FIAT workers on strike. Photo: Industriall FIAT workers on strike. Photo: Industriall

There is a strike wave in Serbia. We take a look at what is going on

The political landscape of Serbia has been undergoing a deep transformation. On the day of the re-election of Aleksandar Vučić’s authoritarian and neoliberal government in April last year, a violent and illegal demolition of buildings to clear the way for the gentrification of Belgrade waterfront sparked mass anger. Soon, consistent mass protests emerged for the first time since the toppling of the Milošević regime in 2000.

A second round of mass protests took place almost a year later in the aftermath of an election – this time presidential, to give prime minister Vučić a further mandate in power. The hundreds of thousands in the streets appeared to have learned some of the lessons of 2016. Their demands started to gravitate towards more general questions of social inequality instead of just corruption and illegal violence. Moreover, in contrast to 2016, this year’s demonstrations were simultaneously and spontaneously organised in up to 20 towns and cities in Serbia, not just Belgrade.

However, the organised working class played a relatively minor role in these mobilisations. Deemed “civic” or “student”, the protests of 2016 and April 2017 were of relatively little interest to the generally confused trade union bureaucracy. Certain trade unions did voice their support, though, and individual trade union members and functionaries took part in the mobilisations.

Moreover, industrial action seemed to progress (or regress) on a different set of tracks compared to the civic unrests of the last two years. Strikes in Serbia, although relatively plentiful, are as a rule defensive, atomised and seldom successful in winning their participants’ demands.

From the streets to the workplaces

There have been tremors in the industrial working class in the aftermath of the aforementioned April protests, but it wasn’t until an unusually militant strike broke out in a FIAT factory in Kragujevac in late June that it became obvious that the shift in the consciousness of the population towards defiance and resistance to their government and its destructive economic policy might affect the way in which industrial action is conducted in this country.

The FIAT strike is significant on a number of levels. Firstly, it is an offensive strike of a large workforce divided into two 1000-person-strong shifts in a factory that is the single largest exporter in Serbia. The workers of the former Crvena Zastava (Red Flag) car factory, a Yugoslav-era car producer, privatised and transformed into a mere assembly station for foreign cars, are demanding a wage increase to 50000 dinars (they are currently earning 38000 dinars without tax deduction – around 300€ per month, with the minimum costs of living in Serbia at 36.228 dinars) and better working conditions (including ending the practice of transferring workload from absent workers to their colleagues).

Secondly, it has already inspired similar industrial action in mid-July by workers in a refrigerator and freezer plant owned by the Slovene firm Gorenje in Valjevo, Central Serbia. 600 workers have directly elected a 15-person body to represent them as they feared that their trade union representatives would not have the workers’ best interest at heart. They are also demanding a 5000 dinar wage, a revision of coefficient pay primarily regarding long-time workers, and better working conditions (ironically enough, Gorenje produces refrigerators and one of the workers’ main complaints is the shop floor heat which routinely exceeds 40 degrees Celsius).

Thirdly, this strike has forced a lethargic trade union bureaucracy into decisive action. Faced with immense pressure from the government and the Italian employers, the trade union representatives in Kragujevac – the hub of Serbian industry – were likewise pressured by the workforce they represent to stand up for the demands and to keep pressing the strike. This came on the back of union attempts at stifling the strike. A section of the trade union activists considered “freezing” the strike (a ludicrous idea proposed by the government in order to start the negotiations that would have also demanded an emergency law to be passed to allow the “freezing” of strikes), contrary to the wishes of two thirds of the FIAT workforce.

The proposed negotiations fell through, and the vacillating trade union has since publicly attacked the government, accusing it of trying to mislead the workers. In the meantime, FIAT management is threatening to sack 320 people as well as to reduce production by 80% – no doubt a chilling prospect for the ruling elites in Serbia whose dominant means of income stem from exactly this type of over-subsidised direct foreign investment.

Fourthly and finally, the minuscule Serbian far-left which has grown numerically, logistically and organisationally over the last year and a half is using these strikes as an opportunity to cut its teeth in workplace organising. Comprised mainly of more or less experienced student and NGO activists, it faces a serious challenge in this respect but has so far been providing steady coverage and timid but perceptible political intervention in the protests.

The path forward

The working class in Serbia is watching intently. A one-day strike broke out among construction workers in Belgrade in mid-July, over late pay cheques, which was promptly resolved by promising the workers at hand that all of their demands shall be met.

This speaks volumes about the uncertainty facing the Serbian ruling political and economic class. They must be aware of the fact that Serbian society has taken its first shaky steps towards a situation in which the mass of the population will refuse to be governed in the way that has become the unquestionable norm over the past few decades.

Even more acutely, they must be aware of the fact that in such a scenario they will undoubtedly fail to impose their rule upon a rebellious population.

As always, the working class and the political organisations acting in its class interest remain central to the direction in which such a dire situation would unfold. In Serbia, the call of the future is now slightly more audible over the deafening blare of neoliberalism and austerity politics.