Self-Management Returns To Serbia?

Listserves and inboxes all over the world have been filled with the following plea for global solidarity with the workers of the Serbian factory Jugoremedija, a factory that is resisting privatization while organizing to run the workplace themselves. The plea reads as follows:

Dear friends,

We, the workers of Jugoremedija, a worker-owned and run factory in Serbia, urgently need your help.

We have been in an ongoing struggle to run our workplace ourselves.

Similar to some of the struggles in Argentina to recuperate workplaces, our desire is to work, make decisions collectively that effect our work and livelihoods, and run our own lives.

For over two years we have fought the privatization of our work place, we have been fired after striking and occupying the factory, and now, finally, we are on the edge of a victory. We are partial legal owners of the factory, and want to begin to work in our democratically run factory under worker control. The other part owner, and person attempting to buy the whole factory, is now trying to reorganize the factory so that we will not be able to have a work place any longer.

He wants to divide it into pieces and have the work done elsewhere.

This will take away our workplace and work. Please sign the letter to help support our struggle. For more background and information please see our attached history or for Serbian go to www.jugoremedija2.com

The Serbian pharmaceutical factory “Jugoremedija”, from the town of Zrenjanin, was privatized in 2000, in such a way that 58% of the shares were given to the workers, and the state took 42%. In 2002, the state sold it’s shares to Jovica Stefanovic, an infamous local capitalist, who made his fortune smuggling cigarettes, and who was wanted by Interpol at the time he bought the shares of “Jugoremedija”. As with all the other buyers in Serbian privatization, Stefanovic was not even investigated for money laundering, because the Serbian Government’s position at that time was, and still is, that it’s better to have dirty money in privatization, than to let workers manage the company, because that will “bring us back to the dark days of self-management”.

According to the PR of the company, the new owners “have been facing obstruction since the very first day by shareholders and workers who had obstructed the previous management as well, as some senior workers put it.” “These are remnants of the communist self-management system in which workers were allowed to meddle in everything” corporation PR said.

The first attack on Yugoslav self-management and “meddlessome workers” happened before the break up of socialist Yugoslavia. The first organized attempt to dismantle the system of self-management in Serbia dates back to the times of Slobodan Milosevic. But the real full-blown process of privatization and curtailment of workers rights happen after Milosevic was sent to the Hague Tribunal. In this context in transitional Serbia of the 21st century, with the transition to capitalism and parliamentary democracy, everything became allowed in the fight against what the new neoliberal government saw as the “ideological monster of self management” – even if it means the government and the court break laws.

Breaking all the rules, the state allowed the new co-owner of Jugoremedija, Stefanovic to become the dominant owner of the factory. Through various illegal maneuvers the ownership structure was changed: Stefanovic was given 68% of the shares and the workers portion was reduced to 32%.

In December 2003 the workers began a strike and factory occupation, as well as a lawsuit against the recapitalization. This was the first workplace occupation in the post socialist Yugoslavia!

In May 2004 the state, pressed by the workers, investigated privatization of “Jugoremedija” found that Stefanovic’s investment was in violation of the contract.

The state did nothing to enforce the violation of the contract. In response the workers, mainly women, came to the capital, Belgrade, and occupied the state’s Privatization Agency for one whole day. Only after this occupation did the state begin to take the violation seriously. Meanwhile the factory occupation continued. The PR agents called it “a rebellion, a state of anarchy and a taking of the factory by force, which warrants intervention, which is why professional security has been brought in, to guard it in the future as well.”

The “personal security” inflicted severe injuries on a number of strikers. They even used trained dogs. One woman was badly injured, 2 women had dislocated arms and one worker received a blow to the head. In an incredible scene, women workers laid down in front of the security vans, and defended their factory.

Throughout the summer of 2004, Stefanovic’s private army tried several times to take over the factory, but the workers, with breathtaking courage, kicked them out. Sometimes using their bodies to block the military vehicles. This kept the boss out. … but he returned …

In September 2004, the private army was joined by the Serbian police, who had the order to evict the workers from “Jugoremedija”. Police and the private army forced their way into the factory, resulting in the hospitalization of many workers and the arrest of four of the leaders of the strike. The workers were then charged with disturbing the peace. Criminal proceedings are still taking place. Now that he physically emptied the factory he illegally fired the two hundred workers.

After participating in a Peoples Global Action conference in Belgrade, in August of 2004, workers from “Jugoremedija” joined with workers from other factories to form the Union of Workers and Shareholders of Serbia. At first the Union’s mission was limited to fighting against corruption in privatization, but after experiencing different aspects of Serbian privatization, the Union came out with another demand – the call for a constituent assembly. They believe that the people should make the decisions that effect their lives and work places, and a new constitution can help make this happen. Graffiti appeared on the walls of Belgrade asking, “Who owns our factories?”

Although without jobs for two years, the workers of “Jugoremedija” refused to quit. Their militancy and creative direct actions made them a symbol of resistance to neoliberal capitalism in Serbia.

Finally, as a response to a series of direct and legal actions, in May 2006 the Serbian Supreme Court reached the decision that recapitalization was in violation of the contract, and ordered Zrenjanin Economic Court to re-open the case. Last Friday, Zrenjanin Economic Court brought ownership structure back to 58%-42%.

According to Serbian law, workers-shareholders need three weeks to call for an assembly of all shareholders, in order to appoint their management. Stefanovic needs to be prevented from dividing up the company, and a court injunction would allow the workers to democratically decide who manages their factory, and how.

* Andrej Grubacic is an anarchist historian from the Balkans. This comment was writen with the help of the workers of Jugoremedija, as well as two amazing activists, Ivan Zlatic from Belgrade and Marina Sitrin from New York.

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