Central and Eastern Europe, Reporting

All Quiet on the Eastern Front: May Day in the Region

Trade unions have largely lost their mobilizing power and May Day celebrations remained small and scattered. An overview of International Workers' Day in Central and Eastern Europe.
May_Day_region

Romania: Full churches and empty streets

This year in Romania, the faint memory of the original May 1st tradition was further obscured by the coincidence with Orthodox Easter. This is a time for feasting and piety – not politics. Not that there is regularly much militancy on May Day, but at least the de-politicized tradition of barbecuing on this occasion has served as a vague reminder of state socialism and its long-forgotten ideals. On Sunday, the streets were empty and the churches full – the most poignant sign of the post-1989 changes.

Those who have a more or less stable job are unwilling to risk it by agitation; those who don’t are too weak politically to do anything about it in organized form. This is the real conundrum that May 1st presents.

While the act of celebrating May Day is obsolete, its initial goals are as pressing as ever. Current labor relations in Romania are geared against employees and the entire economic edifice is structured on the exploitation of one of the cheapest labour forces in the EU. In his reports, Ștefan Guga, a local sociologist, mapped in detail the structure of the labour market and labour force and their transformation in the past decade. The overall situation is bleak, as one could expect. The labour code of 2011 was explicitly aimed at making the labour force more flexible, while promising that by doing so, more jobs would be created. Of course, this was a myth and in practice it only led to more precarious jobs, more vulnerable employees, and a surge in temporary contracts and minimum wage payments (about 30% in 2014). The labor market is very small, locally circumscribed, segmented and uneven from region to region. Big cities in more developed regions are able to attract a cheaper labour force from underdeveloped areas, thus contributing to the trend of growing internal polarization. The poverty risk of people who have a job is on the rise, while the percentage of salaries in the GDP is on the decline since 2008 (from 39% to 31%). In addition, only 60% of those in employment are salaried, compared to the EU average of 80%. This means that 40% of the working population has to make do with irregular forms of payment which, in turn, offer no health care or pension benefits.

The examples can go on. For instance, about 85% of all salaried employees earn between the minimum and the medium salary – that is between 200 and less than 500 Euros per month – some of the lowest salaries in Europe, and not just in the EU.

It is clear that labor exploitation is rampant in Romania and one of the main economic issues. However, it is not at all a political issue. The former government managed to raise the minimum wage from 120 to 200 Euros in three years, but it did nothing more to assuage the structural relations of labour exploitation. The current government declined to further raise the minimum wage and recently rejected to draft a bill to reorganize state employees’ salaries that would have led to some significant increases in some areas. While there were some minor protests in front of the government building in Bucharest in the past few weeks (on these and other issues), generally there is a tranquil atmosphere when it comes to jobs and labor rights. People might fret in private but will not do too much about it in public or in organized forms. The ideological state apparatus also ensures that their anger is directed towards the “undeserving poor” and “lazy” people on social benefits.

Those who have a more or less stable job are unwilling to risk it by agitation; those who don’t are too weak politically to do anything about it in organized form. This is the real conundrum that May 1st presents, albeit not only in Romania. Having a job and being able to hold on to it seems to be the ultimate horizon – no need for further struggles.

Perhaps, on the left, we should ditch the legacy of May Day. Maybe instead of asking for decent jobs for everybody and so on, we should ask the opposite: no more jobs, no more exploitative labor, no more work for money – just an international unconditional basic income.

Florin Poenaru

Czech Republic: Political timeout in Prague

Apart from events organized by parliamentary parties, three different marches took place in Prague on May Day. Two different xenophobic initiatives demonstrated at the same time as their political opponents.

Photo by Michael Komm.
Photo by Michael Komm.

The event organized by the platform “Against xenophobia from the left” kicked off around 11am. Compared to previous anti-xenophobic demonstrations, the May Day event was not the result of a broad coalition, but had a clear left-wing character. Two hundred and fifty anarchists, anti-capitalists, and socialists met to express their disagreement with tax evasion, gender inequality, or the effects of disproportionate consumption on the environment. They also criticized xenophobia and the hatred of refugees as a result of growing social inequalities and a disillusion with “catching up” with the West. The main theme of the protest this year was the Panama Papers scandal, which had been largely overlooked in the Czech Republic. The demonstration, at least at first glance, thus resembled the times when May Day was mainly the domain of anti-fascists on the one side and neo-Nazis on the other – only with the difference that this year, the Nazis decided to take a break. During the march, there were usually at least two plain-clothes police officers walking harmoniously alongside every four participants or so, thus successfully creating the impression that Prague’s streets were taken over by quite a solid crowd of anti-capitalists.

Video by Richard Dufek.

It seems that without the support of President Zeman, the German movement Pegida, or football hooligans, the Czech far right is unable to organize a well-attended event. At least that’s what it looks like after Sunday, when only a few hundred loyal supporters turned up to the May Day events of the Block Against Islam and Adam B. Bartoš’s National Democracy – No to Brussels movement. The Block Against Islam is in the midst of a major crisis, having parted ways with its partner, Dawn – National Coalition. This was reflected in the participation in their morning march through Prague: only about two hundred people showed up. Furthermore, Adam B. Bartoš of National Democracy was arrested on Thursday, although the only effect on the demonstration was that the planned children’s programme was cancelled. Though the march of his movement was somewhat lost in the crowds of tourists in central Prague, the speakers, who delivered their speeches on Slavonic Island on the Vltava river, tried to escalate their rhetoric, warning that the time of peaceful demonstrations is over. Yet during the nationalist manifestation, tourists of various nationalities were busy borrowing paddle boats, thus compounding the strange impression of some of the slogans sounding from the podium. Both of these events had an almost community-like character: the fear of refugees in the past year forged new friendships especially amongst older people, whose presence made the marches appear more like a morning stroll than demonstrations of extremists.

Apolena Rychlíková and Pavel Šplíchal

Poland: Cheerleading against trash contracts

Apart from a traditional march organized by OPZZ, the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions, together with the post-socialist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) party, the left remains largely wary of May Day in Poland on the grounds of its association with the previous regime. The fact that May 3rd is also a public holiday does little to encourage attendance at May Day events, as many prefer to take the weekend off and devote themselves – as elsewhere in the region – to barbecuing rather than politics. While Krytyka Polityczna’s online daily, Dziennik Opinii, was host to a debate on whether or not May Day can be reclaimed as a symbol for the left, a small crowd of people from various socialist initiatives gathered in central Warsaw. Banners welcoming refugees, advocating abortion rights, and drawing attention to precarious working conditions could all be seen amongst the participants. The modestly-sized event looked like a family affair, with most attendees obviously on friendly terms, shaking hands and wishing one another a happy Workers’ Day. Headed by Piotr Ikonowicz from the Movement for Social Justice (RSS), the mixed crowd attracted senior citizens, families with children, and some younger people, though it remains unclear whether members of the younger generations were actually supporters of the Progressive Youth of Poland or the Greens as no more than a couple of banners and badges indicated, or whether they were in fact journalists. Certainly people milling around with notebooks and recording devices seemed to almost outnumber those who had come to support Ikonowicz’s appeal for better workers’ rights and his criticisms of the “good change” that the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) are planning to implement.

Photography by: Veronika Pehe

Doubts about how good this change can be also dominated the somewhat larger demonstration of the trade unions and post-socialist left. After speeches held outside of the seat of OPZZ, the thousand-strong crowd marched down Nowy Świat street, headed by a red double decker bus and a garishly clad brass band with cheerleaders. Given the anti-European stance of the current PiS government, opposition to it has largely profiled itself as pro-European. Aside from the sea of national flags which seem obligatory at any Polish national holiday, participants also wielded EU flags. The main topic of the march were so-called “trash contracts” – precarious, fixed-term employment contracts with limited benefits, responsible for maintaining Poland’s status as a source of cheap labour – although it is doubtful whether baton-whirling cheerleaders will be the harbingers of change in this field.

Perhaps uniquely in the region, the topic of trash contracts was also taken up by the demonstration of nationalists, which took place in one of Warsaw’s central parks in the afternoon. The nationalists shared concerns about the effects of neoliberalism and Poland’s status as a “cheap assembly line” with their leftists opponents – but their answer lies in leaving the EU and defending traditional, Catholic, Polish values. Nevertheless, the event did not attract particularly large numbers – and in fact, the author of this text failed to find the gathering, which was well hidden somewhere in the depths of the Saxon Garden.  

The general calmness of May Day events in Warsaw was also furthered by the fact that the left-wing party Razem decided to hold their event to pay tribute to workers in Gdańsk, the symbolic site of workers’ protests in 1980.

Veronika Pehe

Kosovo: No trust in trade unions

International Workers’ Day has usually been a very quiet and celebratory day in Kosovo. Families usually go to Germia Park in the capital city and have a picnic outdoors. This tradition started during socialist times and continues to the present day. Despite the political transition of the 1990s, workers have still not been able to reclaim International Workers’ Day in honour of working people, whose conditions nowadays are as bad as they can get.

On Sunday, a march took place in the capital city, as well as a protest in Elez Han. The march was organized by a group of volunteers called “Raise your Voice”. It aimed to draw attention to neglected workers, especially in the private sector. Protesters cited the fact that in the past two years, 18 people have died in the workplace. Most of them did not have any health insurance at all. The demonstrators marched to the city square and finished the protest with a symbolic action next to the government building.

The protest in Elez Han was organized by Plant workers from “SharrCem”, one of the biggest cement factories in the Balkan region. Current and  former workers demanded the annulment of privatization and a take-over of the factory from the hands of the Kosovo Privatization Agency. Both examples show workers’ completely lack of trust in trade unions and their leadership, who were reported to be enjoying themselves on Albanian beaches on Sunday. Though encouraging, these examples of workers’ protests show how much the workers’ movement still has to do before it can start to play an important role in the country. 

This is how May Day was marked in Kosovo. Although there were small sparks of activity during the day, it is far less than what needs to be done to promote a better future for workers.

Eurisa Rukovci

Serbia: The workers’ struggle will (not) rise again!

The trade unions, the usual (and expected) suspects, decided to avoid this year’s May Day because of its coincidence with Easter, at least as far as a march was concerned. Though perhaps they didn’t miss the chance to have a barbecue – the forecasted rain fell only in the afternoon – nor a traditional game of egg-tapping in their family circle. They did, however, warn of the very bad position of workers in Serbia and that the struggle for its improvement continues. Alas, they did not direct their own appeal towards themselves.

The attitude of trade unions towards this year’s May Day is a significant indicator of the situation of the workers’ struggle in Serbia.

“Levi samit Srbije”, a network of leftist organizations, organized May Day protests in Belgrade and Subotica. The protest in Subotica was held in front of the Open University, while the one in Belgrade started at Republic Square, before a protest march continued to Slavija Square and the monument of socialist leader Dimitrije Tucović (it is almost certain that this monument will be removed by next May Day).

Only little more than 200 people took part in the protest in Belgrade. The protesters, warmed up by the tunes of revolutionary songs sounding through Republic Square, and by initial speeches delivered by three female activists (Lidija Vasiljević, Olga Dimitrijević, Marija Perković), marched to Slavia, raising red and rainbow flags high in the air. They waved their banners, chanted slogans (“Sloboda, jednakost, solidarnost!”/ ”Freedom, equality, solidarity”; “Dostojanstven rad, a ne glad”/ “Dignity of labour instead of hunger”; “Vratimo fabrike za radnike i radices”/”Let’s bring back factories to the workers”; and, reflecting the spirit of the recent parliamentary elections in Serbia: “Your parties – zero democracy”),  and sang “Ay Carmela!”, accompanied by drums and accordions. Activist Branislav Markuš gave the final speech, and afterwards the crowd sang the Yugoslav partisan version of the song “Padaj silo i nepravdo” (Fall oh force and injustice) and lay down the red banners with slogans by the monument.

The attitude of trade unions towards this year’s May Day is a significant indicator of the situation of the workers’ struggle in Serbia. In spite of high unemployment, low salaries, precariousness and very poor labour conditions, and plans for redundancies, the trade unions ignored this symbolic day of labour struggle. The leftist organizations did quite well in comparison. However, without a broader workers’ initiative, it is hard to imagine that, as the song tells us, “our stolen right, the people will take themselves”.

Anja Ilić

Croatia: a continuation of protest activities

This year, May Day also marked the anniversary of the first hundred days of the new Croatian governement, formed by Domoljubna koalicija and MOST (The Patriotic Coalition and the Bridge of Independent Lists). These first hundred days brought announcements of new cuts to social services for workers, pensioners, and the unemployed, as well as an extensive privatization of state-owned property. A new package of sixty reforms (Nacionalni plan reformi/National Reform Programme) has also attacked two pillars of the welfare state: the healthcare system and the pension system.

Reforms of the healthcare system are characterized by a tendency towards the elimination of poorer citizens from the system of universal healthcare: plans are in place to make supplementary medical insurance more expensive; participation in medical treatment will be more costly; and receiving first aid will be chargeable for patients if it retrospectively transpires that they did not need it. As part of the proposed reforms of the pension system, measures such as raising the retirement age from 65 to 67 and gender equalization would be implemented much more quickly than was planned by the previous government, which means that already from the year 2023 the retirement age could be 67.

After the first hundred days of the new goverment, it has become obvious that the fate of state-owned companies, and even those on the list of state strategic interests, will remain uncertain. As part of the National Reform Programme (NRP), shares in national companies will be sold off. At this moment, however, the government excludes the possibility of selling state-owned companies of strategic interest. The statement of the director of The State Office for the Governing of State Property (DUUDI) seems to be in line with the main objectives of the proposed NRP – cutting public debt and boosting economic growth – as he stated that no one wants to sell Croatian “treasures”, but if they were to be sold, then at market prices.

If, on the one hand, the first hundred days were marked by an appeal to consensus and unity in implementing the reforms, though they obviously do not benefit the vast majority of the population, on the other hand, editors-in-chief and journalists have been swept from public television in an atmosphere of sharp ideological conflict. Some non-profit media have had their public financing cut, and the framework for the functioning of the civil society is being dismantled.

It is encouraging that instead of giving space to apathy and defeatism, more and more trade unions, associations, and initiatives are responding to the policy of cuts and ideological polarization of society with a stronger unity

Disappointment with the work of the new government and with the announced reforms, growing right-wing extremism, disfunctional and more expensive public services, and with the massive outflow of the young people from Croatia gives a lot of reasons to protest, so no one can not be suprised by the announcement of four protests to be held in the first week of May. Apart from two May Day protests – one organized by two main trade union headquarters, and another one by a few smaller trade unions, associations, and the political party Radnička fronta, two further significant protests were scheduled in Zagreb. On Tuesday, 3rd May, journalists and citizens gathered in “reaction to the attack on the media performed by the current government and the Ministry of culture” and as “an expression of support to journalism as a public good”, as the invitation of the Hrvatsko novinarsko društvo (Croatian Journalists’ Association) stated. Two days later, on Thursday, preschool teachers from the Sindikat obrazovanja, medija i kulture (Trade Union for Education, Media and Culture) will warn of the long-term decline of the public system of pre-school education.

No one knows what these more intensified protests will bring, but it is encouraging that instead of giving space to apathy and defeatism, more and more trade unions, associations, and initiatives are responding to the policy of cuts and ideological polarization of society with a stronger unity, activism, and a search for new spaces for cooperation.

Marina Ivandić

May Day bonfires in Slovenia: remembering better times

At the bonfire in Rožnik, the main May Day celebration in Slovenia, which is traditionally held the evening before the holiday, more than ten thousand people gathered, despite the varying weather. For the first time after the breakup of Yugoslavia, a May Day bonfire was organized by all four trade union headquaters: Savez samostalnih sindikata Slovenije, Nezavisnost, Pergam and Konfederacija sindikata javnog sektora. This event was organized under the slogan: “We work together, we celebrate together” (“Zajedno radimo, zajedno slavimo”). Bonfires were also lit in the majority of bigger Slovenian towns, and even the speeches had simillar conclusions.

On such occasions, predominantly an older generation of workers, who are now retired, is willing to remember the lost status and reverence which was paid to labour and workers in ex-Yugoslavia. The great majority of them, regardless of their present party affiliation, thinks that a lot has been lost and thrown away during last twenty years. Although the process of transition in Slovenia was relatively slow, it is obvious today that the last two decades have led to the extreme enrichment of a minority and the impoverishment of the majority.

It was the economic crisis that made the class character of Slovenian society evident, even more than the transition. Bankers, capital owners, and people with political connections have easily survived the crisis, and many of them even made a profit. On the other side, workers are faced with redundancies, austerity measures, and a very poor perspective. Although during the last few quarters, economic growth in Slovenia has increased, this has not had a positive impact on the welfare of the majority of working people. Both state and capital insist on continuing the policy of austerity.

The situation of the marginal parts of the working class is especially insecure. Young people who are trying to enter the labour market are faced with precarious forms of labour. On the other side, the rise of the retirement age presents a problem for older workers. The low pensions do not ensure a decent life, and many pensioners live on the edge of poverty. One doesn’t even have to talk about migrant workers and their intolerable situation.

These facts were mentioned by the speakers at this year’s May Day bonfires. That is why this year’s May Day, as well as the events held in the last few years, have unveiled the miserable situation of workers in Slovenia. This date has become a day for remembering past times, much more than a holiday. Remembering history, but at the same time a call for new struggles.

Anej Korsika

Macedonia: Trade union passivity in a time of big social movements

The recent extraordinary mobilization against the Macedonian goverment has connected different social groups and unified them in common action. It seems that no one in the country has remained indifferent towards the deep crisis of goverment legitimacy. But one could as well talk about the historical lack of legitimacy of the state, the political system, and traditional politics. However, there is one historically crucial actor apparently missing on the scene: the trade unions. The traditional workers’ organizations missed the chance to understand the role that organized labour can play in the middle of a social crisis. This way, the workers have been going out on the streets on their own. Macedonia is in the middle of a mass mobilization, crucial for the near Macedonian future. The trade unions’ inactivity currently ensures an illusion of normality in a country where the entire system has become abnormal. Unfortunately, this normality works in the goverment’s favour, while at the same time represents an obstacle to the realization of the political potential of organized workers. Our struggle should demand not only a better goverment, but better trade unions as well.

Artan Sadiku

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Parts of this text originally appeared on Bilten.org and A2larm.cz

Translations by Mislav Marjanović and Veronika Pehe.

Krytyka Polityczna
Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) is the largest Eastern European liberal network of institutions and activists. It consists of the online daily Dziennik Opinii, a quarterly magazine, publishing house, cultural centres in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and Cieszyn, activist clubs in a dozen cities in Poland (and also in Kiev and Berlin), as well as a research centre: the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.

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