With all the bleak news out of Kosovo and Yugoslavia, I’ve been trying to
make contact with the independent union federation Nezavisnost. During a visit to
Belgrade, in May of 1996, I had a series of discussions with Nezavisnost President,
Branislav Canak. An independently thinking former journalist, and an ardent anti-war
activist, Canak and I discussed the situation of Yugoslavian workers and the possibilities
for independent unionism. Yet even then, Canak raised the possibility of further war in
Kosovo. What follows are some of my notes from this trip.
There was a siege feeling about Yugoslavia, which was brought up continuously
during numerous discussions and was visibly apparent. There were, for example, very few
foreign newspapers, magazines or journals available, even at kiosks in the main square in
Belgrade. As well, unlike Croatia, Bosnia or even pre-war Belgrade, there was no foreign
television reception in Belgrade, much less the rest of the country and one clearly felt
that Yugoslavia had turned inward.
Unionists involved in the "official" government-linked unions, saw
themselves as victimized and isolated by the rest of the world’s labor movement. They
tended to see all their economic problems as caused by the sanctions and the war — not by
the Milosevic regime. While there did not appear to be any shortage of goods in stores,
numerous workers talked about much of the population being on "forced leaves"
and not working. As well, some talked about not receiving their wages for many months.
All of these financial woes, along with the war, had resulted in a population
that is very frightened about the future, but not yet prepared to take action in their own
defense. For example, I had a conversation with a young union steward with the official
union in Subotica, who told me about workers in her plant (including herself) not being
paid for months at a time. She asked me if workers in Europe face such a situation. I told
her that I didn’t think other workers would tolerate such a situation, and asked her why
she and her coworkers tolerate it? Her reply was that they couldn’t do anything about it
as they might be fired. I then asked her what the difference was between being fired and
having no job, versus working and not being paid. There is, of course, a difference, in
that even workers on forced leave get their health insurance and social benefits paid by
the company. However, the discussion and may like it illustrate the reluctance by the
official unions to engage in action — and the workers being demoralized and see no
I met with Branislav Canak, the President of Nezavisnost and some of the leading
officers of Nezavisnost at their offices in Belgrade. Canak described the evolution of
Nezavisnost in recent years and the difficult circumstances that the union still faced.
Having emerged in 1990 as an independent trade union movement, opposed to the
state-controlled "official" unions, Nezavisnost was legally registered as a
union in 1991. Their desire in setting up a separate federation was to challenge the
government dominated "official" unions and to develop an "authentic"
trade union movement, democratic and accountable to its members.
Nezavisnost’s opposition to the government and to the war (with Croatia and
Bosnia) lead to the union activists being labelled "traitors." According to
Canak, the union tried to explain to workers that while the government was "asking
them to fight a war for the Serbs in the Krajina, their factories would be stolen from
them at home." This tough, militant anti-war stance and unyielding opposition to the
government took its toll on the union, however, cutting deeply into its membership and
making recruitment of new members difficult. As well, the economic stagnation and
uncertainty made most workers very reluctant to "shake the boat" and risk
victimization by management and government by splitting from the "official"
Canak talked about the official unions as "artificial". According to
Canak, they only pretend to negotiate with employers, and occasionally hold
"artificial" strikes — that is strikes that have been pre-arranged with the
government and whose purpose is to support government policy or direction. Nezavisnost, on
the other hand, he countered held only genuine, self-directed actions, which were clearly
not sponsored by the government or other ruling political forces. Canak pointed out, for
example, when the official unions hold a strike or call an action, the police do not find
it necessary to show up. With Nezavisnost, on the other hand, all of its actions bring a
great deal of police attention.
Canak expressed some satisfaction at Nezavisnost’s success in building links to
the European and North American labor movements. The official unions, he noted, were now
becoming quite isolated. However, he also expressed a concern that Serbia (and the
Federation of Yugoslavia as a whole) were headed into a "suicidal stage." At a
time when many workers were on forced leaves, and production was at an all time low, the
government was refusing loans from abroad and further isolating itself. Canak stated that
President Milosevic, when questioned by reporters about the financial crisis had stated
that the country could go it’s own way, on its own — like Cuba, or China. Canak expressed
a frustration over the state of politics in Yugoslavia, pointing out that while Croatia,
Solvenia and Macedonia were going forward, Yugoslavia was going backward.
Nezavisnost, according to Milan Nikoli, the Vice President of the union, has been
declining in size, because of both the state of the economy (with so many people on
"forced leave"), and because of active opposition to the union by employers, the
official unions, and the government. In many work places, workers must get the signature
of the leading officer in the official union before they can resign their membership.
Nezavisnost executive members told me about incidents of discrimination against their
members, ranging from mild "social pressure" and harassment to denial of certain
benefits provided to other workers, to outright threats and being placed on "forced
In addition to Nezavisnost, there are a number of other independent labor groups
that have broken from the official unions. The truck drivers, for example, are independent
and were involved in industrial actions with Nezavisnost, but broke from Nezavisnost
because of its anti-war stance. Various railway crafts have formed independent unions, as
have the Serbian power workers.
However, the road is hard for all independent unions in Yugoslavia. There is no
tradition of union organizing independent of the state. Additionally, in Yugoslavia, the
independent unions lack the advantage of unions in other Balkan countries, were
independence forced the setting up of new "independent" federations and loosened
or even destroyed the grip of official unions. In the case of Yugoslavia, unfortunately,
the Balkans crisis only strengthened the grip of the official unions.
In Nikolic’s assessment, the problems of Nezavisnost were somewhat unique. Unlike
trade unions elsewhere in Europe, workers in Yugoslavia still are plagued with
government/party dominated unions. He argued that the union needed to be involved in
politics, because all of economics is about "interests" and that’s what politics
debates. He said they needed to be involved in politics in order to win political rights
to fight for economic rights for workers. Nikolic felt that the people of Yugoslavia want
to move from an authoritarian system to a democratic society, but they have somehow become
captured by a "neo-authoritarian" regime under Milosevic. And this regime is
completely opposed to the transition to democracy. Because Nezavisnost makes democracy its
central demand, it has been pushed to the margin by the regime.
Nikolic noted that while unions in the US and Western Europe were seeking to
strengthen their influence by demanding socialization or greater accountability of private
institutions to public goals, that in Yugoslavia, Nezavisnost saw privatization as a
necessary (though not sufficient) means to weakening the grip of authoritarianism. His
hesitations about privatization were that in the current political climate it was leading
to "the criminalization of politics and the politics of crime." Generally
Nezavisnost was in favor of privatization, but understood that privatization of a type
favored by Milosevic was simply theft.
The task of developing an authentic, independent and democratic labor movement in
Yugoslavia is much more difficult than the tasks faced by workers in many other parts of
the Balkans. Yugoslavia is still very much under the authoritarian rule of Milosevic and
the Socialist Party of Serbia, and the major union federations remain "party
organs" designed to bring the party line to the workers, not democratic organizations
of workers designed to further their interests.
The economy is in disarray, everywhere people were talking about the failure of
companies (and the government) to pay wages for months at a time. As well, most workplaces
had many employees on forced leaves. Politically, the country remains isolated. The
opposition is very divided and in the cases of some of the large opposition parties, they
are more nationalist and authoritarian than the government. While the war with Bosnia may
now be over, few believe that problems in the region are over. Many people I talked to
felt that the huge Serbian refugee population from Croatia and Bosnia would be resettled
by Milosevic in Kosovo and considering the existing tensions in Kosovo this could lead to
further hostilities in the region, and even a possibility of a new round of war. Small
wonder so many workers seem to be in a state of fear (for their jobs and their future) and
confusion, as they see no political alternative to Milosevic.