First steps of the workers’ movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina

We have received this article from the President of the Workers' Communist Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although we may not agree with every point in it, it gives a very good idea of the totally negative effects of the break up of the former Yugoslavia on the living conditions of workers on both sides of the divide. But there are signs that the class struggle is simmering below the surface.

As is known, Bosnia and Herzegovina has passed through civil war and the explosion of nationalism which caused not only devastation of the economic resources but also a division of the working class along ethnic lines. In the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia the working class had rights never known before, but very often it was not able to exercise them because of continuous tensions it had with the ruling bureaucracy. Regardless of that, the working class had the possibility to be a decision-maker in some enterprises and its social position was very strong. The trade unions were under the de facto control of the Communist party although not to the degree they were in the countries of the Soviet bloc. Our workers have not had experiences in class struggle. They supported the system that claimed to be socialist and where they were not truly the ruling class.

The destruction of Yugoslavia and of socialist values caused great disappointment and disorientation among the workers. Soon after the formal dissolution of the communist regime, civil war began and workers were involved in national armies. They were enclosed by nationalist sentiments. Everything that was happening in the country, not only during the war but also after it, to the very present moment, has strongly influenced the working class in a negative sense so it is not capable of playing any independent role in the social struggles. It could even be said that the organized workers' movement doesn't exist yet in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Workers in Bosnia and Herzegovina don't have much experience of class struggle. Most of them had spent half of their working life in enterprises where they were highly protected and even had the right to manage and elect and control their managers. After that they fought in the war and many of them lost their jobs as a consequence of that war and of the privatisations that were carried out after the war. Those who have remained at work don't have many rights as employees and they are under the constant threat of losing their jobs, not only because of enterprise bankruptcies but also because of employer tyranny.

In such a situation, it is more important than ever to develop an organized struggle for workers' right. But it is rather difficult. The official trade unions quickly re-established their infrastructure after the war. There appeared two organizations created along ethnic divisions. The Alliance of Trade Unions of the Republic of Srpska is a bureaucratic association operating within the Republic of Srpska, while the Alliance of Independent Trade Unions of Bosnia and Herzegovina operates within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both of them were formed from the remnants of the former Alliance of Independent Trade Unions of Bosnia and Herzegovina that existed until the beginning of war. Although the bureaucratic structures were renewed relatively quickly, this didn't mean that real lively organizations were established.

Workers in state-owned enterprises continued to be formal members of trade unions. They practically renewed their pre-war membership status. However, the trade unions do not really exist as serious organizations. Basic trade union organizations in enterprises do not hold regular meetings. Workers assemble only in order to formally elect their union board, which is not really responsible to its members, and in many cases do not have many activities. The trade union leaderships do not submit reports about their politics and activities. The higher trade union leaderships is elected in a totally bureaucratic manner without any real possibility of militant workers successfully running their own candidacies. Most often workers pay their trade union membership fees through the company accounting clerks who transfer 1% of their gross salary onto the accounts of the trade unions. A few years ago information emerged about the Alliance of Trade Unions of the Republic of Srpska receiving a financial grant from the government of Republic of Srpska.

A few years ago opposition trade unions appeared. They were created as a result of a factional struggle within the framework of the union bureaucracy. These trade unions don't have different principles, programme or methods of activities than the official ones and they are also mostly composed of a union bureaucracy. The ordinary members of the trade unions have had almost no role in taking decisions about the split in the official trade unions. At present two official trade union organizations cooperate through the Confederation of Trade Unions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is not a new trade union organization but rather merely a loose coalition of two official trade unions. This Confederation, as well as its components, is attached to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

It is impossible to calculate the precise number of members of the trade unions. It is almost certain that practically all workers in state-owned enterprises are automatically members. On the other hand, rank-and-file unions do not exist in the privately owned enterprises, except in the former state-owned enterprises that have been privatised recently. To understand how important this fact is, one has to keep in mind that the economy of Bosnia and Herzegovina is composed mostly of small and medium sized enterprises, after the big systems built during the socialist regime were destroyed. In each of these enterprises small numbers of workers are employed and they do not even have basic social rights. The trade unions have done nothing to organize them and improve their working conditions.

Some sources have claimed that 40% of the workforce is employed in the black sector. Even if we don't know for sure if this figure is exact it cannot be too far from the truth, if one keeps in mind the following: the official rate of unemployment is 44%, although different estimations of real unemployment vary from 21 to 31%.[1] This contrast between the official and real rate of unemployment is a result of the method of calculating the level of unemployment. Official agencies register all people who are looking for a job and who do not have a regular job, which involves not only those with part-time jobs but also those with full-time jobs but who work in the black sector and therefore are not registered anywhere as part of the workforce. The workers in the private sector are totally unprotected. Very often they work 12 or even 14 hours a day, although there are strict legal norms about the 8-hour working day and the 40-hour week. As can be seen, the problem of protecting the working class in the private sector of the economy (already dominant by now) has become very important.

The official trade unions have claimed that workers in the private sector have not shown any interest in union organizing. This is only half true. Namely, it is not correct to say that workers have not shown any interest, but rather that they are frightened of organising through the unions. Keeping in mind that unemployment is very high and that workers are totally unprotected as a workforce, those who decide to protest as union organizers very easily lose their jobs. And the workers who are most exploited usually work in small enterprises or stores where it is almost impossible to organize a strike or similar action if workers from more than one shop are not connected and in solidarity with each other. So far we have not observed any readiness for such action. Moreover, workers who work in these enterprises are mostly young, who don't believe in the possibility of struggle. Most of them are frightened and inexperienced and, which is a very big problem, with a provincial state of mind. One thing is sure, the official trade unions have not tried to organize these workers in alternative forms of organization or to give them additional forms of help in order to organize them.

A few years ago the Alliance of Trade Unions of the Republic of Srpska organized a one-day general strike which totally failed. It was organized without clear aims or concrete demands and the workers, who had already lost confidence in the union leadership, in many cases refused to participate.

In 2002 the same trade union organization called a day of protest across the whole of the Republic of Srpska. Workers and pensioners gathered at city forums, presenting their demands. These protests were poorly attended. In the city of Bijeljina, for example, with a population of 50,000, only around 400 workers and pensioners turned up. The Workers' Communist Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina participated in this rally on its own, distributing a leaflet with concrete demands that workers should raise. We also demanded of the organizers that they accept our formal participation in the rally. Since they rejected our proposal, we sent our comrade to address protesters as a representative of the "independent pensioners".

At the beginning of this year the Workers' Communist Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina proposed to the local leaderships of the trade unions and pensioners' association in the city of Bijeljina to organize joint action as a protest against the decision of the municipal council to increase the mayor's monthly salary to 1600 euros (which is seven times bigger than the average salary) but they refused to participate on the pretext that the issue is not of their competence and that they do not want to be part of any party's action. In fact, the trade unions refuse to cooperate with political parties and do their best to show their non-partisan character although a few years ago opposition trade unions of the Republic of Srpska participated in a protest action organized by the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, while the leadership of the Alliance of Independent Trade Unions of Bosnia and Herzegovina had a meeting with a delegation of the Social Democratic Party in 2002.

In many cases rank and file unions organize actions which are not approved or supported by the trade union central leaderships. Strikes are mainly organized in the healthcare and education sectors. They are often led by trade union officials who belong to the central trade union leaderships and they are sometimes quite successful. Unfortunately, this cannot be said of the trade union officials in other sectors, especially in industry and trade, which are on the whole economically devastated and where workers are the most exploited. When rank and file unionists or workers in enterprises organize strikes they demand help from their leaders but these often say it is too late for a strike and are not ready to provide strikers even with technical or legal support. On the other side, our strikers in some cases have a strong will to strike but they do not have any experience. Sometimes, they are compelled to create rank and file organizations anew or to create strike committees where trade union organization doesn't exist at all. But sometimes they think it is necessary to have more than half of the workers involved in strikes and if this condition is not fulfilled they sometimes abandon the idea of a strike. In some cases, activists of the Workers' Communist Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina have helped militant trade unionists with legal or organizational advice. This was the case in the towns of Modrica, Banja Luka and Bijeljina. In Banja Luka, during a meeting of 600 workers in a large enterprise, the president of the Workers' Communist Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina addressed those who attended. In the city of Bihac, during a 100-day long hunger strike, the communist magazine The Voice of Freedom published articles about the workers' struggle and it was distributed by the strikers themselves. In the city of Zenica, workers from one factory included parts of the Workers' Communist Party platform in the list of their demands and in Sarajevo workers who had blocked local traffic read out our telegram of support.

Generally speaking, militant workers are more numerous at rank and file level. So, even if one can't talk about an organized workers' movement in the country, it could be said that its first outlines exist in the form of mutually unconnected militants without enough experience and with very unclear vision of what and how to do. Most of them are clearly left-wingers although non-partisans, with respect for Yugoslav revolutionary traditions but without a revolutionary outlook. Most of them respect the Workers' Communist Party's wish for cooperation and assistance but they are frightened that any connection with communists would make their struggle more difficult. However, a dozen of them accepted our idea to organize a conference of militant trade unionists and to create a Coordinating Committee of Workers' Trade Unions. This Conference was supposed to be hosted by our party. Unfortunately, neither we nor our comrades from the trade unions had enough money to organize it. Although they expressed a readiness to meet each other and even to participate in this Committee they are still not ready to make a break with the trade unions to which they formally belong.

The official trade unions have accepted the dominant neo-liberal ideology and they give full support to the process of privatisation. Although they have stressed the need for social programmes they have never said how these could be achieved. Elaborated programmes of economic and social measures that the government should apply have never been presented by the trade unions. So, it could be said that they really do not have either programmes or principles or any idea about the means which are most appropriate to achieve any aim.

In 2002 the leaders of the trade unions held a meeting with the High Representative and they accepted the necessity of adopting a policy on bankruptcy. Their official position is as follows: transition to market economy based on private ownership is necessary and even useful although it should be enriched with social programmes that should support those who may lose their jobs in the process of privatisations and bankruptcy.

Militant trade unionists have a different position although they think that anything other than the struggle for immediate and very modest demands would be pure utopia. However, in many cases they have demanded a revision of privatisation of their enterprises and sometimes have actually been quite successful (such as the "Alhos" enterprise in Sarajevo or "Zitoprerada" in Bihac), while in some cases the process of revision is going on (two cases in Bijeljina and some other towns). Militant trade unionists, without initial impetus or even support from their leaders at higher levels of trade union organizational structures, have used radical methods of struggle to achieve their aim of revision of privatisation. Some of them have organized hunger strikes while others have blocked traffic or government institutions. In these actions they were supported by workers from other towns. In a few cases, the Workers' Communist Party organized symbolic solidarity actions. In one big enterprise, "Cajavec" in Banja Luka, an independent trade union launched the demand that has been one of the most radical until now. It demanded that the government cancel the privatisation of 35% of state capital in the enterprise and hand over management to the trade union. We strongly supported this demand. In an enterprise in the big industrial centre of Zenica the workers bought shares and became majority owners. Despite these positive examples, workers in most enterprises don't have a clear picture of what to do after the revision of privatisation. We tried to convince them not to stop at this demand because after the revision of privatisation there would follow a new one which would not improve their position at all.

As a conclusion, it could be said that workers' movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina exists in its elementary outlines. Workers understand quite well who their enemies are and where their problems come from. They also understand quite well that the ethnic division of the working class leads them nowhere but to new and big defeats. Most trade unionists belong to the older generation of workers. Young workers participate in struggles to a negligible degree. Our workers need help from their comrades from abroad in order to learn how to fight and to behave in concrete situations, as well as help which would facilitate the establishment of class trade unions.

[1] Other economic figures are as follows: prices rise up to 1% per year, the public debt is of 60% of GDP and the budget deficit is around 3% of GDP. GDP per capita is only 8% of the EU average and it stands at 60% of pre-war GDP. Foreign direct investments rose from 161,1 million euro in 2000 to 344.4 million euros in 2004. Foreign debt is 33% of GDP. The rates of economic growth immediately after the war were very high, mostly as a consequence of foreign investment in infrastructure. However, they started to decrease quickly and in 2003 the rate of economic growth was only 3,5%. Estimates clearly show that 60% of enterprises don't use their full capacity. The trade deficit reached a high 3 billion euros in 2004, which was the equivalent of 50% of GDP. Although official figures show that around 20% of the population lives below the poverty line, this is a big underestimation of the real extent of the problem.