyond what constitutes the self, beyond the milieu, beyond education, gender and age. This is not populist Peronist solidarity, but an effort to attempt the achievement of a society that does not normalize exploitation, dramatic wealth accumulation and class based differentiation. The students and the miner’s struggle signal the need of change and the potentiality of reactionary politics. What is to be done is yet to be seen.

Redi Muçi is a lecturer at the Polytechnic University of Tirana and an activist in the left-wing group Organizata Politike. Griselda Qosja is a research associate at the University of Hamburg, Faculty of Law.