Workers in Yugoslavia press for their rights
New regime seeks to demobilize workers, aims to pursue integration into world market system
Workers at Yugoslavia's largest bank demonstrate in Belgrade October 13, demanding a say in choice of new directors to replace appointees of toppled Milosevic regime.
BY ARGIRIS MALAPANIS
AND BOBBIS MISAILIDIS
NIS, Yugoslavia--On a visit to the Tobacco Industry of Nis (DIN) complex here October 27, the mood among workers was noticeably different from what these reporters had witnessed on a previous visit in April 1999.
At that time, Yugoslavia was being subjected to a brutal U.S.-NATO bombing campaign, which in large part targeted industrial centers. DIN, the country's largest cigarette manufacturing facility, was one of the plants that was bombed, and workers there, outraged by the bombing and left jobless, were understandably tense and nervous about their future. In addition, they were subjected to the bureaucratic regime headed by Slobodan Milosevic.
On the most recent visit to the plant, hundreds of people were streaming in and out of the main gate during the afternoon shift change. Among the couple of dozen workers interviewed at the plant gate, the mood was mostly self-confident and hopeful for improved conditions. Many described different aspects of the new political space that working people have won since the overthrow of the hated Milosevic regime in early October--the increased ability to speak out, discuss politics, and organize for their rights.
At the same time, discussions with a number of people at DIN indicate that the fight to keep and extend the increased degree of control that workers have begun to exert--to improve job conditions, raise living standards, and protect the gains of nationalized property--is only beginning and is full of contradictions.
Similar changes, as well as challenges facing working people, are unfolding across the country in many spheres of life.
Outrage over 1999 NATO bombing
"Virtually nothing has been repaired in the factory since the NATO bombing," said Suzana Storadinovic before going into the plant for her shift that day. Buildings bombed last year can still be seen burned out. Most of the complex is operational, however, and workers said the 3,000 employees have been back to work for almost a year.
"The one thing that we fixed since last year is the kindergarten and child-care center," said Ljiljana Jovanovic, who works in cigarette packaging. "As you can see, that's needed for many of us to be able to work," she added, pointing to a number of workers picking up their kids from child care at the end of their shift.
These two workers, and all others interviewed outside DIN, voiced their vehement opposition to the military assault led by Washington last year. All working people interviewed in different cities expressed this view, regardless of their opinions on other questions.
"It's a lie that Clinton's target was Milosevic and his military," said Snezana Arantelovic, another production worker. "Why did he hit our plants? We got rid of Milosevic, not NATO."
These workers--along with Zoran Milojkovic, who took Militant reporters to the plant--explained what happened in the days leading up to October 5, when a mass revolt and general political strike forced Milosevic to resign and concede victory to Vojislav Kostunica, presidential candidate of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS). Milojkovic is the local president of Nezavisnost (Independence), the largest trade union federation not tied directly to the previous regime.
On October 4, DIN's manager locked employees inside the factory to try to prevent them from joining protests in town, we were told. Approximately 50,000 people had gathered in downtown Nis that day to demand that Milosevic step down. At one point, unionists led the crowd in a march on the DIN complex, surrounding the plant and forcing the gates open so that thousands of tobacco workers could join the demonstration.
"That was the end of Zoran Arantelovic," said Snezana Arantelovic, referring to the former DIN director. "And no, I am not related to that man," she added emphatically, with a smile.
Workers at DIN launched a five-day strike that day, joining hundreds of thousands of others around Serbia who had already taken job action to demand Milosevic respect the popular will and resign.
Nearly 10,000 people from Nis, including many from DIN, went to Belgrade the next morning as part of the half-million-strong outpouring that led to the toppling of the regime, several tobacco workers reported. Nis, with a population of more than 300,000, is Yugoslavia's second-largest city.
Milojkovic said that on the morning of October 5, he along with dozens of others took over the main police station in Nis, in a preemptive attempt to stop the cops from sending reinforcements to Belgrade.
Replacement of DIN manager
"The main demand of our strike was to remove the entire management board," Snezana Arantelovic said. "The manager stole 40 million Deutsche marks from the company. He forced us to work during the bombings last year. He was replaced after the strike." Workers in the administration have found hard evidence of embezzlement, and a committee has now been set up to investigate, she added.
The pro-Milosevic manager resigned October 9 and the entire management board of DIN has since been replaced. Those interviewed said workers in the plant were not consulted on the new appointments and did not know who made them. The new manager is a local leader of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia.
"It's better now on the job. Today I was able to speak to the new manager about some problems at work," said Predrag Draganic, an operator of a tobacco processing machine, after getting off work. "Before we just had to shut up and work. The old manager was only for himself, and to hell with the workers. The change is good. But I don't know how much is due to the new manager and how much is due to the strike and what we did."
The old trade union also "fell apart," said Arantelovic, referring to the officialdom tied to the Milosevic regime. "The union is still here, but the people who run it have changed. We put pressure on the union bureaucrats to support us going on strike. They had no choice," said Arantelovic.
Earlier that day, Militant reporters had visited the office of Nezavisnost in central Nis. In an interview there, local union president Milojkovic said that a number of workers from 30 companies, including DIN, had left the pro-Milosevic union and joined Nezavisnost in the last three weeks of October. In Belgrade, Nezavisnost leaders told the Militant that national membership has jumped from 200,000 to as much as half a million in the same period.
From what workers at the DIN plant gate and other factories reported, however, these claims may be exaggerated. At the tobacco plant, all those interviewed knew about the fleeing of the old union officials. Only one worker, however, had heard anything about Nezavisnost organizing at the plant.
Susana Storadinovic said she had been taking part in protests over the last 10 years against the wars that the Milosevic regime initiated, against the regime's chauvinist policies, and for democratic rights. During all this time, she pointed out, "wages have not changed." Workers at the DIN complex make on average 200 DM per month, several reported.
Even though this is the "best wage in Nis," as Ljiljana Jovanovic put it, many workers can make ends meet only by getting some food from relatives in the countryside, cultivating a piece of land they have, or selling goods on the side. A majority of Nis's population still has ties to the land, we were told.
While wages for employed workers averaged 150 DM (US$81) per month last year, minimum expenses for food and utilities such as electricity and telephone were around 200 DM per month.
Economic conditions, not just in Nis but for the majority of Yugoslavia's people, are devastating. According to figures cited by Nezavisnost officials and RTS television, unemployment is somewhere between 50 percent and 70 percent in a population of 11 million. Inflation is high and the black market continues in relation to such basic necessities as gasoline, heating fuel, and a range of food items.
This economic crisis is the result of the world capitalist economic crisis combined with the anti–working-class methods of planning and management by the previous bureaucratic regimes in Yugoslavia. It has also been sharply exacerbated by the economic war and military assaults by Washington and other imperialist powers throughout the 1990s.
Many working people believe the collapse of Milosevic's police state means they may have a better chance to fight to improve these conditions. Others are not as optimistic, however.
At the DIN plant gate, Militant reporters met a number of unemployed workers who had just applied for a job at the tobacco factory. Slobodanka Stoiljkovic said 1,500 people had showed up that morning to apply for 58 openings at DIN. She thought she had virtually no chance of getting a job there.
"Most, if not all, of the 58 jobs have already been given out," she stated. "Before, you had to be for Milosevic. Now you still have to be connected with the government."
Resistance to undermining state property
Among the "reforms" implemented by the Milosevic regime and its predecessors that opened up Yugoslavia increasingly to the laws of the capitalist market was a form of "privatization" of some state-owned industries. Under this scheme, shares were issued to workers, managers, and others outside the company. The "stockholders" supposedly decided how the company was run. In reality, cronies of the regime, especially in management, used the setup to siphon more assets from these firms.
In some cases, managers had gone so far in acting as company owners that they tried to legalize turning over the entire enterprise to themselves, especially as they saw the end of the Milosevic regime approaching.
One such case was Rudo, a plant in Nis that manufactures orthopedic medical equipment. It was one of the plants that was badly damaged by the NATO air raids. The damage to the top floors from the bombs last year has not been fixed.
When Militant reporters arrived at Rudo on the afternoon of October 27, the shift had ended early so we did not meet any of the workers except the security guard, who is in the union. The story he and Nezavisnost officials recounted was largely confirmed in articles from the local press. Workers have put up a large poster with the names of all the company managers whose removal they have won, and have dubbed that side of the factory building "the wall of shame."
A number of the 100 workers at this factory found out that most of the company managers were trying to privatize the company--that is, make it their own--days before Milosevic's downfall. The workers' union, Nezavisnost, is officially in favor of "privatization," according to union brochures.
Workers immediately occupied the plant October 2, declared a strike, and demanded the arrest of these managers. The arrests took place by October 7, the day after Milosevic resigned. Two weeks later, a local court codified the workers' victory by annulling all the actions of the managers to make the plant private property.
It is such actions by workers--not by the newly formed "crisis committees" as the Militant reported in a previous article--that in practice have defended nationalized property relations and countered attempts by the would-be capitalists in power to open up Yugoslavia further to capitalist penetration.
Character of 'crisis committees'
As far as Militant reporters could find, these "crisis committees" at many different workplaces have been organized by leaders of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia from outside the enterprises involved. They are not made up of workers. The committees seek to ensure that DOS supporters are appointed as new managers in workplaces where workers have forced the removal of hated directors.
In Kragujevac, for example, DOS leaders initiated such a "crisis committee" to replace the management of the large Zastava auto plant. The committee was led by a representative of the Christian Democratic Party who had never worked for Zastava. The old guard was swiftly replaced by new directors loyal to DOS, with little or no consultation with the workers. Nezavisnost, which organizes about 20 percent of the workers in that plant, and its members were excluded from any involvement in this process, said Milan Nikolic, a Nezavisnost executive board member in Belgrade from the metalworkers union.
In other cases, DOS leaders have tried to slow down removal of hated managers--especially where workers have taken steps to assume more control on the job--and strike deals with Socialist Party officials, who continue to head many of the country's institutions and enterprises.
At the Ikarbus bus manufacturing plant in Belgrade, for example, the majority of the workforce abandoned the pro-Milosevic trade union and signed up with the metalworkers branch of Nezavisnost to fight more effectively to improve working conditions and wages, Nezavisnost supporters reported. One of the demands of the workers was the removal of the company manager for bureaucratic abuse of the workers and corruption. These unionists said their goal was to do this by secret ballot of all employees. They also planned to elect worker representatives to an assembly that would give workers a say in who is appointed as new administrators.
DOS leaders, however, pressured and convinced union lawyers, administrative personnel, and Nezavisnost officials to slow down this process and, instead, build up a criminal case against the manager so he could be replaced in "a legal manner."
Changes within the privileged caste
These instances underscore the fact that the new government headed by Vojislav Kostunica does not represent a qualitative break from the former Milosevic regime in its political course and class character. While the old police-state regime has been replaced, the new petty-bourgeois government continues to defend the interests of the privileged bureaucratic caste that politically rules the Yugoslav workers state.
The leaders of the DOS and Serbian Renewal Movement--the two main opposition groups that are now part of a "transition government" in Serbia along with the former ruling Socialist Party of Serbia--are part of the same social caste that Milosevic and his cronies belong to.
The new regime incorporates new layers from the intelligentsia and middle classes who were not in positions of power before October 5. The leadership of the Democratic Party, of which Kostunica is president, is largely composed of lawyers, doctors, university professors, and other professionals with a bourgeois orientation and thoroughly anti–working-class program.
The DOS has adopted an economic program that calls for widespread privatization of state-run enterprises and aims at rapid integration of Yugoslavia into the world capitalist market system. It projects selling off the cement and tobacco industries, the state airline, the Novi Sad oil refinery, the electrical company, and the petrochemical industry. Their plans count on massive international loans, and government officials are already pursuing membership in the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
In some cases, DOS leaders are trying to take over institutions previously used by the Milosevic regime, or strike deals for joint control with Socialist Party leaders, and use them for their own purposes.
In an October 24 interview at the Nezavisnost national headquarters in Belgrade, Milan Nikolic stated, "Certain DOS leaders have put Nezavisnost in a very difficult situation. They have breathed life into the union federation that was tied with Milosevic and are trying to turn it into their union--against our efforts to reorganize most workers into Nezavisnost. We have not made a big deal out of this yet because we don't want to break ranks since we share similar goals."
At the Zastava auto plant in Kragujevac, Nezavisnost supporters there report that DOS leaders are trying to take control of the formerly pro-Milosevic union and keep Nezavisnost isolated from trying to organize a bigger section of the workforce than it currently does.
In some cases, DOS leaders have run into some initial opposition in trying to sweep their people into positions at the head of universities, state-owned enterprises, and other institutions.
Bojan Boskovic, a leader of the Students Union of Yugoslavia at the University of Novi Sad, related one such instance. His organization campaigned against the U.S.-NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and opposed the brutal, chauvinist policies of the Milosevic regime in Kosova. It was also among the main organizers of local protests demanding the ouster of Milosevic leading up to the October 5 revolt.
In Novi Sad, Boskovic said, students took action to stop or slow down the replacement of deans and heads of university departments. He said this was because the local politicians that won the September 24 elections were trying to replace the old guard with individuals chosen on the basis of their rank in the DOS, disregarding opinions of students and other faculty.
The toppling of the secret-police Milosevic regime creates more possibilities for workers and farmers in Yugoslavia to debate and engage in political activity, and to be exposed to the influence of working-class and anti-imperialist struggles around the world. Conditions are more favorable for them to take advantage of these openings because of the decisive role that workers and farmers played in the events that led to the toppling of that regime.
Activists in 'Resistance'
None of the existing political currents or organizations, however, has a perspective, or is seeking in practice, to lead vanguard workers in that direction. Working people will need to go through further political experience to develop such a leadership.
Otpor (Resistance), for example, is by all accounts the most widely known political organization in Serbia that emerged over the last year. Composed mainly of college and high school students and other youth, it was founded two years ago by activists in the Students Union of Yugoslavia and other student organizations. Its leaders say their membership has reached 40,000 in recent months in some 200 cities throughout Serbia. Large posters and stickers produced by the group are visible on highways as well as in the five cities and the rural Kolubara area that Militant reporters visited.
Otpor campaigned for the resignation of Milosevic, and leading Otpor activists opposed his chauvinist policies in Kosova as well as the U.S.-NATO bombing. The group played a prominent role in the protests that led to Milosevic's resignation. The group officially espouses pacifist positions.
Four Otpor activists who spoke to Militant reporters October 23 said that what distinguished it from other student organizations is they have no official leadership structure. "That's why the police could not destroy us, even though they arrested 3,000 of our supporters the last year," said Milos Milenkovic, an economics student at the University of Belgrade and an Otpor leader.
The group appears to be politically very heterogeneous. Milenkovic said that since the toppling of Milosevic the axis of the organization has been shifting toward advocating "a civil and democratic society"--a statement taken from phrases of the petty-bourgeois opposition that won the presidential election. Asked if he meant capitalism, Milenkovic replied that most people in western Europe live better than those in Yugoslavia and "we should learn from that. We are talking about a transition towards those societies." He was also unsettled by the burning of parliament and other "chaotic" acts during the October 5 uprising and said Otpor is asking people to return to the parliament building items they removed from it that day.
Damir Eres, on the other hand, expressed different views on many matters, views that appear to be held by a minority in Otpor. Eres, a medical student in Belgrade, was unequivocal in his opposition to Washington's intervention in the Balkans, not just the NATO bombing in Serbia. He condemned proposals by politicians in the imperialist countries to put Milosevic on trial in The Hague, declaring that only the people of Yugoslavia can try him for his crimes. He argued for returning autonomy to Albanians in Kosova, pointing out that the imperialist troops now occupying Kosova are largely responsible for sowing divisions between Albanians and Serbs, not just Milosevic's past actions.
Eres and Milenkovic noted that Otpor today includes youth as well as some older members who hold a variety of political members who hold a variety of political viewpoints. The organization includes Socialist Party members and some supporters or former members of Vojislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party--which many people in Belgrade describe as fascist.
The leadership of the Students Union of Yugoslavia, another major youth group, has increasingly moved in a social democratic direction. One of its main activities is maintaining a web site called "Free Serbia," an operation that now has its own offices in Belgrade and several dozen employees and volunteers whose efforts are funded from "donors from abroad, mainly in the European Union and North America," as one of its leaders put it.
Since Milosevic's downfall, the Nezavisnost union leadership has also made more explicit a similar social democratic orientation. One of its main pieces of literature states that Nezavisnost seeks "the establishment of the rule of law; genuine multiparty parliamentary democracy; comprehensive and radical economic reforms based on privatization, economic efficiency and social justice; [and] integration of Yugoslavia into the international community." Leaders of this union who in interviews with the Militant during the NATO assault made remarks supporting self-determination for Albanians in Kosova have since retracted or distanced themselves from those positions.
'We've given them a deadline'
Given the lack of politically organized working-class leadership, working people pressing for their rights face continuous obstacles and efforts to push them back. Workers at the Ikarbus bus manufacturing plant in Zemun, on the outskirts of Belgrade, told the Militant how a majority of workers in the factory had successfully fought to organize into Nezavisnost and that the company had been forced to recognize the union by October 25.
At the entrance of the plant, two notices were posted next to each other. One was signed by Zoran Gojkovic, president of Samostalni (Autonomy), the formerly pro-Milosevic trade union. That notice reported that 304 of the 1,022 workers had left that union, announced Gojkovic's resignation, and called a meeting to elect new officers open only to current members. Next to this was a notice by the in-plant Nezavisnost organizing committee, calling a meeting to discuss the situation in the plant and workers' demands for better wages and working conditions. This meeting was open to all workers in the plant, regardless of union affiliation.
Inside the factory, the company manager acknowledged the formation of a new union, which he claimed not to oppose. He also said he would collaborate with whatever union had majority support, and then declared, "But this hasn't been determined by the courts yet." So the fight to establish the union continues.
Despite these hurdles, working people in Yugoslavia have gained greater self-confidence and are using the new atmosphere of political freedom since October 5 to press their demands.
At Kolubara, a region 60 miles south of Belgrade where most of Serbia's coal for generation of electrical energy is mined at four surface pits, miners told the Militant they had not yet disbanded the strike committee set up when they walked out September 29. That nine-day political strike by 7,500 miners and the solidarity movement built around it were central to toppling the bureaucratic regime.
Since the fall of Milosevic, the miners have demanded better wages and working conditions, after having gone three years without a contract. They pressed successfully for the resignation of the mine management and all the officials of the energy ministry who tried to use the police to break their strike. They are now trying to maintain their pressure on the Kostunica regime to meet the rest of their demands.
"I hope this new government will be better," said miner Jubisalav Perisic, during an interview at the entrance of the Field D mine October 27. "But we've given them a deadline--a few months. We will not wait for five, eight, or 10 years as we waited for Milosevic, to get a living wage and decent working conditions."
His comment captured the determination of the miners to press their demands and to seek greater control over their conditions on the job.
EU road of capitalist penetration
Their comments also indicated that foreign investors and the new government will not have an easy time convincing them to accept the privatization of the mines.
Given the continuing depth of popular opposition to the U.S.-led assault on Yugoslavia, Kostunica and those who share the political program of the DOS have sought to distance themselves somewhat from Washington, and are trying to convince working people that the road to solving the acute economic and social problems is through rapid integration into the European Union. Large placards with the multistar symbol of the EU and the slogan "Together Again!"--referring to the European Union and Yugoslavia--could be seen everywhere Militant reporters traveled.
In an October 29 statement, Kostunica rejected the call by U.S. president William Clinton to accept results of local elections in Kosova, organized under NATO occupation, as legitimate. Kostunica has maintained much of the nationalist stance of Milosevic toward Kosova, and his support for the chauvinist leaders of the so-called Bosnian Serb republic in Bosnia.
The European Union is being utilized increasingly by the imperialist powers in their goal of capitalist penetration of the workers states in Eastern and Central Europe--including Yugoslavia--and the former Soviet Union.
The French government of President Jacques Chirac and EU officials announced October 27 the imminent signing of an agreement with Moscow to purchase large amounts of oil, natural gas, and electricity from Russia in exchange for investments by capitalist concerns in the corresponding Russian industries.
This announcement coincided with Kostunica's visit to Moscow, during which Russian president Vladimir Putin said that country's natural gas company will soon restart gas deliveries to Yugoslavia. The supply had been cut during Milosevic's reign after Belgrade failed to pay a $300 million bill.
"The most critical problem we face right now is how to survive the next few weeks," said Mladin Dinkic, one of Kostunica's economic advisers who accompanied him to Moscow. "People are already blaming us for what is going on." Yugoslavia faces its most serious energy crisis ever, these officials said.
At the same time, the military deployment of U.S. troops in the Balkans--surrounding the current Yugoslavia, from Macedonia to Kosova and Bosnia--remains the foundation on which Washington has strengthened its military and economic domination in Europe since the early 1990s. U.S. imperialism intends to use this strength as a club towards accomplishing its long-term goal of weakening and eventually overthrowing the workers state in Yugoslavia.
EU leaders have assailed recent statements by supporters of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush suggesting that if elected he would curtail the U.S. government's military presence in the Balkans. The reactions came in response to statements by Condoleeza Rice, Bush's foreign policy adviser, who said Washington should focus on military operations in the Middle East and Asia and turn over "peacekeeping" missions such as the one in the Balkans to the European powers.
The October 24 Washington Post quoted an unnamed ambassador from an EU country as saying, "Once you allow NATO members to pick and choose their operations, then where does it all end? The integrated military command could soon fall apart, and so would the alliance."
European imperialist powers now account for 80 percent of the 65,000 NATO troops deployed in the Balkans. But these powers are reluctant to see the U.S. government cut back its 11,400 troops there, which literally represent a military machine more powerful and swift-acting than the forces of all the other powers put together.
The recent actions by working people in Yugoslavia are one more reason to make finance capital more nervous.
Argiris Malapanis is a meat packer in Miami. Bobbis Misailidis is an airport worker in Athens, Greece. Catharina Tirsén, a member of the Metalworkers union in Stockholm, Sweden, and George Skoric, a student in Belgrade, contributed to this article.
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