The Fiat Strike – No Turning Back

The strike at the automobile producer Fiat Chrysler, biggest exporter of goods from Serbia, is ongoing. Mašina’s journalists visited Kragujevac and talked to the workers and union representatives.

It’s the fifth day of the strike at Fiat. The workers demand a small increase of salaries, paid overtime and abolition of a disastrous practice which investors started implementing when even high budget subsidies did not lead to profit maximization – i.e. layoffs. Emptied positions are not being filled by new workers, these tasks are shared among the remaining labor force.

The Fiat workers’ dissatisfaction has been growing since last summer when a large number of them (a whole shift, as union representatives emphasize) was laid off, due to pressures and worsening of working conditions. Work volume remained the same and was divided between a smaller number of workers.

After arriving to Kragujevac we talk to the president of the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions in Kragujevac Jugoslav Ristić and the president of the strike committee Zoran Marković. They explain that the factory gate is closed and that the workers will not be too eager to talk to us since they are under management’s pressure to return to work, threatened that Fiat will leave the country and that the “strike was good for no one”.

However, the workers we meet as they arrive for the second shift encourage us with their friendliness and resolve to endure in this struggle. Unionized workers state how they will not give up until their demands are met and that more should be demanded since, even if Fiat meets their demands, taxed salary will not go over 40,000 dinars.1

We also talk to a younger worker who at first states that he is not striking since the working conditions are excellent, but adds after a few minutes that he is “afraid for his position” and that Fiat workers in Kragujevac are most bothered by the fact that their colleagues in Italy are paid multifold.

Workers’ position is a political issue

What differentiates this strike from the other recent ones (Goša, Fori) are more combative demands and high level of politicization among a part of union officials and younger workers.

Not having the state on our side is what worries me. The resolve of young people to change that is good – Jugoslav Ristić states.

Ristić emphasizes that the change came from below. A few months ago workers in an associated company, factory Magneti Marelli, went on strike with the goal of salaries being equalized with workers’ salaries at Fiat, which were around 300 euro, after taxes. As production was completely stopped, the company’s management attempted to obstruct the strike by bringing office administrators onto the factory floor, but the resistance to pressure made the management fulfill this demand after only five days.

The newly elected union president at Magneti Marelli, Aleksandar Korać, describes the conditions in the factory:

Work is performed in inhumane conditions, in 40 degrees Celsius, with no air conditioning, people went on long sick leaves, they had been injured and then 5% are not present so the next person has to do the additional task. You give yourself, your body, for the company’s profit.

Ristić deems that the victory at Marelli was the initial push which motivated the Fiat workers to articulate the dissatisfaction with low salaries and extremely hard working conditions into resistance. He believes that the workers’ position is a political issue.

“I think that politics should be connected to what is going on here. People should understand that all of this is politics. That they live like they do because they have the government which wants it this way. Because it wants to attract foreign investors, that’s why it offers cheap labor. But, most of the people do not recognize this, and when union issues are being discussed, they do not want to talk about politics, not understanding that these issues are fully related.” Although there is still fear of “politics getting involved”, which is mostly associated with the existing parliamentarian parties, politicization of youths and combative union members is reflected in the recognition of the need for systemic solutions.

However, Zoran Marković, the Fiat strike committee’s president, strongly disagrees with the claim of the workers’ resistance from below, emphasizing that the union is an interest group which should not delve into politics, and that the investors should not be turned away. He deems that the unions’ dedication plays a key role in the ongoing strike and does not want to give away potential strategies for the strike’s radicalization, for understandable reasons, if the company’s owners keep ignoring it.

On the other hand, Korać insists that true cooperation is necessary between workers and their representatives to affect change – the strike at Magneti Marelli succeeded only after the uninterested union representative resigned and Korać took on his position. The initiative from below and better participation from younger workers is necessary for building more democratic union structures.

I am active in the union primarily to win my own salary, since I am also one of the workers in production. But, if I win for all of them I also win for myself, Korać explains.

The statement from the worker mentioned previously who says that he does not want to participate in strike also shows solidarity among workers and the initiative to abolish inhumane working conditions and employer’s arbitrariness. When we ask him whether the unions pressure workers to persevere in defending their rights despite fear, blackmails and insecurity, he answers that the unions are not the ones that exert pressure, but that it is impossible to stay aside if “five of your colleagues are on strike”.

We will not pretend that enthusiasm and combativeness which we encounter in Kragujevac does not leave a strong impression. The Fiat strike, if the associated factories join as well, has the potential to become a turning point in the further struggle for dignified life of those who live off their labor. Production stoppage at Fiat effects the associated companies which work below capacity currently, which means that the workers receive 60% of their salaries while the strike is ongoing.

Photo: Anica Stojanović

Strike’s potential

Thus, the strike at Fiat could become a turning point for many reasons. Workers’ longer resistance and potential victory would inspire workers across Serbia to fight for better position in their companies. The level of political consciousness would also be raised: worsening of the workers’ standard and workers’ rights in the context of attracting foreign investments would have to mean reassessment of the framework of such economic policies.

Fiat, which has been a strategic partner of both current and previous government, and its business clearly show the failure of the idea that the economy can be jumpstarted through foreign direct investments: numerous privileges and limitless amounts of budget money for a company which needs to set aside only 0.5% of its profit to meet the strike’s demands.

The role of younger generations of workers is important for such an outcome since they can carry out the whole potential of the seemingly harmless and self-explanatory strike parole that the workers refuse to be cheap labor. These are the generations which must win again the eight-hour workday and respect for workers’ rights, and in order to do this they must connect violations of the Labor Law with the politics of foreign investments.

We see the resolve of these people, I think there can be no turning back, that they will not accept it, because all are saying let be what must be, however long it lasts, Ristić concludes.

Translation from Serbian: Nenad Porobić

Article was originally published in Serbian on June 29th, 2017.

  1. According to the information we received after the original publication of this text, the strikers have rasied their salary demand to 50,000 dinars as a reaction to the management’s continuous refusal of negotiation.

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