Class struggle intensifies in “Serbian Detroit” – the strike at Fiat-Chrysler

Long hailed as a success story and as a model for the future of Serbian industry, the Fiat factory in Serbia stopped working a few days ago, when its production workers went on an all-out strike.

For decent working conditions!

Their demands are the following:

1) Increase in wages from 38,000 to 45,000 dinars;
2) Financial compensation for transport costs incurred by going to work outside of regular working hours, when public transportation is unavailable.
3) Payment of bonuses that were agreed upon previously
4) Employment of new workers due to the workload

Bearing in mind that the car industry entails hard manual labour and that the cost of living is constantly rising, what the Kragujevac workers presently earn is in no way sufficient for a decent living. The crisis in the car market caused the factory to fire hundreds of workers, while maintaining the strict pace of labour and the same production quota. Workers are becoming ill and their colleagues are forced to take over for them, because the bosses refuse to hire enough workers to meet the production goals.

The way foreign “investment” works in Serbia and neighbouring countries goes well beyond standard bourgeois exploitation. The term “investment” here has truly turned into its opposite. Most of the expenses are paid out of the state budget, leaving the private owners to accumulate more and more super-profits without any serious risk to their businesses.

It would be an understatement to describe the conditions in the factory as catastrophic. There isn’t sufficient heat in the production halls in winter, while in the summer they become unbearably hot due to the absence of adequate heating and ventilation systems. Even the existing ones are often switched off, so that the bosses can save money. Operations which normally require two or three people are often performed by a single worker, under constant pressure to meet the norm. The examples of pressurising and blackmailing the workers to stay after hours, even beyond the legally allowed overtime period, are numerous.

Since this kind of work leads to frequent illness, the management has reportedly made deals with local doctors and infirmaries, driving the worker to the absurd position of having to “prove” to the doctor that they are indeed ill. The management and the HR are always finding new ways to bend and stretch the already draconian anti-worker Labour Law, in order to more easily squeeze the workers out of their jobs. Disciplinary proceedings and warnings are forged easily and fake witnesses are found to “testify” for peanuts. These are the conditions in the new factories the tycoons and their politicians from Democratic and Progressive parties and their satellites are always bragging about.

The workers in Kragujevac aren’t the only ones who decided to intensify the class struggle. More and more strikes are being reported throughout Serbia and other former-Yugoslav lands. “Falk East” in Knjaževac, “Goša” in Smederevo, the Railways of the Serb Republic (Serb part of Bosnia and Herzegovina), and the list goes on… As the economic crisis deepens and the cost of living grows, the purchasing power and working conditions are deteriorating at a rapid pace. The intensification and expansion of class struggle is becoming the only way to survive.

“Nationalisation of risk”

For several years now, the privatisation of the Zastava (“Flag”, formerly Crvena zastava, i.e. “Red flag”) factory in the Serbian city of Kragujevac, to the Fiat corporation, has been presented as one of the success stories of capitalist restoration. It was paraded as a master move and a huge opportunity for Serbia to reboot its car industry and begin exporting motor vehicles. A free trade agreement with Russia meant that Serbian made cars would very soon flood the Russian market, drastically increasing our country’s GDP, as well as the living standard of Kragujevac Fiat workers and many other businesses that collaborate with the factory. According to the bourgeois politicians and press at the time, the deal with Fiat was nothing short of salvation for one of the many dying cities in Serbia.

At the height of the election campaign in 2008, Fiat suddenly showed interest in buying the Zastava factory, promising 10,000 jobs and a yearly output of 300,000 vehicles, according to Zoran Mihajlović, who at the time led the union of Zastava workers. However, subsequent experience has proven to be very different from their promises. Their biggest contribution was the electoral victory of President Boris Tadić. As for the jobs, they didn’t even hire half of the initial promise. Of course, the national television later boasted in an Orwellian manner about the 4,750 new jobs Fiat would create. The Memorandum on Joint Investment, signed by the Serbian government and Fiat, however, mentions only a number of 2,433 workers, less than a quarter of the initial promise[1] and less than a quarter of what the old, self-managing and, later, state owned enterprise used to employ. Zastava used to be an industrial giant, the pride of Yugoslav industry, producing locally made cars, as well as top quality weaponry. Their cooperation with Fiat dates back to Tito’s time, when it was on a relatively equal basis, which allowed most of the surplus value to go back to the workers and society at large.

For those 2,433 “lucky” workers, social security would be paid for not by the Fiat company, but by the Serbian government. In addition, Fiat was exempt from paying income tax for ten years, starting with the first year in which they made taxable profits, as well as from real estate tax, tax on the implementation of the urban planning requirements and others. The way this tax exemption worked was that Fiat delivered a tax report to the Serbian government and received refunds based on that report. Not only did the government exempt Fiat from numerous taxes, it also turned out that they paid Fiat a 10,000 euro subsidy for every worker they hired[2]. That doesn’t mean that those funds were actually used to create new jobs, however. According to Slobodan Ilić, former state secretary in the Ministry of Finances, during the government of Prime Minister Mirko Cvetković, those subsidies were used to finance a discount for 48,000 sold cars. According to Bogdan Petrović, advisor on foreign investment to the Minister of the Economy (2005-2007), the Serbian state has invested over 400 million euros in the Fiat Automobiles Serbia Company. In comparison, the total capital to be invested in manufacturing was to be 709 million euros, with Serbia being officially required to invest a third.

Essentially, the Serbian government remained in charge of financing Fiat as if it were a state owned enterprise, while any profits made would go to the so-called “investors”. Such practice can only be described as the nationalisation of risk. Serbian workers work for a foreign company and receive salaries from the government budget, i.e. from themselves as taxpayers! Big foreign and domestic “investors” of so-called “late capitalism” have proven to be nothing but scammers, even by their own bourgeois standards. But the reader would be mistaken if they concluded that this meant that Serbia’s workers work for free. They don’t. They pay to work there. Under the thin veneer of investment in industry lies a policy of investment in subsidies.

“Serbian Detroit” indeed

As with everything else in the Balkans, there is an element of dark humour in the pompous nicknaming of Kragujevac as the “Serbian Detroit”. Like the Detroit of old, Kragujevac depends heavily on the automobile industry. And like Detroit today, it is also being bled dry by the joint attacks of the government and the private sector. The disgracefully low wages of Fiat-Chrysler workers and the obscene subsidies to the corporations from the government have brought the city to the edge of bankruptcy. That danger is very real and even the mainstream media will admit as much.

However, what do those ladies and gentlemen tell us of the causes of the city’s dire economic situation? What are they proposing as a solution? Should there be some kind of tax, even minimal, for the vast areas of land used by FCA? Should there be a revision of subsidies? Should the city, at the very least, ask for some kind of sponsorship from the corporation, in accordance with the logic and rules of capitalism?

It would seem not! According to a news item on one of the leading pro-opposition media houses, TV B92, titled “Kragujevac facing bankruptcy because of its citizens?", later changed to “How the Serbian Detroit went under", probably due to popular outrage, the main culprits are none other than the very denizens of Kragujevac, who have failed to pay their taxes on real estate and who have “accumulated debts”.

These ladies and gentlemen never dared ask what kind of “prosperity” is it where the majority of the population needs to get deeper and deeper into debt in order to make ends meet. “Serbian Detroit” revealed the hollowness of the capitalist mode of production even more rapidly than Detroit proper. Unlike it’s (nick)namesake, it never even got the chance to experience a “golden age” of reformism. One might even say it was a Serbian Flint, Michigan, painted over to resemble Detroit.

Moreover, since the main culprits are apparently those who make the least money and pay the highest taxes, it is becoming ever more clear that the proposed solution from all sides of the Serbian parliament is a continued expropriation of the working class – a call for them to “pay their taxes”, when it is obvious they’ll never be able to pay all they owe, is nothing short of a call for the foreclosure of their homes and seizure of what little assets they have left. It is a call for another round of expropriation of the workers by the bourgeoisie. The arrival of “foreign investors” in Serbia is not just motivated by the desire to exploit cheap labour. It isn’t just about squeezing out all the work they can and giving the workers as little back as possible. It goes beyond that. The capitalists are here to rob the workers blind, to plunder not just the industrial plants and resources, but every single piece of workers’ property they can get their hands on. When they’re done with budget subsidies, they’ll begin looting houses and private accounts. It is already happening with the increase of foreclosures.

“We don’t want to be cheap labour”

It is no wonder, then, that the workers in the FCA factory clearly see the writing on the wall and have begun fighting against this plunder by refusing their assigned role as “underpriced” labour. Though it may appear to be a statement of common sense, of something that should go without saying, the slogan against being cheap labour put forward by the strike committee of the FCA workers in Kragujevac has much more radical implications in the context of Serbia and the rest of Eastern Europe. It is a clear challenge to the dominant ideology, which has been shoved down our throats for almost two decades.

The singing of praises of Serbia’s highly skilled, but cheap, workforce has been the cornerstone of “neoliberal” ideology since the “democratic” overthrow of Milošević by the right-wing opposition in 2000. The low cost of our labour, together with its high value for the employers, has been praised as “our comparative advantage” in the global market by every single government, especially by the handful of pro-IMF “experts” which had the same or similar ministerial positions for over a decade, regardless of which party had the parliamentary majority. It became obvious that people and subsidies were planned to become our chief export. Under the banner of our own local version of TINA, this colonial position, forced upon us after 10 years of international sanctions and a bombing campaign, which left millions of people on the verge of destitution, was presented as the straw of salvation, as an “opportunity for the best of us” (i.e. those who can prove they’re genuine) to rise above the destitute status and gradually share in the new colonial masters’ wealth. Any form of resistance to this ideology and the policies and relations it justified was decried in unison as “populism”, “demagogy” and refusal to move with the times. The restoration of capitalism, referred to as “the transition”, was not for the weak and the losers, we were told.

Naturally, most people never really found these notions acceptable, but it was an open secret – something to talk about in cafes, after a few glasses of beer or rakia, and something to shyly forget once you went back to the “real life” at work – definitely not something to articulate into a public position. It was the youth in radical leftist organisations that first put forward this refusal to be super-exploited and for years it was limited to a somewhat narrow circle of students, young workers and older labour activists, most of whom had lost the battles for their old enterprises.

However, with the deterioration of living conditions and the growing dissatisfaction, which found its political expression in the anti-Vučić protests in April of this year. The liberal opposition called for protests against the election of the former prime minister, now president, Aleksandar Vučić, citing electoral irregularities, voter extortion and theft, hoping to gain momentum and increase their political support. However, in the most massive rallies, the opposition was completely side-lined and pushed out and the masses used the election as an excuse to articulate growing social frustrations and resistance to the attacks on the welfare state and workers’ rights. In the absence of any organised leadership, and with the rejection of both liberal and far right opposition parties, the masses adopted the slogans put forward jointly by various groups on the radical left, including the IMT's Yugoslav section, Marxist Organisation “Crveni” (“Reds“). The reason for such a disproportional success of leftist slogans (bearing in mind our weak infrastructure and low financial capabilities) was the simple fact that what we had to say resonated with the people, that they recognised their own grievances in our slogans. One such slogan, seen on many a banner in Belgrade and Novi Sad rallies, was precisely “We don’t want to be cheap labour“.

After the protests died down, the ideas put forward by leftist organisations continued to brew in people’s minds, only to resurface as one of the leading slogans for one of the largest industrial strikes in the last decade. In this context, this slogan is a clear (albeit maybe not entirely conscious?) nod to the leftists and the April protest and a sign of the times. The slogan and the demands may seem to some as merely economic, but even such “mere economism“ was nowhere in sight just a couple of years ago. We can imagine what the slogans will be a couple of years down the road.

Without any right-wing social democratic political party to take advantage of it, without any support from the mainstream, with the workers facing clear ice-cold hostility from both the government and the “opposition”, it is becoming apparent that the mood behind the seemingly moderate slogans is becoming more and more radical and that the battle lines for the class war are being drawn more clearly by the month. It is only a matter of time before the ideas crystallise and the demands become political and, yes, revolutionary. The pressure cooker has all but lost its proverbial vent – the capitalist system itself has clogged it. It is time to turn up the heat.

[1] http://www.srbija.gov.rs/extfile/sr/179492/ugovor_o_zajednickom_investicionom_ulaganju.pdf

[2] https://insajder.net/sr/sajt/tema/4886/Novi-model-Fijata-stari-sistem-dr%C5%BEavnih-subvencija.htm