Ognjen Kojanić: Worker Management at ITAS Represents a Great Success

Note from LeftEast editors: This is an updated translation of an interview with Ognjen Kojanić, originally published in July by our comrades at Radnička prava. We publish this edited version as part of our collaboration within ELMO – The Eastern European Left Media Outlet.

Ognjen Kojanić is an anthropologist, who spent a year researching worker self-management at the company ITAS (2017-2018), after which he received his doctorate on the subject at the University of Pittsburgh. In the meantime, he published two papers on ITAS, and at the same time, he also applied his academic knowledge working as a union organizer in Pittsburgh. In this interview, we touch upon the relationship between academia and practice outside of it, the differences between trade union organizing in Europe and the USA, the difficulty of workers’ self-management within the capitalist mode of production in which, for example, the design of machines itself tends towards ease of use so that the working class needs as little as little education as possible, and thus is more easily replaceable. 

Photo: Ognjen Kojanić

In 2015, you conducted a pilot study on the experience of post-socialist ownership transformation and workers’ struggles to preserve collective ownership in three companies: Jugoprevoz, ITAS and Dita. In the end, you decided to investigate in detail how workers’ self-management functions in ITAS, why ITAS? 

Simply put, the main topic I wanted to deal with in my research was the model of ownership that contrasts with the dominant one in post-socialist capitalism. Much ink has been spent on academic papers on the process and consequences of privatization after the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe, but far less attention has been devoted to models in which workers have attempted to construct alternatives. One of the suggestions I received while preparing the topic proposal for my doctoral research was to do a comparative study of two or three similar companies. Among others, I considered the example of Jugoremedija, which is perhaps the best-known case from Serbia in the region, but at that moment Katrin Jurkat was already doing research with Jugoremedija’s small shareholders. Jugoprevoz, Dita, and ITAS seemed somewhat similar, but when I visited them in 2015, I noticed significant differences between them that made me give up on comparative research. Jugoprevoz, the ownership structure was mixed, and the workers, united as a group of small shareholders, were collectively the majority owners of their company. However, the shares of Jugoprevoz were traded on the Belgrade Stock Exchange and it was likely that the workers would lose their majority ownership in the near future. Dita was very much very current at the time as an example of a group of workers who had occupied their factory and started production, but it was an open secret that they were negotiating with Bingo, a privately owned supermarket chain, about the possibility of selling the company. A couple of years later, Bingo bought Dita. (Larisa Kurtović, Andrew Gilbert, Haris Husarić and Boris Stapić continued to research the history of the labor struggle in Dita). So in the end I decided to focus on ITAS, which at the time seemed to be the only case where workers had managed to preserve their majority ownership of the firm and where a group of workers and their allies outside the firm were trying to find a way to formalize a model of workers’ ownership of the company. 

ITAS is often presented as a positive example of self-management. How many pictures that the left builds about ITAS correspond with your experience? 

Considering the history of the defeat of various left-wing initiatives after the breakup of Yugoslavia, ITAS is indeed a great success. The fact that the company, which was about to be liquidated managed to stay on the market for the next fifteen years — and continues to operate — cannot be ignored. Dozens and dozens of workers, who would have lost their jobs if ITAS had stopped working, received a good retirement from working at ITAS. Instead of being forced to look for work elsewhere, many had the opportunity to stay in Ivanac or nearby, close to their families. Also, dozens and dozens of young workers have gone through practical education at ITAS. Although a minority of them stayed in ITAS for a long time, those who went to other metal companies in Croatia or in neighboring countries had valuable skills that helped them find better paying jobs. So, in a small place like Ivanec, the cumulative effect that ITAS’s operations had is big. But it should also be kept in mind that the left experienced so many defeats in these areas that it had to celebrate any signs of life in the labor movement, however limited. Unfortunately, much of the labor movement’s activities were “actions out of desperation”, as Croatian sociologist Dragan Bagić calls them, doomed to failure because the room to maneuver was very limited. Although ITAS avoided the fate of many desperation actions, it was not without problems. In 2017 and 2018, when I was conducting my research at ITAS, there was a lot of dissatisfaction among the workers. It was a time when workers’ incomes were irregular and business in the market generally did not seem to have a solid perspective. (Moments from that period were recorded in the film Factory to the Workers by Srđan Kovačević.) The then general director of ITAS also abolished the practice of frequent workers’ assemblies. The majority of workers did not have enough information about the state of the company, not to mention the impact on management. Such a difficult state of business had an impact on relations between workers. Along with the expected friction between those “on the floor,” ie engineers, economists and other white-collar workers, and those directly involved in production, it turned out that there were also divisions in ITAS based on age, education, experience, and responsibility. This was most visible in the frequent conversations about differences in wages, however small or large. The workers commented with dissatisfaction that such differences demonstrate the management’s unfair attitude towards them. At the same time, there have been no attempts to overcome these differences among workers, for example by having workers make decisions about how work should be rewarded. 

In your work, you point out that the way in which technological innovations are made is not apolitical, but that employers require machines that are very easy to operate in order to be able to employ cheap and uneducated labor and to change workers more easily. How does ITAS, which is run by workers, manage to compete in the market of such a business policy? 

The attitude towards the technology used can certainly be politicized. The interpretation you bring up about the increasing use of machines that require less labor is common in criticisms of capitalist development. Harry Braverman is known for his thesis on the degradation of work through the introduction of technologies that diminish the importance of workers’ skills and subordinate them to machines. Older workers at ITAS thought somewhat similarly when they talked about the purchase of new CNC (computer numerical control) machines that required less skills. However, they would also praise the ability of younger workers to be computer literate, a prerequisite for operating CNC machines and a skill they didn’t think they could master so late in their careers. So the matter is always more complex than can be predicted on the basis of theory. The introduction of new technologies in itself does not have to be a problem, the only question is for what purposes it is happening and how the benefits of new technologies are distributed. In general, most ITAS workers thought that technology modernization was necessary for the company to continue operating. In addition to that story, which is characteristic of ITAS itself, I wanted to point out in general the role that workers play in shaping the geography of capitalism. In left-wing criticism, the decisions made by capitalists and states are mostly emphasized. However, workers are not without their power to act, which is illustrated by the example of ITAS. ITAS’s success in the market is a complex issue. Unlike many other worker-owned companies, such as the aforementioned Dita from 2015 or the Greek company Vio.Me, which produced goods for the mass market, ITAS’s products are mechanical machines. Dita, Vio.Me and similar examples could at least at the beginning expect support from the community through the purchase of their products because they want the experiment of worker ownership to succeed. In contrast, ITAS has to sell on the market what it makes and make a profit. ITAS’s management managed to maintain ties with companies from Germany, which provided them with work in a certain niche on the machine tools market. Labor is cheaper in Croatia than in Germany, and the production in small batches that took place in ITAS had a financial rationale. In addition to the cost of labor, such production also made sense on the mix of machines that existed in the company, including the largest number of “classic machines,” some of which were over 50 years old. These production conditions limited the maneuvering space of the business, but also offered some advantages, which ITAS deftly used to maintain itself on the market. In this way, ITAS workers did not shape the outcomes of political-economic processes only through the conflict with the previous owner and the state, but through their own actions as economic subjects with their own agency. 

In one of your papers on ITAS, you make a distinction between older and younger workers, in which older ones have an intimate relationship with the machines, while the younger ones strive for modernization. Is there a clear difference in class consciousness between younger and older workers? 

In that paper I tried to show that generational differences are not always clearly expressed, although some generalizations can be made. To a large extent, the differences were the result of a very specific historical trajectory of ITAS, which meant that at the time of my research, about half of the workers were over 50 and about half were under 30. Other differences were also mapped onto this generational divide. The attitude towards the technology used in production was one of them. As I mentioned in the answer to the previous question, older workers often thought that they could not master the skills of operating CNC machines, so it was usually a job for young workers. However, many young workers worked on classic machines for the simple reason that ITAS could not afford to buy a large number of CNC machines.

Another relevant difference was in the experience of some old workers from the early 2000s, when they clashed with the owner and were eventually declared the owners of their company in a court process. However, not all old workers participated in that conflict; some came to ITAS after it. Finally, most of the young workers, but not all, felt ready to move and look for work outside Croatia. As I mentioned when I talked about wages, there was not the necessary political work to overcome these differences, which had negative consequences for the sense of unity. In this sense, it is difficult to talk about class consciousness in the collective. Like most other people, ITAS workers typically have a set of ideological beliefs that are often incoherent. For example, although some of them were nominally anti-capitalist, they might hold various other beliefs that are incompatible with ideas of equality. Even more important than the question of ideas is the question of practice. Very few were actively involved in union work, and almost no one was active in any left-wing initiatives outside the company — be they young or old. In this sense, the mere fact of workers’ ownership did not result in the spread of left-wing practices. 

Are there still these tensions between worker ownership and the capitalist market? Can you name some other problems that workers face? 

In conversations with me, the workers often pointed out that the policies of the European Union, and of Croatia within the Union, do not support forms of collective ownership similar to ITAS. In addition to difficult business conditions, this was a source of great skepticism for most of them regarding the possibility of maintaining worker ownership in the long run. Of course, some were skeptical about the value of workers’ ownership itself. After decades of ideological insistence on hegemonic forms of ownership, it is not surprising that even the workers, who are rare in that they have the opportunity to experiment with building an innovative model of ownership, do not believe in its sustainability. 

Can you explain the relationship between unions and workers in self-managed enterprises? 

This is a very complicated question. The historical experience of actually existing socialism in many countries shows that declaring something a “workers’ state” does not necessarily mean respecting workers’ freedoms and empowering workers. Likewise, self-governing enterprises in Yugoslavia had a number of problems, among other things, the fact that technocrats were often de facto managers instead of workers, as Saša Vejzagić has written about. Even modern self-managed enterprises do not always have to have the interests of workers as a priority. Especially if they are nominally self-governing, but in reality they are managed by a few managers and the majority of workers tacitly accept this. On the other hand, the interest of the trade union does not have to be equated with the interests of all workers. In a minimal definition, a trade union is a group of workers who act collectively in the desire to improve their working conditions. If this group is a minority and unrepresentative, it may have opposite interests to the majority of other workers. Finally, I think that trade unions can play an important role in self-managed enterprises. Given that not all workers can be involved in making most of the decisions in such companies, it is useful to have a body that will represent the interests of workers as workers, in a relationship with management that is antagonistic to a certain extent. Whether the management was formed through free elections or in some other way, there is always a risk that in some situations it will oppose the workers, and in such situations it is desirable to have a collective voice and strength through the union to resolve disagreements between workers and employees through a certain type of conflict. management. 

I find it interesting that you moved from theoretical work to the practice of trade union organization. How do you compare the two worlds?

At least in the USA, where I had that experience, these worlds are quite different. Even during my PhD, I was involved in the attempt to establish a union of post-graduate student-workers in the USA. We emphasized the work we did for the university: as researchers in laboratories, assistants, lecturers, evaluators, advisors, committee members, etc. Our work was crucial for the functioning of the university, but it was not recognized as work, but the universities paid lawyers to challenge our right to union organizing. (I wrote about this issue in my article for Workers’ Rights from 2017.) When I got my PhD in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing and the academic labor market was in dire straits, so I decided to use what I learned as a volunteer in union organizing and find a job with the United Steelworkers union. I continued to work on academic campaigns. In addition to the postgraduates’ campaign, both professors and non-academic staff tried to win recognition for their unions. For now, professors are the only ones with a recognized union; they won convincingly in the 2021 referendum and now represent over 3,000 workers. However, they are still negotiating a collective agreement with the university.

To return to the question: one of the main things that the experience of union organizing taught me is that academic work is work. Lauren Berlant has a concept of “cruel optimism” that is useful for identifying various problems in contemporary capitalism, including the fact that academia is perceived more as a personal calling than as work. Cruel optimism implies that what we are attached to holds us back and prevents us from living fulfilling lives. Universities as institutions have their own economic logic that does not have to take into account the working conditions of their employees. As academic workers, we must fight together to ensure that our work is respected and appreciated. 

How useful was your theoretical knowledge and do you think that the academic world is too closed in the “ivory tower”? Do you think that these two worlds should be more closely connected? If so, how? 

I think it is very difficult to overcome the gap between the academic field and the “real world”. Within the academic field, incentives are often aimed at creating high theory and formulating new concepts. In the case where neoliberal productivity standards are internalized, academic workers spend most of their time fulfilling criteria such as publishing a certain number of papers in highly rated journals. Even when there is an emphasis on some kind of opening to the public, for example through publishing blogs written without jargon or appearing in the media, the purpose of such activities is often self-promotion, more than solving problems that exist in the world around us. Of course, there are always examples of male and female scientists who have mutually beneficial relationships and find ways to focus their work on those topics that are most important to the groups they work with. Those examples are worthy of praise. However, to a certain extent, I think it is not even necessary to always insist that the search for knowledge must have a direct application. To begin with, we need to understand the phenomena that surround us. In some cases, it may be enough to find a language to talk about problems, of course, provided that language is not too obscure that no one outside the “ivory tower” can understand it. 

You were involved in trade union organizing in the USA. I know it’s a very broad question, but can you briefly compare the experience in ITAS and the USA?

At first glance, it seems that it would be much more difficult to deal with union organizing in the USA than in Europe, but are there any easier sides? I’m sure the readers of Workers’ Rights follow Jacobin and various other outlets that write about union activity in the US. In general, it is difficult to engage in trade union work across the ocean because the legal framework is quite restrictive. Of course, there are initiatives that do not try to act within these restrictions, but rather try to develop anarcho-syndicalist and other practices, but they are marginal on a national level.. However, one of the advantages that I have seen working in a union is that these restrictions have actually made the methods of union work much more refined. For example, in order to be recognized, unions must win a referendum and thus prove their representativeness. This is approached extremely seriously and campaigns are often conducted more deeply than campaigns for elections to state positions. My work in organizing new unions involved constant contact with workers where I taught them to talk effectively with their colleagues and build strong mutual ties so that they could withstand pressure from the management, which was against the union. We mapped different workplaces within the university both physically, in order to find our way in the space, and according to how the workers are connected to each other and how it is possible to find leaders among them who could lead their colleagues towards the union. We constantly took notes and monitored the numbers to adjust the tactics we used if they were not successful enough. Resources on how to lead trade union struggles can be found based on US experiences, including strike schools organized by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in collaboration with trade union activist and theorist Jane McAlevey. All these methods of active work on campaigns are something that is learned and constantly improved, and I think they could be useful to trade unions and other activists around the world.

Ognjen Kojanić is a socio-cultural anthropologist based in Cologne, Germany. He is working on a book project, tentatively titled “Reluctant Owners: Managing Labor, Class, and Institutions in Postsocialist Capitalism,” which focuses on the case of ITAS, a worker-owned machine tool factory in Croatia. In his current research project at the University of Cologne, he examines how urban infrastructural projects developed or proposed over the past century have shaped human-environment relations in Belgrade, Serbia. Previously, he was a labor organizer with the United Steelworkers working on campaigns to unionize graduate student workers, faculty, and staff at the University of Pittsburgh.