Macedonian workers back on the move

Last May’s strikes forced the then government into a compromise over wage levels. Since then the government has fallen and a new government has come to power. Now as the economic situation worsens a new strike wave is spreading across Macedonia.

Macedonia may be a small country, but the militancy of its workers compares to that of Italy, France or Spain, or indeed of neighbouring Greece. Back in May of this year we reported on the massive strike wave that forced the government to retreat. Then 80,000 public sector workers forced the government to set a minimum wage of about 83 euros. The workers then went back to work. The IMF had been demanding the government make no concessions but the movement was so strong that the government had to reach a compromise with the unions.

As we pointed out at the time this was a manoeuvre to buy time, because although they had come into conflict with the IMF over wage increases the government had actually accepted the IMF guidelines in drawing up their "economic recovery plan". As we explained at the time: "…we must understand that this is only a measure to get the workers back to work. The government will try to take back, at a later stage, what it has now given."

Now we can see how true that statement was. Unemployment which stood at around one third of the Macedonian workforce has now crept up to around 40%. Tens of thousands of workers employed in what were once state run companies, have not received their salaries for months. More than two thirds of the workforce receive a salary below the national average. Thus there is a huge polarisation between a large section of the population which is very poor and a tiny elite that has enriched itself on the backs of the Macedonian working class. Rather than improving, the situation for the workers has become worse.

As we pointed out in May, "the present deal on the minimum wage is not the end of the matter. The workers will have to fight again to achieve their aims." Now for more than a week 8,000 workers from 20 factories have been out on strike. What has provoked the strike is again the non-payment of wages.

Now the old VMRO-DPMNE government has gone. In its place for the last two months has been a coalition government made up of Macedonian parties headed by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, SDSM, together with the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, which is an Albanian based party.

But this government speaks the same language of the previous gangsters who were in power. The Minister of Labour, Jovan Manasievski has stated that, "The government has no money to give." But the workers had expectations in this government. As Vanco Muratovski, leader of the SSM trade union (Alliance of Unions of Macedonia) pointed out, the new government and the promises they made before the elections, "encouraged the workers to express their demands."

We have had the hunger strike at the Sasa and Zletovo lead and zinc mines. The government only managed to get the workers back to work after it had paid two weeks' salary. In Skopje there is the dispute involving the Tipo construction supplies factory. They are demanding the payment of unpaid wages, but they are also calling for the managers to be sacked. We have the interesting developments at the Gazela and Slavija companies in Skopje and the Kiro Cucuk in Veles. These are companies that have been privatised. Not only are the workers in these companies demanding the payment of unpaid wages, like all the other groups of workers who are on strike, but they are also demanding that the government puts the programme of privatisation into reverse gear! The unions are also demanding unemployment benefits for the workers that have been laid off, until they find alternative work. This is reminiscent of an old traditional demand of the working class movement: "work or full pay!"

Thus the consciousness of the workers is moving forward to a greater understanding of the tasks posed. They can clearly see that it is privatisation that is the cause of their problems. This means that their struggle is objectively directed against capitalism and imperialism. Their demands are incompatible with the present process of transition to capitalism. The so-called "market economy" means only one thing in Macedonia: huge unemployment.

The fact that in May the workers forced the government to make concessions, and that this was later followed by a defeat of the then government, has given them more confidence, as the leader of the SSM has pointed out. He added that, "The workers' patience is nearly exhausted. Because of this they go on strike more often and larger numbers."

The workers are demanding that the government come to an agreement with the SSM over unemployment benefits and that it develop a programme to reduce poverty. If the government refuses to reach such an agreement, the state workers are now threatening massive protests before the end of the year.

Thus there has only been a temporary respite for the pro-Western clique that has been governing Macedonia. The situation the workers are facing is an unbearable one. They cannot wait any longer. Just like their Italian, French, Greek, Spanish brothers and sisters they have begun to move in a decisive manner.

As the class struggle has intensified the ethnic conflict between the Macedonian speaking population and the Albanian speaking population has gone down. What most worries ordinary working people in Macedonia today is not the ethnic conflict but the serious economic collapse the country is facing. In several opinion polls that have been carried out it is clear that what is worrying the majority of ordinary working people is unemployment and poverty. A large part of the population now is of the opinion that their standard of living was better 12 years ago than it is today.

On the basis of these facts, it is clear that the opportunity is there to put the case for genuine socialism. Workers are demanding an end to privatisation. Is that not an instinctive move towards socialism? When workers are demanding the sacking of incompetent managers, is this not an element of workers' control? Under genuine socialism the workers would indeed have the right to elect their managers.

There is a lot of confusion in the minds of ordinary people as to which system is preferable. They have been fed nothing but pro-Western, pro-capitalist propaganda for a decade now. They are told that their future lies with the European Union and capitalism. But in practice this capitalism is giving them nothing and taking away what they had achieved in the past.

What the workers of Macedonia need is the programme of genuine socialism. That means a return to the planned economy, but not on the basis of the old Titoist regime. Together with state control of the economy there must be genuine workers' control and management and no bureaucratic elite at the top. Whether they can see it or not, this is where the Macedonian workers are instinctively moving towards. The task is to build a party based on the working class that explains these ideas and programme.

If this is not done, then on the basis of a continuation of the programme of privatisation and the imposition of IMF demands, then the workers can only expect a further worsening of their conditions. The working class in Macedonia has a chance to put its stamp on society and lead it out of the quagmire it now finds itself in. Unless this happens then the old monster of ethnic conflict can come back. If the workers do not show a way out based on working class unity that cuts across ethnic conflict, then, in the long run, the extreme nationalists on both sides can make a come-back.