Branislav Canak and the Independent Unions in Yugoslavia
With all the bleak news out of Kosovo and Yugoslavia, Ive 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 alternative.
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" unions.
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 leave."
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.