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Workers in Yugoslavia press their demands
Firsthand report from Yugoslavia
BY ARGIRIS MALAPANIS AND CATHARINA TIRSÉN
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia--"The manager acted as if he were the owner, not simply the director of a factory that belongs to the workers," said Slobodan Milovanovic. A welder at the Ikarbus bus manufacturing plant, Milovanovic spoke to Militant reporters October 25 along with other workers from the factory here.
These workers talked about their campaign to remove the factory manager from his post for bureaucratic abuse of workers, misuse of his power for personal enrichment and other corrupt practices, and subservience to the brutal bureaucratic regime that ruled until October 5. On that day, a mass revolt and general political strike by hundreds of thousands of working people--including those at Ikarbus--forced Slobodan Milosevic to resign from Yugoslavia's presidency and concede victory to Vojislav Kostunica, the candidate of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS).
In the three weeks since the October 5 uprising, workers throughout Serbia have begun regaining politcal self-confidence and are taking initial steps to try to assume more control of conditions on the job, weakening a number of bureaucratic and repressive institutions in the process.
The majority of workers at Ikarbus, for example, have quit the old trade union, which was tied to the former Milosevic regime, and organized themselves into the metalworkers branch of Nezavisnost (Independence), the largest trade union federation not linked directly to the former ruling party. In the same period, Nezavisnost supporters told us, membership has jumped from 200,000 to as much as half a million.
In the last two weeks, beginning October 11, some 640 Ikarbus workers out of 1,022 switched their affiliation to Nezavisnost to better unite and fight for union control of job conditions.
The general manager had the pro-Milosevic trade union under his boot, workers told us, and used it to diffuse or squash any attempts to improve safety and other working conditions.
Zarco Yoksovic, an instructor at the vocational high school on the plant premises, described the poor conditions, including an ancient air conditioning system in place since the firm was founded in 1972 that resulted in brutal heat during the summer months.
Milovanovic noted that inadequate ventilation made the effects of air pollution from steel dust and chemicals used in the plant much worse.
"We never had adequate safety equipment either, like breathing masks or protective uniforms," he said. "At the same time, managers and other administrative personnel worked in nice, well-lit, fully air-conditioned offices. Isn't this difference the same in capitalist factories?
"What bothered us even more was the low wages for us in production--100 Deutsche marks per month on average--while the managers lived like rich people," Milovanovic said. Average monthly wages for employed workers in Serbia were about DM150 ($81) last year, while basic costs of food and utilities such as electricity and telephone for a family of three was around 200 DM per month.
"The worst was the fear the general manager tried to instill among workers, cultivated by abusive supervisors. Often they would forbid us to leave the line to go to the bathroom and order us to stop having coffee on the job."
Milovanovic and Yoksovic pointed to another humiliating practice the management had introduced. A worker who called in sick, even with a doctor's note, had to obtain a double check at the plant clinic to secure a medical excuse from the job. "And by coincidence," Yoksovic pointed out, "the manager's wife ran the clinic!" which gave the director inside knowledge he used arbitrarily to punish workers who did not go along with management.
These two unionists, along with Drasko Pavisevic, who works as a dispatcher in the plant, enumerated other examples of bureaucratic and arbitrary practices by the manager.
A year ago many tires were reported stolen from the plant. The manager then deducted pay from every worker's paycheck, equivalent to the value of the stolen tires, "because he claimed without any evidence that the robbery was an inside job and none of the workers would come forward to tell who did it," Milovanovic said. "So we were all collectively guilty. He also offered a bribe of 3,000 DM to anyone who would rat on any other worker. He always tried to come up with informers. To this day, no one knows who did it or how the tires were stolen. We have no proof that someone in management did it, as is true in other cases, but everyone resents deeply what the director did."
In a similar case, the manager fired a worker at the plant's gas station after it was reported that 16 tons of oil were missing, without any evidence of responsibility by that employee. The worker fought back, going to the courts with the support of his co-workers. The pro-Milosevic union was of no use, siding with management. The court found the company had no reasonable cause for the firing and ordered his reinstatement as a full-time employee with all benefits, seniority, and back pay.
"Then the manager told him he could only work for 90 days, and that was it," Yoksovic said.
"We simply had enough."
As workers began to resist, they attracted to their side others who were not production workers. Nikola Demonja is an attorney whose legal advice was available to all employees, he said, and served on a company commission that allocated state-owned apartments to workers at the factory. This was done through a "solidarity fund," administered by city or federal authorities, that comes from the surplus workers produce in the factories. All workers were supposedly eligible to apply, and the law says those who met certain conditions--higher seniority and larger families--were given priority.
"The manager totally ignored this and proclaimed his decisions the highest authority, giving apartments to whomever he chose arbitrarily," Demonja said. "He also did something completely illegal, not turning over the keys and ownership to these workers but simply allowing them to use the apartments. He did that to blackmail and punish those who did not toe the line. What pushed me over the top was when he decided to kick a woman worker out of one of four apartments recently allocated after she joined Nezavisnost. I asked for a meeting of the housing commission to review this decision. When the manager refused, I resigned from the commission and joined the effort to reorganize into Nezavisnost."
Others working in marketing for the company began shouting at office meetings that they had evidence of payoffs by the manager to certain company clients, Demonja said, and turned over hard evidence to him.
On October 11 we lost our fear’
Encouraged by the success of the October 5 revolt in bringing Milosevic down, and stories from many enterprises of workers’ actions winning the replacement of corrupt and abusive managers, many Ikarbus workers began to sign up for the new union.
Seeing the tide turning against him, the manager made a last attempt to save his skin. "He called a rally of all employees in the plant October 11 where he stated his opposition to Nezavisnost and rattled off the company's successes,’ having the nerve to take credit and never mentioning the workers," Demonja added. "But he was already behind the times. His rally turned into a loud protest against him, as more and more workers starting telling him to shut up."
"That day most of us lost our fear of management," Milovanovic said. From that point, the organizing effort snowballed. A few days later, workers called their own rally in the factory yard. The company did not let them use loudspeakers or other plant equipment for the gathering and prohibited reporters who converged on the scene from entering the premises.
By October 25, however, the company was forced to recognize Nezavisnost as the union representing most workers.
"We demanded the resignation of the manager and asked that a meeting of all workers be called to vote on this by secret ballot and elect our own representatives to the assembly of stockholders," Milovanovic stated. "We have problems as owners of the firm. We are supposed to be the owners and we have had no say on who runs the company."
Under reforms in state-owned industries introduced by the parasitic regime over the last 15 years, a number of plants have been "privatized," with workers holding majority stock and others outside the company awarded the rest of the shares. In practice this meant Milosevic cronies using the setup to siphon off more assets.
At Ikarbus, for example, workers supposedly hold 65 percent of the shares. All "shareholders" were supposed to choose representatives to an assembly that was charged with appointing management. Workers, however, never had anything to do with who was appointed to this assembly. "Authorities picked managers fired from other companies for criminal activities, former foreign ministers, and others from the hierarchy of Milosevic's Socialist Party who had nothing to do with Ikarbus," Yoksovic pointed out.
Class, political differentiation sharpens
In the course of this discussion, a difference emerged between lawyer Nikola Demonja and the production workers interviewed. Demonja said the earlier reforms were a fake privatization. "Stockholders never saw any dividends. We need a real privatization like in the West," he stated.
Milovanovic and Yoksovic, on the other hand, insisted that they intended to use whatever forms existed to increase workers say in how the company is run.
The confusing, but at bottom, class struggle shaping up between and among vanguard workers of action and supporters of the opposition that won the recent presidential elections have also become more evident. At a recent meeting in the municipality of Zemun, where the plant is located, representatives of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) convinced lawyers and others from the administrative personnel to postpone implementation of the demand for immediate removal of the Ikarbus manager and instead build up a criminal case against him first, so he could be prosecuted in the courts and be replaced in "a legal manner."
Workers said they went along with this reluctantly in order to maintain a united front, but refuse to back off the fight. "We haven't forgotten," Milovanovic said. "His time will run out sooner rather than later."
Many working people and others we have met have pointed out that the class struggle at Ikarbus is not atypical compared to the rest of Serbia.
Every day, unexpected and not widely publicized actions of the sort Ikarbus workers have been involved in take place throughout Belgrade.
On October 25, for example, about 40 people were protesting in central Belgrade outside the offices of the Association of the Blind, chanting "Resign, resign," and "He's finished!" referring to the association's director. "We want the director of our organization to resign and hold elections for new officers," said Alievic Ramadan, one of the protesters. "He sold our equipment to people abroad. We needed it to help us read. We pay the rent of 1,600 square meters for his offices, while we all live in basements."
The class and political differentiation evident at Ikarbus was also obvious in discussions with other trade unionists, workers, and youth.
Diverging views on market reforms’
In an October 24 interview at the national office of Nezavisnost, Milan Nikolic, a member of the executive board of the federation from the Metalworkers union, said he was glad Milosevic was removed "through democratic means." He stressed how important he felt it was that the new atmosphere of political freedom is built through negotiations and meetings, including with officials of the old regime.
Nikolic did acknowledge that the key to forcing Milosevic to resign was that workers were at the center of the revolt. But he was not happy with how abruptly some of the hated managers have been removed from factories and other workplaces since October 5, especially where Nezavisnost was not involved, like at the Zastava auto plant in Kragujevac. The task, the very purpose of Nezavisnost is to calm this wave down, he stated, because if all the old managers were removed at once production might be halted altogether and "there would be no work or wages." Corrupt company directors have to be removed through the court system, he insisted.
He also made clear his opinion that massive sales of state-owned industries and other companies to foreign investors are inevitable, and that the Nezavisnost leadership supports that--a goal also shared by DOS leaders.
Dragan Vesic, an officer of the Trade Union of Electric Power Workers of Serbia, expressed similar reservations as Nikolic's about "hasty" actions by workers in replacing administrators of their enterprises. This union has 60,000 members, of whom 31,000 are coal miners, producing the raw material used for most of the country's energy needs. This union split from the pro-Milosevic federation in the mid-1990s but also refused to join Nezavisnost.
Workers may get the wrong idea from some of the recent events that "we can move toward some kind of renewed worker self-management’ system and a new kind of socialism," Vesic stated. "That's not possible. We need a transition towards Western-type democracies with a capitalism that's not exploitative," he argued.
At the same office, Militant reporters spoke to Rado Jovanovic, a member of the strike committee of the miners union at Kolubara. About 7,500 coal miners at four mines in that area, producing most of Yugoslavia's coal, went on strike September 29. They demanded the resignation of Milosevic and occupied the pits to make their case. After the downfall of the hated regime they maintained the strike committee, presenting demands for a new contract, and successfully pressed for the removal of mine management.
After giving a blow-by-blow account of the strike and subsequent miners’ actions, Jovanovic pointed out that most property in Yugoslavia remains state property. "The mines are ours," he said.
Responding to nervous comments in the big-business press abroad about the actions by workers in Yugoslavia since October 5, Jovanovic commented, "They should be afraid of us. If foreign investors get here and try to do what they do to miners in other countries they’ll face the same thing we did to Milosevic." Jovanovic then asked Militant reporters to join him for a fact-finding tour of the Kolubara mines later in the week.
Discussion with workers at Zastava plant
A similar process is unfolding in other parts of the country, with local peculiarities.
Production at the huge Zastava plant in Kragujevac, about 100 miles south of Belgrade in central Serbia, has barely resumed since the U.S.-NATO bombing last year. The factory was one of the largest industrial facilities in Yugoslavia, employing more than 30,000 workers a decade ago. It became a target of repeated NATO bombings, with several sections of it being demolished.
Now production hovers between 10,000 and 12,000 cars per year, compared to 215,000 units annually during the plant's heyday. About 2,000 are employed at the moment in the factory, most of them administrative personnel, workers told us during a visit there October 24.
Nezavisnost today only organizes about 20 percent of the workforce, with the rest of the unionized workers belonging to the formerly pro-Milosevic union federation.
Unionists from Nezavisnost told us how they made a special effort to reach out to fellow workers in the pro-government trade union to join in the October 5 protest in Belgrade. Despite threats from the pro-Milosevic union officials, who switched colors abruptly on October 5 proclaiming a change of allegiance to the new government, about 500 of these workers from Zastava joined other workers in the 10,000-strong contingent from Kragujevac helping swell the ranks of those who streamed into Belgrade. "This helped initiate a move toward unity among the rank and file in Zastava," said Milan Jevric, a welder.
The discussion at the Nezavisnost union hall with 10 workers and a couple of union officers that evening turned quickly to the prospects ahead for turning around economic conditions of rampant unemployment and poor working conditions, caused by the anti-working-class methods of planning and management by the previous bureaucratic regimes and accelerated to intolerable proportions by the sanctions and military assaults by Washington and other imperialist powers over the last decade.
Milija Pavlovic, Nezavisnost's secretary in Kragujevac, argued that the road is now open for rapid steps towards a "European Union-type" society. Selling off Zastava to the French Peugeot or the Italian Fiat, two foreign companies that have expressed interest in a possible acquisition, must be a high priority of the new government in Belgrade.
Gorana Milosevic, a lawyer for the union who arrived late after the meeting was well along, stressed a couple of times, "We are now finished with communism."
After listening to and posing further questions to Militant worker-correspondents from the United States, Greece, and Sweden, about working and living conditions workers face in North America and Europe and about labor resistance to the bosses’ offensive in these countries, a couple of workers who were initially quiet spoke.
"Marx said proletarians of the whole world unite," said Miladin Djorovic, laid off from the paint line at Zastava. "That's what the union must be guided by. Marxism will win some day, and we have a better chance for that now."
Milan Jevric added that socialism presents the possibility of building the "ideal society," but the kind of "socialism" under Milosevic had failed miserably.
When Bobbis Misailidis, an airport worker from Athens, Greece, described the recent demonstrations and one-day strike in Athens against government attempts to undermine the eight-hour day, another worker, Djordje Jovanovic, responded with a big smile: "Until you burn down the parliament, the main TV station, and some other government buildings you won't get anywhere." He was referring to the events in Belgrade during the October 5 outpouring. Most of the workers had a big laugh over this comment. Several said they agreed that what they accomplished on October 5 and the weeks since then is something that capitalists around the world have good reason to be nervous about and workers everywhere to celebrate.
Most of these workers see no alternative to getting technology from a foreign investor to get production going again at Zastava. But for them that is a different matter than selling the business itself to a company from an imperialist country, which if repeated enough times will change social relations throughout Yugoslavia.
Jevric said he wanted Militant reporters to take back a message to ordinary people in the countries where they live. "Tell them the NATO bombing of Zastava was aimed against us, and had nothing to do with getting rid of Milosevic," he said.
When Pavlovic, the union secretary, responded by saying, "Yes, we condemn the bombing, but that belongs to the past as we open up to Europe," a number of workers did not agree. "We won't forget or forgive," Jevric said.
Some of these workers defended the gains of the 1945 Yugoslav revolution, which defeated the German imperialist occupation and went on to abolish capitalist social relations and establish a workers state.
Jevric and Miladin Djorovic likened the military assault by Washington and subsequent economic war on Yugoslavia by the imperialist powers to what working people faced under the Nazis during World War II. They pointed to a massacre of 3,000 people by Hitler's troops in the Kragujevac area. The Partisan fighters defeated the Nazis and made a revolution for good reason, Djorovic said.
These two workers also explained their adamant opposition to the demand by the imperialist-sponsored tribunal in The Hague that Milosevic be turned over for trial as a "war criminal"--a common view among the overwhelming majority of those interviewed by Militant reporters. "Only the people of Yugoslavia can try Milosevic for his crimes," Jevric said. Djorovic added that the tribunal in the Hague is used by Washington and other capitalist powers to "violate national sovereignty around the world."
The actions by the working class in Yugoslavia over the last month have opened up greater space for freer political exchanges of this kind.
Transition government’ set up in Serbia
Meanwhile, the new federal president of Yugoslavia, Kostunica, solidified a deal with the former ruling Socialist Party for a transition government in Serbia. On October 24, the parliament of the Republic of Serbia approved the dissolution of the existing regime in the republic--which along with Montenegro comprises the current Yugoslavia--and its replacement with a transition government until new local elections can be held in December. This transition government is composed of representatives of the Socialist Party, DOS, and Serbian Renewal Movement. The resolution approved by the legislature of Serbia also calls on Serbia's president to disband the parliament.
The new prime minister of Serbia, Milomar Minic of the Socialist Party, said he would recommend setting up a board of governors for Radio and Television Serbia and insisted on securing "law and order" in the republic as the top priority of his office.
At the same time, the so-called Group of 17--a body of "economic experts" set up by the Kostunica regime--announced that Yugoslavia will take rapid steps toward reentering the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. A four-member IMF delegation visiting Belgrade October 24 announced that this will depend on the new Yugoslav government drawing up and implementing "economic reforms" acceptable to the IMF. These are code words for integrating Yugoslavia further into the capitalist market system.
Decisive steps along that road will not be easily taken by imperialism given the recent actions and current attitudes and increased self-confidence of workers around the country.
Argiris Malapanis is a meat packer in Miami. Catharina Tirsén is a member of the Metalworkers union in Stockholm, Sweden. George Skoric, a student in Belgrade, and Bobbis Misailidis, an airport worker in Athens, Greece, contributed to this article.
How Yugoslav toilers overturned capitalism