This is the translation of an article about the austerity protests in Slovenia, it was published in Wildcat no. 94, Spring 2013.
Since the beginning of the global crisis the social situation has gotten worse in Eastern Europe. In many countries people are protesting against austerity and against the elites. The working class is fed up with waiting for a promised paradise brought about by transition, which has served as a continuous reason for constant new waves of pauperisation for the last two decades.1 Recently the government was overthrown in Bulgaria. In 2011 a paper already asked the question: »Is the Balkans a new Maghreb?«http://www.nutopia2sergiofalcone.globspot.co.at (We've also got a German version – get in touch, if you want it.)" href="#footnote2_wuas906">2 Slovenia with its two million inhabitants seemed to be an exception to angry workers' protests and street action. But now, it too has come to the former EU-model state. Like in Egypt and Tunisia, a wave of workers struggles paved the way for the revolt on the streets. It marks the final failure of »transition«.
Slovenia joined the EU in 2004 and the Monetary Union in 2007. It met the EU criteria remarkably quickly. But the honeymoon was over in no time. In summer 2012, the country was downgraded by rating-agencies almost to junk. The rescue fund seemed to be the only way out of bankruptcy. Slovenia came to this sorry position for two main reasons.
Slovenia was the most industrialized part of Yugoslavia and in particular produced motor vehicles and textiles for the domestic market and for the army. Both came to an end in the 90s and unemployment increased massively. But because of the comparatively fast formation of an independent country, where infrastructure had to deal with only ten days of war instead of ten years, production in the factories could resume at a relatively high level and the export-oriented economy begun by Tito continued.3 Since then, two thirds of exports are delivered to the EU. This dependency has led to a collapse in growth because of the crisis in the Eurozone. Industrial production and capacity utilisation haven't reached the levels they were before the crisis. Capacity utilisation decreased below 80 percent and since then has been in stagnation; incoming orders have decreased since Q1 2012.
2012 was the third year in a row that Slovenian banks ended up in the red. The banking sector, which is largely state-owned, is heavily over-accumulated and the core of the crisis. After joining the EU, there was a boom in the building sector, which was driven by low interest rates. Banks were massively dealing in credits. From 2005 to 2007 the part of the building sector increased from 1.1 to 7 percent of GDP. Like in the USA or in Spain, GDP only grew because of the boom in the building sector.4 As the bubble burst, many construction enterprises went bankrupt. Since 2009, the building sector has been decreasing 20 percent a year. Incoming orders dropped by 52 percent in the first half of 2011. Now it has settled down to two thirds of the level in 2007 – whereas in 2011 mortgage loans still made up 60 percent of all loans to households and enterprises. By the end of 2011 the Slovenian Central Bank evaluated that 18 percent of loans to companies, which make up two thirds of the whole credit volume, and half of the loans in the building sector are toxic. The Slovenian government gives no detailed information about the shortfall of the banks, but current news reports put the figure at around seven billion Euros – 15 percent of GDP.
In addition, the dynamics of the level of debt is accelerating. Since 2008 the level of national debt has doubled, the budget deficit went up from 0.1 percent to 6.4 percent. When insolvency threatened in October, the country had to pay 6.9 percent of interest rates (seven are applied as not refundable, Spanish bonds were currently at 6.8 percent). Slovenia, together with Spain and Portugal, will be one of the countries with the highest new levels of indebtedness (at 5.1 percent, EU average: 2.8). Unemployment has doubled since 2007 to 13 percent, every fifth person under 25 is unemployed. There are more unemployed people now than in the first half of the 90s.
The government wanted to stop this trend with a trick. In September, Janez Janša, the now ousted prime minister, said that »every Slovenian government would be much more social than the softest dictate of the Troika«. But nobody believed that his policies would be different than that of the EU Troika. His policies also arranged plans for privatization, austerity measures in the national budget and the sellout of state property. In addition, the government wanted to found a state-run bad bank, in which toxic assets should be collected. Unions tried to fight against it with a lawsuit, but they were also – like the government – overrun by protests.
Since 2009, there has been a rash of strikes in factories, in the transport sector, in the service sector and in the union-dominated public sector. The two general strikes in this sector, one in April 2012 and one in January 2013, were absolutely under the control of the unions – and the workers have no faith in these. In addition the Slovenian working class is extremely divided because one part is still working in half state-owned companies with corresponding (job-)guarantees – the other part in private companies especially in the service sector, which has to deal with temporary employment and rapid layoffs.
This difference is important particularly in relation to strikes. The security workers of Sintal called for a »picnic« to organize themselves. Their aim was to publish something detailing how the management betrays them. To avoid this, the management paid their unpaid overtime, but the company sent a spy to the picnic who wrote down the names of the people there. Subsequently, their three-month-employment contract wasn't renewed. A comrade commented: »Everybody who still has the job is pretty desperate and is too afraid of doing anything. For sure they could strike, but then they'd simply employ new workers.«
The two most important strikes happened in half state-owned companies – in 2009 and 2012 at the household-machines manufacturer Gorenje and in 2011 in the port of Koper. The strike at Gorenje was the first ever wildcat strike since the founding of the Slovenian state. »What unions haven't achieved in years of negotiations, the workers have achieved in one week«, a comrade tells us. Before the strike there was a ten-percent cut in wages at the end of 2008, some weeks of short-time work, some with overtime and finally forced holidays in the summer of 2009. In large part the workers are women. When they got paid as much for a 36-hour-week with overtime as for a month in forced holidays they stopped work in the main plant in Velenje.
The struggle spread to other plants in Slovenia. »Although they constantly talk about recession, we are working hard for shamefully low wages«, a worker's letter to the Board of directors said. The payroll for September showed a shameful 400 Euros after tax – minimum wage in the household-industry was 433 Euros for 2009. The management tried to justify themselves by stating that 500 Euros is the worker's average. This statement was of no avail as 2000 workers occupied the factory in Velenje and demanded a 15-percentage rise in wages and a return to a 40-hour-week, which is an extra 60 Euros. After two weeks the workers have eked out: A rise in wages of a quarter of the minimum wage, charged also to the month before, to 540 Euros after tax, a 150 Euros single payment and additional payment for four months from 40 to 90 Euros. This, after a half-year-loss for the company of 18 million Euros. The 40-hour-week was re-established by 1st October 2009. Since then the group is continually restructuring its European production chains and shifting new acquisitions in northern Europe to Serbia, some parts to the Czech Republic and others to Slovenia – from where they also shift parts of production to Serbia. Currently two Slovenian factories (Maribor and Nazarje) were sold to a US-investor.
The women resumed the struggle in 2012, but not only against the threat of outsourcing production. In the main plant 1000 workers shouted »Thieves! Thieves!« and the protest movement's slogan »Gotof si!«5 to the management, because they had also cut half of the worker's Christmas bonus to 150 Euros. This time the deal was done after four hours. The CEO stepped in front of the angry women, who were threatening a general strike of the whole workforce of about 4500 workers. There he announced the payment of the whole Christmas bonus and of the unpaid overtime. In addition he guaranteed that there would be no layoffs because of the strike or outsourcing. The workers got it recorded and got their money at the beginning of the year. Furthermore, like in 2009: Everything after a corporation-wide loss of 6.4 million Euros in the first nine months. Finally there are workers who defy the »economy« and don't measure their demands on the profits/turnover or the »health« of an enterprise!
In the port of Koper there was a strike of 380 crane-operators6 and 200 sub-contract workers at the end of July 2011. They only worked five hours per strike-day (normally they work 24 hours a day). The managers tried to handle an increase of commodity-turnover with an intensification of work and an extension of working hours. That led to injuries at work because safety rules couldn't be kept. Migrant sub-contract workers in particular, who are over-exploited – they work eleven hours per shift for about 12 Euros – got hurt by these worsening conditions. Though the crane operators weren't able to resist some parts of these worsening conditions in their eight-day-strike (three workers are handling two cranes instead of two handling one), altogether they were able to turnaround the separation of permanent and precarious workers. They were able to break the division in wages and got one collective agreement – against the management who declared the strike as illegal and against the official union who collected signatures against the strike. So now the workers' payments no longer depend on who their particular sub-contractor is. The laid-off crane-operators were re-hired and now own a third of the Board of directors (their reason: »useful for upcoming strikes«). They were also able to chase away the CEO of the port. But now their conditions are already getting worse again7 and the sub-contracted workers' strike-leader is still suing for his reemployment.
Like so often in previous times, state repression is encouraging the protests. Everything which is done by those in power is turning against them. The trigger of the revolt were some radar control panels, which were installed by the mayor of Maribor, Franc Kangler. He did a private-public-partnership. The company who installed them got the money. With it the corrupt regime was laid bare. The reason of the revolt is massive unemployment from 20 to 25 percent in the region which is the poorest and most densely populated. The northeast once was an industrial centre of Yugoslavia, since the mid of the 90s there were thousands working in the bus- and truck-plant TAM and in the textile factory Mura. Joining the EU has not stopped the decline of the region and people ran more and more into debt. Only a part of unemployment is absorbed by commuting to Austria where mainly skilled workers of those old Slovenian metal plants are earning a double-wage compared to their country. Therefore they haven't got much to say about the riot because they don´t participate in it.
Nevertheless a lot of other people do participate. The storm began when Kangler was elected to the regional government and therefore got diplomatic immunity. On 26th November already every tenth person from Maribor came to the second demonstration to the Place of Freedom. Most notably there were the elders and (still) employed people who tried to organize a demonstration to the city council but they were stopped by police teargas and arrests. On 3rd December 20 000 people– one fifth of the city – were able to reach the city council and smashed its windows. »Gotof je!« – Kangler was finished and announced his retirement for the 31st December.
Since the 27th November the uprising has been flanked by demonstrations all over the country – in cities where have never been demonstrations, with people participating who never have before. During the last five weeks of the year there were up to 10 000 on the streets in the capital Ljubljana, on the 7th December, 3000 people in the 20 000-inhabitant-city Murska Sobota, and also up to 1000 people on a regular basis in small towns with 20 to 50 000 inhabitants like Celje, Jesenice, Krško, Ptuj, Novo Mesto. Similarly in the »strongholds« of the wildcat strikes Koper (additionally the dock workers chartered a bus to the demonstration in Maribor) and Velenje (where at the moment the Gorenje workers were striking, see above.).
With the spatial expansion, claims got radicalized – from the current corrupt mayors right up to the whole Slovenian government. »New issues were raised constantly«, another comrade says. »At a great pace the social situation and the whole political culture were on the agenda.« District meetings were established in which people are discussing with an eye to »Porto Alegre«8 as well as what an alternative administration under a notion of »direct democracy« could look like. The claims aren't limited to particular people anymore, but rather take aim against the whole system and the ideology of transition.
In this situation the state had tried to shock people with locking up young demonstrators and the usual bullying-tactics. This just made them more angry. In Ljubljana the state was sending Slovenian Blood & Honour-Nazis to the demonstration to riot. Their chairman is a member of the then governing party and works for the intelligence service. The plan didn't work out because the street policemen weren't informed and so they ended up arresting the Nazis. Only when they were in the police station did the order come to release them again.
Earlier this year the numbers have been especially impressive: 100 000 stayed out during the general strike on the 23rd January, 20 000 workers attended the demonstration in Ljubljana, 25 000 were at the demo on the 8th February – one of the biggest demonstrations in the history of the city. But the general strike as a whole was under union´s control, and also the demonstrations attended by social-revolutionary leftists were rather »events« limited to one-day which functioned as an outlet to capture uncontrolled, grassroots protests and to ultimately undermine them. By the end of February the unions had reached their goal with the help of the »anti-corruption-agency«. The parliament declared a vote of no confidence in Janša because he didn't want to explain the origin of 210 000 Euros sitting in his bank account. He was replaced by Alenka Bratušek from the ministry of finance, who had displaced her corrupt boss in the left opposition party shortly before.
Firstly with the aforementioned citizens and district meetings where people are discussing the statutes of the city of Maribor and the law. This is also in the interests of the new head of the government who said in parliament in February that now »the social dialog [sic!] must return from the streets back to the bargaining table«.
The uprising loses its initial dynamic (considerably fewer people were attending the last demonstration on the 9th March in Ljubljana) and runs into danger of becoming institutionalized because it moves to the terrain of the enemy and stays out or withdraws from where it can achieve something: from the factories and the streets. Workers' power, which would be strongly needed by the street protests to overcome the overturning of governments and to ask the questions needed for a different society is rather choked off by unions' general strikes.
The experiences of the workers' struggles of Gorenje and Koper are circulating against it. This is what we need!
Then again: What will happen if the (sovereign debt) crisis hits the workers in state-owned enterprises with more secure jobs and their livelihood won't be secure anymore? Historically, the next step was almost always workers' self-management, the latest of which has taken place in Serbia and Greece, also in France (in the tyre factory in Amiens) workers are talking about it again.
Yet the struggles have been limited to »their« nation state. Especially in Maribor activists are focusing on »local goals« because they are assuming an easier reachability with it. Even the people in Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania … are fighting against their own government by now, against the national system of austerity policy, corruption/privatization and rising unemployment.
If the Balkans is a new Maghreb – this question is answered! But will there be more? Therefore these struggles are additionally explosive because Eastern Europe is not only a strategic region for the flow of commodities from Asia to Western Europe (and vice versa) but rather all western and eastern corporations have invested here in production plants.
As we were going to print, reports about factory closures were arriving: the snowboard factory in Carinthia, a plant owned by the Slovenian manufacturer of sports equipment and yachts Elan, is closing. It is owned 100 percent by a Slovenian sovereign wealth fund, employs 800 workers and received eleven million Euros of state aid in 2010, which the company will not be able to pay back. Similarly the car parts supplier Boxmark located in the north of Slovenia, a tannery with 150 workers is closing – reason: »the decline of the European car market«.
- 1. See the articles mostly to Romania in the last Wildcats.
- 2. S. Horvat/I. Stiks: Is the Balkans a new Maghreb? http://www.nutopia2sergiofalcone.globspot.co.at (We've also got a German version – get in touch, if you want it.)
- 3. The history of the economic development since the 50ies in the north and under-development in the south, which explains among others the war in the 90ies isn't the topic here. Currently there is a fine summary by Goran Musić in the new book about the history of worker's control by Azzelini/Ness: »Die endlich gefundene politische Form«, ISP 2012. English: Ours to Master and to Own: Worker's control from the Commune to the Present, Haymarket, 2011.
- 4. See Robert Brenner's preface to the Spanish version of his book The Economics of Global Turbulence: What is good for Goldman Sachs is good for America, 2009. We reviewed it in Wildcat 87 and complimented to its well-grounded analysis of the dynamics of the crisis.
- 5. »Gotof si!« means »You are finished!«
- 6. More precisely of 380 members of the anarcho-syndicalist crane-operators' union, where firefighters, administrative workers, cleaners, etc. are also involved.
- 7. When we discussed with one of the crane operators after printing this article he told us that the collective agreement was never signed. Now the sub-contract workers on the one hand got their working hours reduced but on the other hand they earn less. Their wage was reduced from 1000 Euros to 800.
- 8. Since 1989 people of the Brazilian city Porto Alegre have been trying a »participatory household«. Thereby citizens are deciding in meetings, whereto how much money goes, e. g. into housing, schools, streets, etc. Today this model is considered as alternative in many cities worldwide, because »the people« are deciding regarding the urban development instead of any out of touch with reality, corrupt politicians. See http://en.wikipedia.org/Participatory_budgeting.
- 9. FOR LIBCOM: The National Socialist Underground(NSU) was a German far-right terrorist group which killed nine immigrants. The members lived over 10 years in the underground and were protected ad supported by the police and secret services. There were some articles about this complex published in wildcat: