SAT, 08 JUN 1996 22:49:45 GMT
Strikes of Despair in Serbia
AIM Belgrade, June 3, 1996
"Nowadays, workers are treated like convicts. Even their labour is paid for and it is not as forced as ours. Our wages are low, and nothing to say about the fact that they pay us with a delay of two or three months", says Djordje Andjelkovic, President of the trade union of "Magnohrom" (factory from Kraljevo which employs 6500 workers) announcing a general strike with unlimited duration. Employees of the factory of railroad carriages in Kraljevo are already on strike, and workers of wood industry "Jasen" will soon join them. After Nis, where some ten days ago about thirty thousand workers came out into the street, this will be another major strike. The everyday strikes involving several hundred employees which are on strike behind factory doors, noone registers any more. They are mentioned only by independent media, but mostly if they decide to block the roads in Serbia. Those who strike within their factory grounds are ignored both by employers and the authorities.
One Mark per Day
The authorities deny strikes of education workers who are on strike in some schools for several months already, with interruptions, just as they denied the last week's strike of health workers, claiming that it involved just a handful of the employees who were redundant labour anyway.
In order to convince the Government of Serbia to the contrary, health workers persistently gathered in front of the Government building and in the largest Belgrade square. Ministry of Health kept sending public statements that "there are no strikes in health institutions", threatening by the way the workers on strike that they would be discharged from work.
Dr Stevan Djordjevic, President of the Republican Trade Union of health and social security workers and President of the main strike committee reminded that it was "not normal for a cleaning woman to work as daily help, for a nurse to sell cigarettes, for a physician to take bribes in order to support their families".
The health workers made a demand that the minimum salary based on which their wages were to be calculated be 223 dinars (about 70 German marks). After nine days on strike, the Government and the Trade Union agreed on 190 dinars of minimunm salary.
The apologetic tone of professors, physicians, who all claim that they are on strike just because they are hungry, and the workers from Nis who claimed that they have chosen "street rebellion" only because of poverty and hunger, is explained by Branislav Canak, President of the Association of Branch Trade Unions "Independence", as a lack of awareness of their position.
"They keep apologizing saying that great misery has forced them to go on strike. Normal trade unions go on strike even when they are doing very well, in order to preserve the accomplished or in order to accomplish even more. Our people are not aware of their position in the society. When they are citizens they act as subjects, when they are workers, they act like slaves. That is why, even when they protest, they apologize to the authorities, as if to go on strike were not their normal, legitimate right. It is crushing for the medical workers that with this strike they have won a 'raise' of nine marks. For each day of strike - one mark", Canak stresses.
In the past five or six years, troublesome times of workers' discontent were often announced. It was assessed that headlong decline of the standard of living accompanied with super-inflatory plunder would cause a defensive reaction. Social revolt "a la Poland" failed to take place. The authorities routinely and expeditiously neutralize and rout the strikes. Or, as a metal worker once said, strikes are "boring and welcome for the state as a valve in avoiding social revolt".
On the other hand, allegations that Serbia, at least according to the number of strikes in the past seven years, is a world record-breaker are not far from the truth. Only in 1989, there were about two thousand strikes. Statistics show that more than a million workers participated in them. After that counting stopped, because in the years which followed, strikes especially in Serbia became an everyday phenomenon. Everybody went on strike: metal workers, textile workers, kindergarten teachers, physicians, flight controllers... Even pupils went on strike, and policemen prepared to do it (a group of them wanted to prepare a strike, but was prevented). In the past few days, pensioners - the only persistent guardians of social peace - also lost patience and announced protests in the streets, although they are aware that their protest, just like the workers'strikes, would achive nothing at all.
"I would go to the protest, although I am sick. Those in power are just waiting for us to vote, and then we might just as well drop dead", says a seventy-year old pensioner, Jovanka Ilic.
One dinar, one promise
"In our circumstances it is practically impossible to speak about a real strike. There are two basic preconditions for a strike to be a real strike: market economy with a market of labour and capital, and the existence of independent trade unions. A dependent trade union cannot go on strike. Indeed, sometimes even that occurs in our country, when it is necessary for accomplishment of certain political aims", says Branislav Canak. "By their agreement to go out into the streets quite frequently in the beginning of the nineties, the workers have started to lose their identity, and they were also used as cannon fodder", says Canak.
People still remember the famous sentence uttered by a participant of a protest of workers from Belgrade suburb of Rakovica in front of the Assembly of SFRY: "We have come as workers, and we have left as the Serbs".
The previous two years have passed in the process of revival of the economy pursuant the program of Dr Dragoslav Avramovic. All trade unions supported the Governor, but those controlled by the regime, which are often incited by managers, exponents of the ruling party, to seek money for restarting production, are on strike or threaten that they will go on strike almost daily. This is in fact a controlled pressure exerted by the authorities on the mint to issue money, and a pretext used by the regime why Avramovic had to go - allegedly, it was in the interest of the workers.
That is why, Canak believes, strikes in Serbia, especially those organized by so-called independent trade unions which are in fact controlled by the regime, are not real strikes. "I don't know who is the employer here and who I should threaten. If the state stands behind all employers, then they control the police and the army too. Should there by any chance be a lot more of us, the state would order money issue. Our workers will be satisfied with meagre sums of money, and then we would go all over again", he adds.
The authorities which used to buy them in 1993 for a sack of flour and potatoes, determined their price. They took the sacks home and did not ask for more. Trade union leaders showed that that their intention was to keep outbursts of workers' wrath under control - recommending the workers to resolve problems inside their factories and not in the street. In the meantime, the state could peaceful carry on with its business, because the workers were separated from the forces of the opposition ("forces of chaos and frenzy"), closed behind their factory fences. Their wrath weakened on forced leaves, was drowned in smuggling and other jobs in the domain of "grey economy".
"The strikes used to be resolved by quick finding funds, taking loans from banks and paying the discontented workers. That is always easily feasible, under the condition that the demands are not fundamental, and the strikers not too numerous", says Dr Zoran Stojiljkovic, professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences. "The authorities are capable of meeting the demands just partially, because they are limited by a narrowing manoeuvring space. People cannot take it any more, they are dissatisfied and the everything repeats, they go on strike in order to survive - which leads to strained situations. A solution would be to carry out economic reforms and political changes. Should that happen, however, those in power would lose their positions... Since those who are privileged are afraid that reforms would endanger them, problems intensify - to the verge of inflation... What we have in the streets nowadays are strikes of despair", Stojiljkovic concludes.
Professors of the 13th Belgrade High Schools have perhaps understood it best, demanding the arrears salaries, and after a few unsuccessful strikes, recommended the Ministry of Education and the Government, apart from dinars (which they do not have) to introduce a new means of payment for the education workers - promises. With the exchange rate of one dinar - one promise.
(AIM) Vesna Bjekic