In 1989, 470,000 workers in SFRY are on strike. These are workers who enjoyed the most prosperous years of Yugoslav socialism and who, in the late 1980s, and especially from 1987 to 1990, when their standard of living rapidly deteriorates, mount stiff resistance. Strikes or “work stoppages” extend to all Yugoslav republics equally. Moreover, it could be said that the major strikes that marked this period (Labin, Soko, Đurđevik, Zmaj, Borovo, TAM, Rakovica)[1] were Yugoslav strikes, primarily focused on maintaining the standard of living and resisting austerity measures. Since the institutional structure of the self-management system limits the sphere of the workers' influence to the enterprise (this being additionally significantly reduced by abolishing self-management in 1988), and there are no other political mechanisms that allow the workers to influence the Republican and Federal policy-making, strikes become the means of the Yugoslav workers’ participation in the political process.

Commenting on the increasing number of strikes in SFRY throughout 1980s, Pavlović concludes that “the rising tendency of this type of conflicts affect all our republics almost equally, their number is not dependent on the level of economic development, the level of workers' education, or industrial tradition“. Pavlović also states that it is not only material production that is on strike in the eighties, but also public services, suggesting that the “actual burden of the crisis” falls on “the shoulders of the producing part of the society”.[2] Thus, the strikers' appeals for supra-national (or trans-ethnic) unity and addressing the federal government should not be understood as empty gestures, but as a logical response to the perceived precarisation of labour processes in the entire territory of Yugoslavia.

Year Number of strikes Number of strike-participants
1980 235 13.504
1981 216 13.507
1982 174 10.997
1983 336 21.776
1984 393 29.031
1985 696 60.062
1986 851 88.860
1987 1685 288.686
1988 (Jan 1-Aug 31) 1002 211.367
1989 1886 470.000

(Sources: for 1980-1988 Jovanov, 1989; for 1989 “Koliko je bilo štrajkova”, Borovo 3116, February 16, 1990, 8)

As a combine whose development was based on labour intensive production, Borovo strongly felt the burden of the crisis. The first major strike in Borovo took place in the summer of 1987, while our primary focus was the 1988 summer strike. Several thousand Borovo workers ended that strike by occupying the Federal Assembly in Belgrade. Republican and federal top-level authorities were engaged in solving the Borovo workers' problems. Right after the strike, they visited Borovo along with the trade union leaders. Their suggestions, however, are just enough to keep the tension level down, using empty rhetoric to talk about “reforms” and temporary financial injections.

The following period does not go by without resistance. Apart from the major strike in the summer of 1988, the workers participate in a series of other, often smaller, more fragmented and uncoordinated strikes. In 1988, there are only two strikes in Borovo, seven in 1989, 13 in 1990, and 11 by the end of June 1991. The primary characteristic of most strikes in this period is their fragmentation. The strikes are organized within different parts of the Combine, usually with similar or identical demands, but without mutual coordination or collective declaration. Secondly, more than half of the strikes are longer than one day. The longer duration can be understood as an indicator of the management’s and the wider political community’s changing attitude towards strikes: there is no more agility in solving the workers' demands. Lastly, strikes are mostly caused by the demands to increase the personal income, whereas by late 1990 and early 1991, the main cause are months-long periods without receiving any pay.

Other than in the Combine, the surging social instability is reflected in the strikes of public service workers: in the area around Vukovar, educators, health workers, and public transportation workers are on strike. We should mention the 1990 general strike of metal- and textile industry workers, who were joined by the Borovo workers. It was the first general strike of an entire industry branch in Croatia and Yugoslavia after World War II, and it showed a possible alternative to the fragmentation of the workers' demands. The strike affected “almost one third of Croatia's economy.” In the first round of negotiations, the trade unions demand “a decrease in taxes to the level of 1988, a 40-hour working week, a 600 DEM minimum wage, and a moratorium on bankruptcy“.[3] After unsuccessful negotiations, they organized a strike on the account of “low wages and announcements of mass layoffs without adequate social support”.[4] Although it is necessary to critically assess the role of the trade unions in this period, we should bear in mind that, in the context of social tension in the entire federation, the state reacts with repression: in 1990, the federal government is drafting a law on strike, while in Croatia, vice-president of the presidium Josip Manolić announces that the Government of the Republic of Croatia will “confront like men the destructive, filthy goals … of social rebellion and strikes”.[5]

Appropriation of strikes

The attempts of differently positioned political structures to appropriate strikes are particularly interesting to observe. The most persistent among them were certainly trade union representatives. Alongside the social shifts and changes within the Borovo combine which we have described above, transformations are also happening within trade unions as they try to adapt to recent changes. Thus, on several occasions, the trade union leadership presents its reforms as a response to the demands of the workers, who cannot rely on the existing trade union anymore. In the period when the number of strikes, mostly self-organized, was record high, as well as the time of an undeniable reorganization of the relations of production, finding a new direction is a “to be or not to be” question for the trade union, as one of the federal union leaders put it.[6] If the union does not seize the opportunity to attract disappointed members, workers might “spontaneously find other organizations”,[7] meaning that this “vacancy“ would be filled by “someone else”.[8] In the late 1988, president of VSSJ (Council of the Confederation of Yugoslav Trade Unions) Marjan Orožen even explicitly states that the Borovo strike was definitely one of the triggers of the trade union reform.[9] Trade unions will repeatedly refer to this fact in the following years, pressing at the same time for the implementation of the idea of 1000 small enterprises with 10 to 300 employees. When the SSSH (the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Croatia – the reformed successor of the existing trade unions in socialist Yugoslavia) was founded in 1990, its president Bernardo Jurlina said that “the recent changes within the trade union began with the Labin and Borovo strikes“.[10] (For more on the evaluation of the trade union activities in this period, see the text about the trade unions.)

The political elite also benefited from the strikes. When the trade unions met up to discuss the 1989 work stoppage, Petko Kosorić, the representative of the Council of Associated Labour of the Parliament of SR Croatia, explains to Borovo workers why the Republic cannot financially help Borovo to recover its losses: “We realized that the obligations [of Croatia] to the federation were considerable. You know very well that the Parliament was the first to react to the federation’s  1987/88 budget proposal. They almost accused us of being against the federal army (JNA). We are not against it, but we support any reduction of the overall consumption”.  It is clear that the politician is placing responsibility on the Federation, attempting to direct the Borovo workers' dissatisfaction away from the Republic. After the July strike, Kosorić refers to “his talk in May where he (discussing the report on the Federal Executive Council's activities) expressed concerns that economic policy measures will cause numerous difficulties in many collectives, and that a discussion on issuing a vote of no confidence in the Federal Government should be initiated“.  However, before the 1988 strike, the same representative, conforming to the direction of federal reforms, said that “at the [Parliament] session, the principle of market economy will be similarly applied to Borovo“.  Along with these sketches on the political exploitation of strikes, it is important to mention that from the 1970s onwards, according to data provided by Zdravko Petak, the Yugoslav republics independently managed about 80% of the public money (i.e. of their own budget).

The most important strike in our archive for the analysis of the appropriation of the workers' discontent,  as well as the ethno-national and class dynamics, is a Borovo strike from June 1990 (June 18-26). With the amount of press coverage, its duration, mass character, but also the involvement of political parties and the violent intrusion into work spaces, it is a unique strike departing from the characteristics we described for this period. Even though the strike was allegedly motivated by the wage index calculation, the strike committee insisted on removing the entire Borovo executive management from office. This demand was reiterated, and strike meetings were used as an opportunity to discredit the managing director. Also, activists of HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union, which came to power after the first multi-party elections in the Spring of 1990), being the most active in the strike, suggested to the workers that, if they wanted to solve their problems, they should align with the republican leadership rather than the old, and, as they claimed, corrupt managing structures.

Borovo Strikes:

  • Summer 1988: “We want wages, we want bread”
  • “June Strike“ 1990


Musić, Goran (2016) “They came as workers and left as Serbs: the role of Rakovica’s blue-collar workers in Serbian social mobilisations of the late 1980s”. In: Archer, R., Duda, I., Stubbs, P., ed., Social inequalities and discontent in Yugoslav socialism. Routledge (pp.132-155)

Imširović, Pavluško (2009) “Povodom dva ‘još živa’ propagandna falsifikata iz 90-tih”. Pavluško Imširović Blog, August 10, 2009. Available at (Accessed January 10, 2014.)

Jovanov, Neca (1989). Sukobi: protagonisti latentnih i otvorenih društvenih konflikata. Nikšić: Univerzitetska riječ.

Pavlović, Vukašin. 1988. Sindikati i štrajkovi. Radnička štampa, Beograd.

  1. The Labin strike, elaborated in detail in Kuzmanić's study “Labin Strike. The paradigms of the beginning of the end” (1988), lasted for 34 days in the spring of 1987. In February 1988, the workers of Mostar's Sokol march the city streets shouting slogans: “We want work! We want bread!“. A delegation of a several hundred Živinić Đurđevik workers marched to Belgrade in May 1988. Workers of Zemun Zmaj were striking in front of the SFRY Assembly in June 1988. Maribor's TAM workers were striking in July of the same year on the streets of Maribor. Rakovica workers were striking in front of the General Assembly in October 1988 (in the meantime, this event has acquired a special place in the interpretations of the rise of Slobodan Milošević. For the type of analysis that provides new insight into the interaction of class and nationality in Serbia in this period see Musić, 2016).
  2. Pavlović, Vukašin. 1988. Sindikati i štrajkovi. Radnička štampa, Beograd, p. 28.
  3. “Hrvatska pred stečajem”, Danas 458, November 27, 1990, 7
  4. “Štrajk”, Sindikalna akcija, May 13, 2015, 14.
  5. “Što HDZ misli o štrajkovima?”, Sindikalna javnost 3, May 21, 1990, p. 9.
  6. “Istinski predstavljati radničku klasu”, an interview with Stojmir Domazetovski, president of the Chemistry and non-metal trade union, Borovo 3070, March 3, 1989
  7. “Iluzije ‘dežurnog krivca’”, Radničke novine 31, July 24, 1989
  8. “Istinski predstavljati radničku klasu”, an interview with Stojmir Domazetovski, president of the Chemistry and non-metal trade union, Borovo 3070, March 3, 1989, Borovo 3070, 3.3.1989.
  9. In the interview from the late 1988, Marjan Orožen, the president of Yugoslav Confederation of Unions Council, says: “The reaction to the situation in June influenced the preparations for the reform greatly because it reflected the deep and severe consequences of the dependence of workers' organizations on state administration, its meddling in business politics, the system of compensation, control over accumulation, etc.“ (“Promjene – veliki izazov sindikata”, Borovo 3057, December 9, 1988)
  10. “Tri dana replika i sučeljavanja”, Borovo 3129, May 18, 1990, 2
  11. “Najprije poravnati bilancu Kombinata”, Borovo 3063, January 13, 1989, 4
  12. “Vijeće udruženog rada Sabora za brže rješavanje problema ‘Borova’”, Borovo 3038, August 1, 1988, 3
  13. “Neizvjesnost i dalje prisutna”, Borovo 3037, July 6, 1988, 4