The workers of Macedonia have once again shown that only through struggle can any meaningful victory be achieved. The strike of 80,000 public sector workers which started last week (see Massive strike wave hits Macedonia) has forced the government to back down.
Yesterday the prime minister Ljubco Georgievski and the leader of the SSM (Federation of Trade Unions of Macedonia) Vanco Muratovski signed an agreement on the minimum wage. Thus the minimum wage in the public sector will be 5,060 denars, about 83 euros. The initial demand of the SSM was 120 euros. The government was offering only 50 euros. Thus this is a partial victory of the workers. Without the huge strike that paralysed the public sector for over a week this would not have been possible.
Georgievski has now been boasting that this has been possible because the government has been able to accumulate the funds thanks to its austerity programme and its "sound finance". If that is the case why has it taken ten years to reach such an agreement? The facts are that the government had been deliberately procrastinating on this issue, until finally the impatience of the workers boiled over. The workers have now learnt a precious lesson. You cannot trust this government. Only when the workers move decisively can they achieve anything.
The fact is that this government has made this concession to buy time. They are under constant pressure from the IMF to keep to a tight budget. As part of an "economic recovery plan" the government has accepted strict guidelines set by the IMF.
Desspite Georgievski's boasting, the forecast for 2002 is that there will be another budget deficit. They are trying to get 173 million dollars from the IMF to cover this deficit.
Under pressure from the workers the government has had to refuse to implement the IMF proposals. The IMF was demanding that no concessions be made on wages. But the class struggle is more powerful than any international banker! If Georgievski had not made a concession the movement would probably have spread to the private sector and then he would have faced with an extremely dangerous position for himself and his government. He chose the "lesser evil". But precisely because of this 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.
The IMF has already announced that it will suspend a part of the payment of aid to Macedonia. This is its way of pressurising the government to go back onto the offensive against the workers.
There are other problems facing the working class. In particular there is the question of the 40 "loss-making companies" that employ 37,000 workers. The IMF had reached some agreement by which it would pay the government a certain amount of aid every time one of these firms is closed. That is all they have to offer: paltry payments for sacking workers.
The FESAL ("Structural Adjustment Facilities") arrangement was set up to compensate for the closure of 24 of these companies. However, all of these arrangements have so far fallen through. A previous agreement for the payment of $75 million in exchange for the closure of the 12 biggest "loss-making companies" fell through.
The fact that the IMF and the government have now failed to reach an agreement for this financial year indicates that 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. The average wage in Macedonia is a mere 8,400 Denars a month (about $120). This is not enough for workers to maintain a decent standard of living. The problem of the workers in the "loss-making companies" has not been solved. The workers in the private sector have not yet achieved a minimum wage.
Thus the government is under pressure from two sides. On the one side there are the Macedonian workers who are pushing for an improvement in their living conditions. On the other side we have the capitalists, the bankers and the imperialists pushing for further cuts in welfare, jobs and wages. This is a recipe for new waves of workers' struggles in the future. The fact that the workers forced the government to back down this time will have shown them their own strength. Based on this new confidence the workers will pose new demands.
At the end of the day the workers of Macedonia will learn through bitter experience that the "market economy", i.e. capitalism, has nothing to offer but low wages, unemployment, a destruction of their welfare state and general misery. They will eventually draw the conclusion that it is the economic system that is at fault. Having lived through the experience of the old so-called "socialist" system, they will be wary of allowing a bureaucracy to return. But they will be forced to draw the conclusion that a planned, state-controlled economy is the only real way out. Of course this economy would have to be placed under the firm control of the workers themselves, through democratically elected bodies.
Unless this is achieved, the crisis now gripping the Macedonian economy could bring back the terrible spectre of ethnic conflict, which is still present simmering below the surface. The present wave of working class militancy can cut across that. Whether you are Albanian speaking or Macedonian speaking, if you are unemployed you are unemployed. On the basis of common economic and social problems the workers can be united into one movement. If, however those problems are not solved then the monster of ethnic sectarianism can return. The gentlemen of the IMF and their local lackeys, such as Georgievski, are seeking purely to maximise profit for a privileged elite. The workers must show them that there is another way.