The trade union 1988-1991

The changes in the trade union’s positioning in the period from 1988-1991 are indicative of the direction and perception of the changes happening in the economy and society. During 1989, the Yugoslav Confederation of Unions Council (VSSJ) held an extensive public debate in various enterprises with the aim of adopting guidelines for the trade union reform. It is difficult to discern whether the union was preparing for reform because it could not respond to the demands of self-organized, newly mobilized workers revolted by the trade union’s idleness, or if the reform was a part of a broader set of changes taking place within the political and economic organization of life. We will provide several indicative examples in order to illustrate the union’s role in the transition and the impact the overall changes had on their position. It should be mentioned that a description of the complex transformative process of Yugoslav trade unions would require more space and a more extensive analysis than this text allows.

If we go back to our example, the Borovo trade union has from the very beginning associated its reform with the overall social transformation, i.e. with the economic reform and market strengthening. Their representative tried to explain their somewhat chaotic position:

We need to accept economic laws and commodity production quickly and efficiently, but we should also understand and embrace all the consequences of the exposure to the market. The fact is, the consequences of a complete introduction of the market mechanism are at present unknown. The task of tntroducing the market mechanism in our system of social property and self-management has left the Yugoslav public confused. Based on our knowledge, this trade union can point out some of the coming consequences: class stratification, redistribution of social power in favor of the "techno-structure" [i.e. managers], the autonomy of individual enterprises, pluralism of property forms.[1]

The trade union’s reorganization is striving towards an adaptation to “new conditions” or a “new role”. However, as in economics, it’s not entirely clear what this change entails. For example, Zvonimir Hrabar says that “tomorrow, the trade union will be even more indispensable to the workers. But it is still to be seen whether it will be this trade union, or another one.”[2]

The coordinated goal of the transformation of the trade union and economic changes is in contrast with the divisions within the trade union. Divisions occur between republican and federal trade unions, between different republics, but also within republican trade unions. As a response to the divisions between the Council of the Confederation of Croatian Trade Unions (VSSH) and the Council of the Confederation of Yugoslav Trade Unions (VSSJ), a member of the trade union reform committee says that “it is not important how the trade union will be organized in Croatia, or in other parts of Yugoslavia. Let everyone organize it the way they see fit … practice will show which mode or organization is better”.[3] Based on the trade union leadership statements, it seems that these guidelines put the trade union “on the market”, with the expectation that the most effective strategy will be proven in practice. The trade union meanders in early 1990 as well, when the program of the Autonomous Trade Unions of Croatia (that is, the now reformed ex-socialist union) proposes that the idea of “1000 small businesses of 10 to 300 employees” be put into practice in order to change the trend of “large or mammoth enterprises” hiring more than 70 % of workers.[4] Later it will become clear that it is precisely the employees of these enterprises that comprise the majority of their membership.

On the republican level, great changes take place in the Confederation of Croatian Trade Unions (SSH) which, having transformed into the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Croatia (SSSH), gained new leadership. The changes in leadership, combined with the deterioration of the workers’ economic status and the “competition” among trade unions, lead to a change in the direction of the trade unions’ politics, which focus on the struggle to maintain the earned rights, whether through collective agreements, or legislative protection. Since by the fall of 1990 there have been 23 trade unions and 3 head offices already established in Croatia, alongside the fragmentation, the struggle for membership ensued: it was not unusual to hear the newly established Independent Trade Unions Conference (one of the new trade union centrals) call SSSH president Josip Klisović a “Bolshevik”, a “dogmatic man”, etc. The also newly founded Croatian Association of Trade Unions (HUS) referred to the SSSH as an inert, self-sufficient mastodon. Klisović in turn accused the others of planning to subvert the central office, reminding them of the fact that the SSSH has 600 000 members.[5]

The republican government was keen on reinforcing these divisions. In late 1990, the first general strike since World War II was organized, in which entire industrial branches took part. It was the strike of metal- and textile workers, who made up “almost a third of Croatia’s economy”. The demands which the SSSH put forward before the strike were to “reduce the Enterprise’s taxes and contributions to their 1988 level, to introduce the 40-hour weekly working time, to guarantee the 600 DEM minimal wage and impose moratorium on bankruptcy”.[6] After unsuccessful negotiations, the strike was organized “as the result of low wages and talks of mass dismissals without an appropriate social program”.[7] Since the trade unions have already become aware of the consequences of the economy shift, the authorities were quick to recognize the necessity to further fragment the trade union movement. After the general strike, the government accused the president of the SSSH of sabotaging the negotiation process and at the same time proposed a new social partner (for themselves), the Croatian Union of Trade Unions: “we are not ready to negotiate with self-proclaimed representative of workers, who care more about their own positions than about the new economic and social development of Croatia. We know from the media that the Initiative Board of the Croatian Union of Trade Unions has recently been formed, as the true representative of workers’ interests”.[8] Danas, a weekly newspaper, wrote about the same trade union: “according to some, the Croatian Union of Trade Unions was founded upon the realization that the new Independent Trade Union will not manage to wreck the old trade union efficiently and quickly”. The SSSH president pointed out that Bernardo Jurlina (former president of the SSH and prime minister at the time) and Slaven Letica (counsellor to president Tuđman) predicted that he will remain president for six months, which now turned out to be true. “To deny a certain conspiracy between the Croatian Union of Trade Unions and the people from the top-level authorities is not very convincing after the government spoke too soon, proclaiming the initiative board of a still non-existent trade union the true representative of the workers”, Danas concludes.[9]

The situations described illustrate how dramatic and fast these changes were. The optimism of union reform and market shift was, due to the growing social insecurity, soon replaced by the pragmatism of particular struggles, and ultimately turned into the measures of putting a fire out, i.e. avoiding social disaster. In their demands to the government entitled “On the 1st of May” in 1991, SSSH states:

There are already 230,000 unemployed registered at employment offices, and there is every likelihood that by the autumn the number will double due to bankruptcies. In February, 280,000 workers did not receive payment for January, and tens of thousands did not receive a single dinar in months – some of them since October last year. … We demand an urgent development of outreach programs for: a) saving jobs, b) stimulating employment, and c) hunger prevention.[10]

  1. See “O prošlom i budućem”, Borovo 3100, October 20, 1989, 5
  2. “U sindikat svojom voljom”, Borovo 3096 September 22, 1989
  3. “Jasna pravila igre”, Radničke novine 23, May 29, 1989
  4. “Sindikalna ponuda”, Borovo 3114, February 2, 1990, 7.
  5. “Komu će se prikloniti radnici”, Danas 459, December 4, 1990, 21-24
  6. “Hrvatska pred stečajem”, Danas 458, November 27, 1990, 7
  7. “Štrajk”, Sindikalna akcija, May 13, 2015, 14
  8. “Komu će se prikloniti radnici”, Danas 459, December 4, 1990, 21-24
  9. “Preko leđa gladnih”, Danas 462, December 25, 1990, 30-33
  10. “Uz majski praznik”, Borovo 3172, April 26, 1991, 2