Johannes Schneider Johannes.Schneider at
Thu Dec 14 05:59:30 MST 2000

Recently there has been a discussion on this list about the so-called
'independent' union in Serbia, 'Nezavisnost'. To provide some more material
on the issue I am forwarding here the English translation of a report
written by Alfons Bech of Ayuda Obrera Balcanes. The original Spanish
documents I will send in seperate mails.


Independent trade union in Serbia

Report of a visit by Alfons Bech of Ayuda Obrera Balcanes

THIS is a report of a visit to Belgrade and other cities in south-west
Serbia from 7 - 14 November as guests of the engineering section of
Nezavisnost, organised through their president, Milan Nikolic.
I was able to visit five factories and take part in union meetings and other
meetings of workers. In some places, when I had visited and interviewed
union members, there was also an interview with the factory's manager.
Besides meeting engineering works and engineering trade unionists, I also
had the opportunity to interview trade unionists in transport, the postal
service, telecommunications and food processing. On the last day of the
visit I also had an interview with the official engineering workers' union.
Besides these visits and interviews with trade unionists, I also had the
opportunity to interview some of the most important and influential
organisations in Serbia today. I was very grateful to be able to meet one of
the leaders of the NGO 'Civic Initiatives'. I also twice met representatives
of OTPOR ('Resistance'), the Serbian youth movement which played a decisive
role in mobilising the campaign which led to fall of Milosevic.  I also met
with leaders of the Social Democratic party and their youth movement.
Finally I was able to have a brief telephone interview with one of the
representatives of the Women In Black, who were away touring the provinces.

The social and economic situation in Serbia

Before going into the political situation, which is very volatile at the
moment, and into the trade union situation itself, I believe it would be
useful to sketch the economic situation as I observed it and the social
situation based on it.
Serbia is a rich  industrialised nation watered by the mighty Danube and its
tributary, the Sava. It also has agriculture, particularly in the Voivodina
autonomous region, considered the granary of Serbia. The capital, Belgrade,
is a well-panned modern city, with a rather Mediterranean feel and
open-hearted citizens. The crossing of cultures in the capital itself is
embedded even in the diet and local songs, even though the forced arrival of
Serbian immigrants from other regions as a result of the war has upset the
balance somewhat.
However, the Serbian economy was integrated into the old Yugoslav economy as
a whole. Many markets and productive resources have been reduced since the
wars began. This has affected economic planning, reducing exports and of
course trade with former Yugoslav republics. This is vividly illustrated by
the number of families relationships and friendships between Serbians,
Croats, Bosnians and Albanians which have been severed for all practical
purposes by the impossibility of travelling from one country to another, or
visiting seaside or mountain holiday resorts.
Something which also stands out in all the interviews and meetings with
trade unionists is the effect of western economic sanctions on Serbia. Most
trade unions start by saying that sanctions have cut their production by
half or more.
Most people work for wages. Officially there is almost no unemployment.
However, in most factories only a half or a third of the workforce is
working. Those who are working earn a wage of between 100 and 150 German
marks a month. Those who are not working are granted a niggardly benefit of
between 10 marks and 50 marks a month. Ten years ago these same workers
received 1000 or 1500 marks a month, ten times more than they receive now.
They spent their holidays on the Adriatic coast in Croatia or Montenegro.
Now they spend their holidays at home, wear old clothes and do the most
urgent and cheaper house repairs themselves, leaving the rest for later.
There is a palpable feeling of going back in time. The loss of Yugoslavia
produces a bitter feeling of failure and defeat where Serbian citizens'
hopes of progress are concerned. Those I spoke to link the ruinous decline
in the economy with Serbia's increasing isolation and the way the other
republics have turned their backs on her. Many of those who live in Serbia,
however, are of Croatian, Montenegrin or Bosnian origin. Many have husbands
or wives of other nationalities. For this reason, thirty per cent gave up
their original nationality, and their passports simply say 'nationality:
But if the social and economic situation of the vast majority has
deteriorated, that of a small minority has miraculously and insultingly
improved. In fact the years of privation, sanctions and economic blockade,
with the country at war, enabled an elite to take advantage of their
position of authority or links to Milosevic's circle to make fortunes.
Milosevic's son, Marko, controlled one of the black-market petrol rings. The
minister responsible for customs duties, a friend of Milosevic, ran a
fabulous smuggling business. The press in Belgrade is uncovering new
corruption cases every day, such as the gang which imported defective
medicines from China, causing the deaths of several patients, while workers
in the state pharmaceutical companies were sent home for lack of work. To
visit the district where Milosevic lives is to see luxury; enormous houses
with meticulously manicured gardens, high fences and, often, security
cameras and a police car every few yards. All these things played their part
in the revolt against the Milosevic regime. It is no accident that, as well
as parliament, the broadcasting centre and the police barracks, the
demonstrators also ransacked Marko Milosevic's deluxe perfume outlet.

The political parties, etc.

There is a multitude of political parties in Serbia at the moment. There are
18 in the DOS coalition, and three more in the co-alition which governed
until October 5, the Socialist Party of Slobadan Milosevic, his wife's
United Yugoslav Left (JUL) and the Radical Party of the fascist Seselj.
In the so-called democratic opposition, DOS, there are longstanding leaders
like the monarchist Vuk Draskovic, or the more liberal Zoran Djindjic, the
former generals who entered politics three years ago after Milosevic purged
them, the social democratic tendency, the Social Democratic Left, the Union
of Social Democrats and the Co-alition for the Autonomy of Voivodina.
However, the word 'party' does not have the same connotations here that it
has in Western Europe. To start with, although Milosevic's regime was not a
dictatorship in the classical sense, since he ruled with the support of
other parties and there were elections (however fraudulent), there was still
no real party membership or democratic internal life. The existing parties
do not exactly represent various social classes. Thus Draskovic, for
example, could  head massive protest demonstrations one minute and join
Milosevic's government the next, only to criticise and leave it when it lost
the confrontation with NATO and eventually almost lose his life in a
Each party now contains a combination of workers, middle class people and
officials who backed the regime. Only now are three big tendencies starting
to emerge: the right, including Kostunica, Draskovic and Seselj; the centre,
including Djinjic and a section of Milosevic's Socialist Party; and a left
whose various components would be the Social Democrats, a part of the
Socialist Party, and some of the others who call themselves social
democrats. Some also say there is room for the far-left. As for the old
ruling co-alition, Milosevic's Socialist Party could go into decline, while
the JUL could practically disappear, while the extreme right-wing elements
in the Radical Party could become an extra-parliamentary force.
The Social Democratic tendency points out that the elections of 23 December
will simplify and clarify the political scene. Most of the members of the
Nezavisnost independent union say they are 'left wing' in general without
belonging to any particular group. Others support Kostunica. Recently the
union has signed up members of the Socialist Party who are breaking with
Milosevic and the official union. To give you some idea, a Nezavisnost union
leader has pointed out: 'in our union we have members of all of the parties
of the joint opposition'.

The Nezavisnost independent union

As soon as I landed, I went to the union's headquarters in Belgrade. I was
met at the airport by the secretary of the engineering workers' section,
Aleksandar Todic, an active and determined man of about 35 and the
office-manager, Vesna. My first impression of the union headquarters was of
a hive of activity. They are located on the fifth floor of a building just
behind the official unions. When the president of the engineering workers
arrives, there is frenzied activity. The phones never stop ringing,
different meetings go on, union activists are coming and going. Workers also
arrive for the first time to find out about the union and sign up. There are
women, too, a little more shy and in groups.
The first thing that occurs to me is that the union must have a mass of paid
workers. The work that needs doing probably justifies it, but isn't it a bit
expensive? While the offices are clean and well-organised, they are austere,
and there is only one computer, but there seem to be so many people on the
payroll. At the end of the day I asked how many people were employed and I
got a shock. Only the office manager, Vesna, is actually paid. Aleksandar
receives a subsidy of about 65 marks a month, because his wife works. Not
even the president gets paid. He is helped out by his family. The rest are
laid-off workers, union representatives who are given time off work to
attend meetings, or people who have come to discuss their problems and join
the union.
Nezavisnost was born as a union independent of the state and the parties of
the state in 1991. It came into being after engineering workers tried to
reform the existing unions and to win a constitutionally recognised economic
role. After three years of fruitless efforts they decided they should set
themselves up as a union independent of the authorities. Paradoxically the
rising tide of the labour movement between 1988 and 1991 was exploited by a
little-known bureaucrat who used first promises and then war. It was
Slobodan Milosevic. He managed to turn himself into a god for the workers at
that time. The engineering workers had good reason to see things
differently, as did the television and radio journalists in Belgrade and
elsewhere. One thousand two hundred journalists were sacked after the
student mobilisations and opposition in 1991. It was then that the
engineering worker Nikolic and television journalist Canak decided to set up
the Nezavisnost union (the name means 'independence'). Today Canak is the
president of the federation and Milan Nikolic the vice president, re-elected
to those positions at the last Congress in 1999. The hardest time they had
was during the wars, which they openly opposed. They have stories about very
delicate situations, such as when they signed a joint statement with the
Croatian unions in Zagrab defending the rights of the Croatians to oppose
Milosevic's attempted seizure of Krajina. On the way back to Serbia they
took a wrong turning. Or when they called for a boycott of the referendum on
Kosova in the spring of 1998, which Milosevic wanted to use to justify the
war of ethnic cleansing. Their slogan was, more or less, 'Serbia is a
prison. We want rights and work for the workers, not a referendum on
Kosova'. At the demonstration they organised, about three hundred protestors
were surrounded by about 1000 policemen. 'Like being in prison', Aleksandar
At the last count, before the events which caused the fall of Milosevic,
Nezavisnost had 200,000 members. Membership is voluntary, and workers have
to make a deliberate effort to sign up, unlike the official unions, where
membership is automatic as soon as you start working for a company. But
Nezavisnost is on a roll now, with a huge growth in independent trade
unionism. Not only do hundreds of workers turn up at the union headquarters
at the end of each day, but the leaders are also invited to go to the
factories to explain what the union is about and answer questions. I was
able to attend one of these sessions and I can certainly say that workers
put many questions, sometimes through trusted advocates who worked with them
on social questions. Officials of another unions tried to dpreciate the new
union but were finally silenced by their own workers and left. What normally
happens after these chats is that the workers meet with the people who are
promoting the union in the factory to join up individually and elect a
committee. The Nezavisnost leaders think they have already doubled their
numbers to about 400,000 and they think growth will continue at a rapid rate
for the next three to six months.
The leaders of the engineering workers (and also in the food-processing and
communications industries) whom I met struck me as almost all experienced
people. Others are not, and its like jumping onto a moving bus. One factory
worker, a turner, gets threatening phone calls saying they have broken his
car window. His family is worried. Suspicions point to a member of the
offical union. The engineering workers' president comments that this sort of
thing often happens and comes as a surprise to members of the independent
union. However, they are not intimidated, they organise a meeting, take the
appropriate steps, and carry on. I went to this comrade's factory a couple
of days later and nobody said anything about these incidents.
I asked what the union's aims were now that Milosevic has fallen from power.
They told me that Nezavisnost had stood shoulder to shoulder with other
organisations to ensure full participation in recent elections and had help
organise the parallel recount. They have joined in all the campaigns against
Milosevic over the past few years, so their commitment to the change of
regime is clear. On the other hand, many leaders of the democratic
opposition did not do anything themselves because they were hiding behind
'Nezavisnost has been and will continue to be a union that is independent of
the authorities'. They told me that the opposition has tried to turn it into
'their' union and they had refused. Then the opposition went to a smaller
union lead by a gentleman called Dragan Milanovich and reached an agreement
with him.  Now it seems Mr. Milanovic stood in the elections as a trade
union and won a seat, so he is part of the new powers that be. Now this
small union is signing agreements with the old official unions, particularly
with reference to appointing new factory managers.
Nezavisnost thinks this situation will call for stronger and more
independent trade-unionism because workers should be organised to face the
coming privatisation laws that may come in the spring, so that they can
control the process and make sure that workers end up as majority
share-holders. They also need to make sure wages go up and help find
solutions to increasing production, finding new markets and re-opening old
ones. The kind of trade unionism Nezavisnost represents tries to combine
what was good in the previous system, in which workers participated in
running factories and companies, with the opening up of the European and
world market.
An element in such participation is the right of mass meetings to change
managers. The opposition issued a general call for a strike and the
appointment of new managers on 5 October, hoping to set up so-called 'crisis
committees'. The argument was essentially political: since Milosevic had
fallen, it was necessary to change all the managers who were tied to the
previous governing parties (mainly the Socialist Party). Nezavisnost had a
different position: they only supported those changes which really benefited
the workers because the new managers were superior, better able to increase
production, technically better qualified, etc. Furthermore, they said that
political appointees tied to the DOS could be bad for production, and it was
important to make sure that people did not get appointed to directorships
which they could exploit when the privatisation law was passed.
In general the leaders of Nezavisnost are in favour of using every legal
right granted to them, for example the right to change managers. In that
case there should be a period during which production plans are displayed
along with proposed changes in working conditions and wages so that workers
can discuss them, vote on them and then submit them to the management of the
company. 'It is a slow process', one factory leader said, 'but more orderly.
The "crisis committees" on the other hand are illegal and it could be that
workers went on strike only to end up with a worse manager than they

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