The Yugoslav working class was against austerity measures of the eighties

Workers’ protest, Borovo, 1988; Source: Arhiv Jugoslavije – AJ-112-L-11703-57

In the late eighties, half a million people took part in labour strikes in reaction to the economic crisis. The trade unions, although being the most significant workers’ organizations, failed to appropriate this battle. Instead, it was claimed by the nationalist political parties on the rise.

The late eighties and the early nineties brought about an overall transformation of social relations in socialist Yugoslavia. The transformation primarily included the abolition of societal ownership and the weakening of the political influence of the workers’ class. This was followed by an increasingly often occurrence of workers’ strikes which overlapped with other types of political conflict. These conflicts took place simultaneously with the restoration of the capitalist social relations. For this reason the position of labour, the experience of crisis and the workers’ resistance must be analyzed both in the context of the local political turmoil, and in the context of the global dynamics of capital flows.

In Yugoslavia, the period is characterized by protests and strikes in which an estimated half a million workers took part. Most of them occurred in the late eighties and the early nineties, as a response to the introduction of austerity measures and the overall “reconstruction” of the economy. The strikes became an everyday phenomenon. According to research, there is hardly a company in which the workers didn’t protest. Some of the most significant strikes took place in: Croatian coal mine “Raša”, Labin (this was the longest lasting strike); “Rakovica”, Belgrade, Serbia; Bosnian “Đurđevik”; “Borovo”,Vukovar, Croatia. In their demands the strikers primarily resisted the lowering of the standard of living, impoverishment and the precarisation of labour. In addition to these demands, the trade union leadership was often requested to step down from their positions. The time of strikes made it obvious that the trade union was an organization unsuitable for the role it was appointed to fulfil.

Borovo Workers’ protest 1988; Source: Arhiv Jugoslavije – AJ-112-L-11703-135

Trade unions – a gap between possibility and accomplishment

Historically, unionising took place simultaneously with the struggle of workers for the improvement of their working conditions. In their existing mode the trade unions are criticised increasingly often, in the light of the rising evidence of the representatives’ corruption and their lack of solidarity with the disenfranchised, striking workers.

Though an overall negative attitude towards the trade union persists within the society, there is still no viable alternative to unionizing. For this reason, there is an aspiration to use the existing potential of trade unions to reform them from within. In order to be able to adequately conceptualise the possible reorganizing, it is useful to reflect on the role and the position of trade unions in the late eighties, and to rethinkthe consequences of their activity.

In his research, “The position of trade unions in SFRY in the late eighties”, Mario Reljanović explains the normative framework within which trade unions in the late eighties operated. This framework was defined by the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution, and the 1976 Law on joined labour (ZUR). Though the framework described the trade union as the broadest possible platform of the working class, designed to fight, among other things, in favour of establishing the worker as a decisive actor of social reproduction, for the equality of workers in the process of joining labour and means of production, for improving workers’ education, the participation of workers in the enactment of political power, the protection of workers’ rights, the provision of social security and the raising of the standard of living, in his analyses Reljanović accentuates the existence of a large gap between the abovementioned competenciesand the reality. Namely, the trade union functioned within a relatively narrow framework of particular competencies,and was in fact unable to contribute significantly to the workers’ struggle and the parliamentary life, to which it sent delegates.

According to Reljanović, one of the main shortcomings of the trade union, and the reasons for its “incompetence” was a total lack of autonomy and a peripheral position it was appointed. The trade union was tied to the League of communists both in practical and in ideological terms. In other words, it derived its program from the programmatic documents of the SKJ, without an autonomous political platform. The Party conceptualised the state and economic politics, the labour policies, the price and conditions of labour, while the trade unions were mostly used to promote and explain these policies to the workers.

Though trade unions aspired to reach a compromise between the state and the workers, their attempts was fruitless. According to research the workers didn’t identify with the trade unions. Reljanović cites a research of the attitude of the workers towards the trade union, done in the seventies, which shows that the workers were offput to participate in activities of the trade union by its weak influence in solving crucial questions, the fact that the trade union revolved around itself and focused on peripheral problems, distanced from its membership and failed to stand for workers’ interest.

When it comes to the role of the trade union in the socialist society, Reljanović poses an interesting thesis of its actual role, writing that the trade union as an institution had a goal to make a compromise between the concept of unionised struggle for workers’ rights and the fact that the socialist self-management society should have represented an embodiment of an ideal system in which the workers already enjoy all rights. Those were two seemingly confronted theoretical concepts. The trade union was, thus, built on unsteady grounds, which were shaken to the core during the mass protests and strikes in the eighties. At the time SFRY was swept by a wave of strikes. In 1989 more than 470 000 workers went on strike. The strikes were at first organized at the company level, and gradually spread from manufacture to education, healthcare and other public services.

According to their dependent and marginal position, trade unions were unable to react as they should, often remained silent, sided with the company administration, or openly opposed the workers’ rebellion. Reljanović, thus, describes the trade union as a structure which had remained stuck in a vacuum of the political and economic system, and which had in the last decade of self-management primarily been used to promote unpopular economic policies. Given that the trade union had no autonomous ideas nor a platform to operationalise them, every hope that the crisis could have been used for its reform remained unrealised. As the League of Communists and Yugoslavia began to crumble, the trade union followed in the footsteps of its strongholds. More precisely, it embraced the liberalisation of the market and the economy. In other words, it participated in the dismantling of the socialist system.

Borovo Workers’ protest 1988; Source: Arhiv Jugoslavije – AJ-112-L-11703-117

The transformation of class conflict into an ethno-national conflict

In a text based on their research “The continuity of social conflict 1988-1991: The Borovo Corporation“, the Borovo group (Sven Cvek, Snježana Ivčić, Jasna Račić) explain the discontinuity between the abovementioned workers’ strikers in the late eighties and the violent conflicts in the nineties. They focused on „a single factory and a single city“, or a particular situation in a single republic (SR Croatia). Nevertheless, valuable insight on the broader problems of conflict in the post-Yugoslav space can be achieved by observing the micro-level of a socio-historical analysis of the Borovo factory, often referred to as a shrinked copy of Yugoslavia.

The chosen timeframe (1988-91) represents a period of an overall social transformation. The authors link the Yugoslav conflicts to the restoration of capitalist social relations. According to their conclusion, the link is by no means arbitrary. It seems that everything went through a metamorphosis at the time, so that the communists (who were at the time communists only in name) transformed into new democrats, the societal was destined to become private, and working class struggle became national struggle.

It is important to keep in mind that the abovementioned transformation weren’t received without workers’ resistance. More specifically, some changes and conflicts started at the time when the workers’ struggle had already picked up pace. „In the late eighties the workers of Borovo factory witnessed a final abandonment of the Yugoslav socialist project and the crumbling of the concept of labour-based sociability in all its economic, social and ideological aspects. Their answer to it were the increasingly often occurring strikes. The most dramatic strike, the one from 1988, saw workers head to Belgrade and brake into the Federal Parliament.“

We have already mentioned that more than 470 000 workers had already been in strike at the moment. The workers from Borovo were by no means alone. The strikes in Yugoslavia were a part of a „thus far unwitnessed wave of international protest“ against the austerity measures that were forced on the indebted countries by the IMF. According to a World Bank report on the „industrial restructuring“ of Yugoslavia, dating in 1991, the most important elements were the reform of ownership (in other words, privatization) and the abolishment of the workers’ self-management.

The strikes in Yugoslavia represented above all a struggle against the years’ long plummeting of the standard of living, which later culminated in companies’ bankruptcies and lay-offs. For that reason the conflicts in question should be interpreted as class conflicts. However, the working class struggle was turned into an ethno-nationalist conflict which culminated in war thanks to the dissembling of the League of Communists, the conflict between the political administrations of the republics, the fact that the party politics meddled in, and so on. The research clearly shows that the workers’ position was very complex, and their manoeuvre space quite limited, due to the different intertwining conflicts.

The workers’ strikes took place both before and after the first multi party elections in 1990, whose results largely decided the fate of the struggles. Namely, the right-wing political options won the elections in all of the Yugoslav republics. Their politics later proved to be anticommunist and anti-Yugoslav. Using the example of the situation in Croatia, the authors show that the nationalist politics were on the rise already during the election campaign, which was filled with nationalist and liberal slogans. The leaders “competed in citing the dangers that Serbia presented to Croatia”. However, though the dominant rhetoric of the political parties was built around the free market, state and nation, the results of public opinion researches lead to a conclusion that the workers were in fact preoccupied with the experience of crisis and a worry for the future. It could be said that the nationalist politics culminated after the elections thanks to the fact that the party activists got increasingly involved in the workers’ rebellion and blurred the workers’ goals by promoting ethnic divisions. In this time managers of many Croatian companies were replaced by persons closely tied to the new political authorities. The authors claim that this phenomenon was so widespread that the press routinely referred to it as the “decapitation of CEO’s”. The method that the HDZ used to spread its influence in the “Trade union public” was dubbed the “anti-bureaucratic revolution”. In effect, the HDZ took over the enterprises.

The attempt at the “decapitation of the CEO “ in the Borovo enterprise in the city of Vukovar, in the summer of 1990, can be interpreted as an example of an attempt made by a political party to manipulate the workers’ strike and use it to replace the company’s CEO. The strike broke out in answer to the announcement of redundancies, but the leadership of the strike got appropriated by the workers who were at the at the same time local activists of the HDZ, following failed negotiations by the first strikers’ board and the company management. This discredited the strike and lead to accusations that the strike was politically motivated. Claims were made that “the Serbs wanted to work, while the Croats didn’t”, which made the situation worse. The authors concluded that the party activists have created divisions which were previously non-existent. They point to similar examples, such as the case of a “decapitation of a CEO” in the city of Karlovac.There, the local HDZ accused the CEO of the “Velebit” factory that “he and other Serbs were to blame for the bad condition the company is in”.

Borovo Workers’ protest 1988; Source: Arhiv Jugoslavije – AJ-112-L-11703-123

From fearing privatization to being scared for one’s own life

We should point out once more that the intervention of the newly formed political party crucially influenced the creation of divisions among the workers. This is why the researchers conclude that the divisions based on ethnicity were far from complete at the time. The authors refer to an example from an open session of a workers’ council, during which a female worker warned: “Will we swallow the bait of such tricks and misguided information, used by the most lazy among us to create divisions, when all of us will be equally hungry tomorrow: Croats, Serbs and Muslims alike!”

Though it is reasonable to assume that many of the workers agreed with such views, these turbulences will have become less relevant in the following 1991. “In the spring of the following year many employees of the socially owned enterprises will have had no time to think about the burning issues of privatization, since they will have been shadowed by the fear for one’s life. In May 1991 the city of Vukovar is ruled by armed civilians, HDZ and Serbian extremists, and the entrance to ‘Borovo’ factory is guarded by people firing warning shots when approached. At the same some seventy people, most of them members of the SDS, storm the enterprise ‘Prehrana’ in Glina. From then on, the bread is knead and baked under armed civilians’ protection.”

At the end of their research the authors derive an important thesis, pointing out that the armed conflict had not only started during the class conflict, but had also managed to interrupt it. The problem lies in the fact that the workers failed to create a supranational or non-nationally based political force, which the researchers partly blame on the lack of the trade union’s autonomy. In such circumstances the reformed communists, or the new democrats, managed to step forward as the only anti-system alternative. They often used the rhetoric of class and class exploitation in their public appearances. The nationalist, and supposedly anti-system, alternative, thus gained space to forge a new base for the post-socialist societies, and with it for our lives today.

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

This article was originally published in Serbian on Jul 20, 2018.

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