In Slovenia, trade unions seemed to weather the storm of the transformation crisis well, albeit the 2008 financial crisis much less so. Over the last decade, the most noteworthy developments have been new initiatives in which unions, self-help initiatives, educational initiatives and workers have aimed to redefine the struggle. Channelling this spirit, an organisation named CEDRA that functions as a worker-education centre, published a letter for 1 May 2021 of a retail worker on its website:
Together we can reach the sky: Long live May 1st!
My name is Damjana Ajd. I am a woman and a mother of two adult children and a saleswoman in a grocery store where I have been working for 28 years.
Despite the uncertainty I decided to join the Trade Union of Slovenian Retail Workers (SDTS), and I became their active member. With the support of the secretary general and the encouragement of comrades from the Center for Social Research (CEDRA), I gained all the knowledge I needed to begin.
The year 2020 was not only a year of Covid, but also a year of union struggle. Capital demanded more and more from us retail workers – in exchange for an embarrassingly low salary, without protective equipment, with constant mobbing, while working understaffed. Profits have tripled for owners, but for capital the profits can never be high enough. The workers in the shops were already at the end of their tether, both physically and mentally. The SDTS secretary, in cooperation with CEDRA, called on active members of all retail chainsto join forces and clarify our demands in parliament on 15th of July 2020. We requested free Sundays for all workers employed in retail! I was afraid to speak in parliament, but I overcame my fear because I was not alone.. We trusted each other, and we united believing that we would succeed.
For the first time, retail workers came together. We believed in our victory against horrible and powerful capital. The long struggle of the trade union and the initiatives of the workers, as well as the experience we gained during the epidemic created an atmosphere in which part of the governing coalition also supported and sided with the workers. Yet, capital did not want to understand our demands.
We had to start a campaign to collect signatures, this time just with employees in retail. The response from the workers has been phenomenal. We started by collecting signatures in the store, but soon management realised that we were serious and that we were becoming too strong. Intimidation began, such as a ban on collecting signatures in the branches themselves. That didn’t stop or scare us. We became organised quickly. We hid the signature sheets in cupboards and drawers, and the caterers who had bars near our branches assisted us in solidarity, creating peaceful conditions in which we were able tosign the petition. This time, capital failed to suppress us; with its actions it gave us new impetus, new strength and the awareness that we need to connect even more strongly with each other. After a long time, I felt that we were united, finally connected (not only the workers at Spar, but also workers in other retail chains) and that we sincerely started to believe that together we will succeed. AND WE DID IT. ON SUNDAYS WE DON’T HAVE TO GO TO WORK. However, there is no time to rest in the union. Capital is persistent and cunning in exploiting labour. Pressures, threats of dismissal, mobbing and the intensity of work are still increasing enormously…
Today is the 1st of May, a holiday I remember with nostalgia. It has been a long time since I was a child, beautifully dressed, with a red carnation on a white blouse, proudly singing the “International” in a choir. I remember the solidarity, the pride of the worker, who was still valued in our country during socialism. I remember waking up in the morning with a brass band. Parades of beautifully dressed and proud ironworkers. Celebrations on Lake Ivarčko, where I proudly recited the poet Kajuh:
There are only a million of us, a million dying among the dead, a million who drink the blood of the pickers, a single million who are tormented by suffering and yet never destroyed! Never and never…!
The pride of the worker is trampled on today; we are considered only a cost. But there is still hope in these cruel times. There are more and more shy red carnation buds. The trade-union movement, and the workers’ movement associated with it, is starting to wake up. We are aware that an individual achieves nothing. But together and connected, we can reach the sky. Long live the 1st of May for all honest working people, for retirees, the disabled and especially for those who are not afraid to think with their own head.
Damjana Ajd, trade unionist from Spar
In all countries, most active trade unions and labour organisers thus highlighted that workers need to understand that they can fight for their rights only if they organise collectively and unionise. We also could hear voices saying that 1 May is a day of workers’ struggle, and that we should leave the pompous celebrations behind. In redefining the struggle, other initiatives seem to not only bring in the voices of the most affected, the precarious labourers, but they also highlight new social perspectives, meanings and opportunities. Through these struggles, we see the core values of work as a social and thus human activity for individual and social development – an activity stemming from and serving the community and wider society.
Not only is 1 May a celebration of human labour, but also a celebration of work – productive and reproductive – for the benefit of our society and community. Work is the driving force of human, individual and collective fulfilment, and it is not an alienated, destructive activity, benefiting the selected few rather than the values and interest of humanity. This day, 1 May, is also a struggle for recognising the value of labour – a struggle for a socially just local and global society and humanity – a point that both unions and activists seem to realise.
Damjana Ajd is a trade union activist and the trade union president of the retail store chain Spar in Slovenia.