Our correspondents from Macedonia report on the recent strike wave that has hit the country. After years of waiting for things to "get better" the Macedonian workers have lost their patience. The class struggle is back on the agenda. This is clearly an indication of how things will develop in the future across the whole of the former Yugoslavia and throughout the Balkans and the ex-East European bloc in general. It shows quite clearly the potential for working class struggle even in areas blighted by terrible ethnic conflicts. The working class is the only class that can offer a way out of what is potentially a horrific situation.
The main demand of the movement is that of a minimum wage. At the moment the strike involves the public sector workers, but it could spread to the private sector if the workers' demands are not met. The government is insisting that it will come up with a proposal after they have met with the IMF! This is a clear indication of who is really governing the country. The prime minister is also insisting that the government has the money and can meet the workers' demands. But then we must ask the question: why has the government done nothing over the past few years to settle this matter?
It is clear that the ruling elite is facing a dilemma. They want to apply IMF policy down to every dot and comma. But this involves sacking thousands of workers and destroying a huge section of Macedonian industry. This is what capitalism has to offer the Macedonian people.
The present strike has been very successful in the face of a lot of pressure on the part of the employers. For instance the workers in education and the judicial sector have been threatened with 60% wage cuts if they went out on strike.
Of great significance is the fact that this mood of protest is even affecting sections of the armed forces. For example there was a 30 minute protest outside the Ilinden barracks in support of the striking workers.
Once again, we are seeing how the movement of the working class is creating a potentially revolutionary situation. The tragedy is the lack of a party capable of leading the workers. The task in Macedonia, as elsewhere is to build such a party.
The prospect of prosperity and peace coming through the "market economy" presented by the imperialists in Macedonia has once again proved to be false. The Macedonian workers are slowly but steadily reawakening. The waves of strikes that started a few years ago are now assuming massive proportions.
One can clearly draw conclusions from the strikes. The Union of Syndicates (Sojuz na Sindikati na Makedonija, SSM - the main Trade Union Organisation in Macedonia), where recently the old bureaucrats were removed, actively stands for the defence of workers' rights. The new leadership has had to express the growing need on the part of the workers for political representation. The SSM probably will try to get a few seats in parliament in the elections planned for this autumn.
The bankruptcy of the so-called "left" political parties (Social Democrats in the SDSM and the socialists in the SPM) and their inability to become genuine worker's parties defending the interest of workers, peasants and small businesses is evident. At the same time, the lack of a genuine and strong communist party makes it difficult to channel the workers' disappointment through an organised political force.
Although the SSM doesn't have the strength or the ability to lead the class struggle, as it stands at present, it is the only force that can stand in the way of ruthless exploitation on the part of foreign and domestic capitalists.
The Macedonian people are living through very turbulent times. The economy is in a state of constant collapse and last year's war made things even worse. Nationalism (both Albanian and Macedonian) is simmering under the surface. The Albanian nationalist guerrillas, the NLA, are virtually unscathed, having safely stashed away their weapons, while the areas in the Western part of the country are dangerous places to live and to work. Western imperialist military forces are still present. They have changed their name to "Operation Red Fox". But, as the saying goes, "the wolf changes his fur but not his habits".
The main fears of the government concern mostly the workers in the public sector. These workers organised the biggest of the strikes, in the judicial administration, lasting 80 days from December 11, 2000 until February 28, 2001. This opened up a new page in the history of the labour movement in Macedonia. This strike was well organised by the Union of Administration and Judiciary Workers (UPOZ), and, after a long and tiring struggle involving a lot of marching on the streets of Skopje, it was successful as it heightened class consciousness.
However, it's true to say that their demands fell on deaf ears. Their demand for full payment of back wages is still awaiting better days. The trade union found that to continue their protests and demonstrations was becoming counter-productive as the war crisis reached a high point last year.
However, the leadership of this "pink flagged" union were rewarded for their persistence in the struggle as they were able to organise the Union of Syndicates of Macedonia (SSM). They showed very soon after being elected in March that they would give an impetus to the labour movement.
One should bear in mind that the workers in the so-called "loss-making companies" all over Macedonia, throughout all this period have not stopped their protests. They have continued to organise road blocks, marches on the streets and demonstrations in various forms. Ten thousand workers protested in January and February 2002. They haven't stopped reminding the government and also the working class of their miserable lives even in the coldest February of the last twenty years.
However, nobody is offering an alternative for future employment to these workers. Their usual demands are for the payment of back wages, which they have earned, coverage of social, medical and pension insurance, and help in rebuilding their entire lives.
Their trade unions proposed a law of early retirement (for those with 25 years' work experience), limited only to workers in these "loss-making companies". There are about 40 factories that are classed as "loss-making", and they employ about 37,000 workers. The government has promised many times to introduce the law, but under pressure from the IMF they have changed their minds and have said that "there is no money in the budget". It goes without saying that the same government is constantly spending huge sums of money on luxuries and on their campaign to retain power at the next elections.
The workers' revolt culminated in the demonstrations of April 4, when the ruling parties rejected dialogue with the Unions. The opposition (Social Democrats and others) did what they usually do: they promised to help the workers in exchange for their votes to get them into power. The ruling parties, under severe pressure from the imperialist powers, tried to buy time.
The patience of the workers, who are tired and disappointed, came to an end. They tried to enter the parliament building and clashed with the police. The government had to use the specially trained anti-terrorist police forces, the so-called "Lions", against the workers. Some workers were injured, but fortunately no lives were lost. The leader of Union, Vanco Muratovski, also received some minor injuries. Once again the workers learned that "their" government will never fight for workers' rights. It will only fight to keep itself in power.
So what are the proposals that the government has come up with for these bankrupt companies? What is this law that is supposed to save the "dignity" of the workers? There are 37,000 workers in 40 "loss-making" factories and enterprises; 24 of these companies will be encompassed within the Fesal Arrangement with the IMF, which will involve either their being closed or sold off (privatised); 6,000 workers with 25 years' or more work experience would be laid off and will get paid 50 euros per month (that would cost the budget 345,000 euros per month!) The benefits from this law will be used over the next 9-12 years. An alternative, which the government is introducing, is to classify the workers in these industries as "disabled".
"Long live the First of May"
Another change in the situation in Macedonia worth mentioning is this year's celebration of International Labour Day. This year, unlike the past 12 or more years, the Union of Syndicates (SSM) organised a workers' protest under the slogan "Long live the First of May". It was a small but symbolic march. The Union of Independent and Autonomous Syndicates (UNASM) organised a small picnic with white beans!
Soon after May 1 and the Easter Holidays, the workers continued with their struggle. On May 10, some major roads connecting cities in Macedonia were blocked. Parts of Macedonia and Skopje were paralysed. The blockade lasted from morning till late evening, and was well prepared. The workers forced a concession to be granted on the social and medical insurance, but they are still waiting for a solution to the main problem concerning the restarting of the "loss-making" industries.
The brutal pressure on the part of the ruling clique to weaken the former workers' organisations has taken on fantastic dimensions. The workers know that the their factories can work better and they are supporting the restarting of these factories, although at the moment the only alternative being presented is that of selling them to foreign or domestic capitalists. The state in all these cases owns a large share of these companies and it is trying to get rid of them.
While the government is busy with the privatisation of the national health service, applying the recipes of the IMF and the World Bank, doctors and nurses are angry at the new proposed reform. With the new law on medical care, all the gains from the former "socialist" system will be destroyed, such as free medical care for babies and their mothers and benefits for children. The law will privatise all sectors in the "prime sector" (local clinics or policlinics). Many doctors will lose their jobs, and the patients will either "pay or die". The trade union representing the medical workers is against this so-called "reform" of the health care system.
General Strike in Four Sectors - One Strike for a Minimum Wage
The problems facing the workers are piling up one on top of the other. May 20 saw the start of a general strike in four sectors in the economy that depend on the state.
The first sector was education, science and culture. No school or kindergarten, nor cultural institution is working.
The second sector affected was that of defence where the workers came out on strike demanding an urgent legislation on army services. They also demanded the setting of a minimum wage. The air force pilots went on strike two months ago, thus opening up the labour issues in the army.
The Union of Administration and Judicial Workers (UPOZ) and their comrades from the union in the health care system are the other sectors making up this unified movement.
The main demand is for the setting of a minimum wage of 120 euros per month. The number of strikers involved is around 70,000.
On May 24 the strikers moved onto the streets. The workers from the "bankrupt industries" joined the protests. The strike is believed to last for the next 10 days, until the government passes the promised law. In fact, all the union branches in the public sector are demanding the setting of a minimum wage at 50-60% of the average wage. There was an agreement with the government in 1992 on this issue, but it was abolished in 1994. The final results of this strike are yet to be seen.
Winds of change
Balancing on the edge of an ethnic abyss, suffering from the effects of the recent war, with 300,000 unemployed and with a ruined economy, Macedonia is not a pretty country to live in. However, as Marx brilliantly noted, we must look deeper and find the revolutionary potential that emerges from such misery. The present explosion of the class struggle in Macedonia shows exactly this trend.
The clouds that hid Marxism above the Macedonian sky are slowly beginning to fade. As Marxists, this is the greatest motivation to continue our fight for a free and classless society.
Note by authors: The media coverage of this - the biggest strike wave in 10 years - is disgustingly low, almost as if everything were continuing as normal. But we are not at all surprised at this.