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State of the Unions in Serbia

Bullied or bought off, trade unions in Serbia and elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia have hit rock bottom, failing the workers they claim to protect.

Marija Jankovic Belgrade, Nis, Pancevo, Zagreb
Milan Ivovic, former president of the Azotara trade union, outside the Azotara fertiliser factory in the Serbian town of Pancevo where he worked for 37 years. Photo: Marija Jankovic.

Milan Ivovic was 10 years old when the Serbian state fertilizer producer HIP Azotara opened its gates for the first time in 1962, over the road from his childhood home in the town of Pancevo on the eastern bank of the river Danube.

He would go on to spend his entire working life – 37 years – employed at the factory, starting on the night shift and eventually rising to become the president of its trade union in 2007.

Yet in late 2015, barely 17 months short of retirement, Ivovic found himself out of work, declared “surplus” during a very public spat with the state-appointed management.  

Ivovic had called out Azotara’s directors over the price they had agreed to pay to Russian energy giant Gazprom for the gas that the factory relies on to function.

Azotara said it would pay less than $300 (273 euros) per 1,000 cubic metres, a rate that would help keep the factory afloat and jobs safe. The government, which appointed the factory directors, was hoping to sell Azotara to a Russian buyer and had an interest in presenting the Russians as benevolent partners ready to safeguard jobs. Ivovic welcomed the deal, but then received a phone call:

“The worker who was in charge of gas invoices at Azotara called me and said, ‘who are you trying to fool? What $300? What are you talking about? Whose side you are on?’ He showed me the invoices and there wasn’t a single price below at least $400.”

Ivovic went public, and within four months was out of a job. He says he was turfed out because he exposed a lie. Azotara says his mandate as union leader had expired and that since then he had not reported for work. Nevertheless, the timing raised eyebrows.

"It’s a devastating blow”

– Veteran union leader Branislav Canak on Ivovic’s dismissal.

“These days trade unions are kept on a short leash,” the bespectacled 64-year-old Ivovic said. “Having seen what happened to me, why would anyone believe in trade unions and wish to join? They surely do not want to risk their jobs.”

For many unionists, his is a cautionary tale, one example among many of the weakness of trade unions in the former Yugoslavia after years of bumpy and often brutal transition to capitalism.

“It’s a devastating blow,” said Branislav Canak, until recently leader of one of the biggest umbrella trade unions in Serbia, Nezavisnost (Independence).

“We’ll probably have to wait 50 years for another Ivovic to be born. Everybody kept saying: ‘Have you heard of that Ivovic guy from Azotara, how they took him down, and nobody stepped in to help?’” he told BIRN during an interview before his replacement as Nezavisnost leader in November. “Other trade union members who see the same wrongdoings in their companies will think twice – ‘If I say something, I risk losing my job.’”

Huge job losses, factory closures and a fire sale of hundreds of state-owned companies in the years after the fall of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 have ravaged the ranks and reputation of Serbia’s trade unions.

Weak and divided, they are vulnerable to intimidation, susceptible to corruption and almost wholly dependent on political patrons. Their credibility has been shattered among workers by their meek response to a discredited privatisation process that has seen over 600 sales since 2000 cancelled because of corruption or the failure of buyers to stick to the terms, often too late for laid-off workers.

In 2008, after eight years of transition from socialism, just 12 per cent of Serbians said they had “a great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in trade unions, according to the European Values Study, a Netherlands-based research project conducted every nine years since 1981 across Europe. Of 47 surveyed countries, only Bulgaria scored lower than Serbia, with 11 per cent.

Thirty-eight per cent of Serbians said they had no trust in unions at all.

This story, part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence programme, looks at why.

“They (unions) don’t fulfil even the minimum standards of 20th Century unions, and a result of that is the decline in reputation and membership,” Dr Nada Novakovic, a sociologist and research fellow at the Institute for Social Sciences in Belgrade, told BIRN.

“All of that makes it easier for the state and capitalists to complete the process of privatisation and transition in their interests.”

Marko Grdesic, a US-educated Croatian sociologist, said the role of trade unions was “the same as it has always been – to recruit as many people as possible, to fight for collective agreements, at least through strikes and protests, and to join forces with other leftist and progressive actors in a wider social battle.”

“On the territory of the former Yugoslavia, very few unions do this.”

Political patronage

Socialist Yugoslavia under leader Josip Broz Tito – who ruled for 35 years after World War II – had only one union, of which all state workers were members.

Jobs were for life and, under a hybrid system of socialist self-management, employees were given a say in the running of the companies they worked in.

The union was, however, little more than an arm of the ruling party, rolled out every May 1 to mark International Labour Day in elaborate celebrations that feted Tito with military parades and marching bands.

“The union under socialism played exactly the role socialism asked of it,” said Canak.

With the collapse of Yugoslavia, trade unions multiplied, but few outgrew what Novakovic calls the Tito-era “childhood sickness” of dependence on a political patron.

"If you give a union a million or two, of course the union leadership won’t challenge you”

– Ranka Savic, leader of an umbrella union organisation.

The most glaring example is the union at Serbia’s electricity distributor and the biggest public company in the country, Elektroprivreda Srbije, EPS.

The union counts almost all of the company’s roughly 30,000 workers among its members, a formidable force should they come out against the government.

But under a collective agreement signed in January 2015 with the Serbian Ministry of Energy, the EPS union receives almost 800 million dinars (6.5 million euros) per year from the state, according to a copy of the contract obtained by the Nezavisnost union under Serbia’s Freedom of Information law, raising serious questions about its ability and readiness to challenge the policy of company directors or the political parties that appoint them.

“If you give a union a million or two, of course the union leadership won’t challenge you,” said Ranka Savic, leader of the Association of Independent and Free Trade Unions of Serbia, another umbrella union organisation.

Novakovic said unions were compromised in many ways.

For example, company managers are often also union members; union elections are often timed to coincide with political party elections; and union leaders are “openly bought”, Novakovic said, with lucrative seats on the management board.

Many union leaders also receive extra salaries. “On top of that come per diems, travel expenses, mobile phone expenses, cars, lunches, various extras,” said Novakovic.

Working on her doctorate, Novakovic conducted interviews with dozens of trade union officials at EPS. Over a period of five years, she said, only one did not advance up both the union and company ladders. The odd one out had moved into the private sector.

BIRN wrote to the EPS union asking whether its leaders were compromised by the financial rewards they receive but received no reply. BIRN also asked EPS whether union leaders are favoured for promotion but received no reply. BIRN was unable to secure interviews with EPS management or union leaders.

“Rising up the union hierarchy is an advantage in terms of professional hierarchy. It’s also a way to advance materially,” Novakovic said.

“The closeness of unions and political parties offers the chance of remaining longer in the union leadership, as well as moving into a party or state position.”

The unions, Novakovic said, were still at odds over the division of assets inherited from the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, meaning they had expended more energy “dealing with themselves” than with workers.

Sociologist Dr Nada Novakovic in her office at the Institute for Social Sciences in Belgrade. Photo: Marija Jankovic.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Serbia has seen little effective industrial action in opposition to painful reforms.

These days, Labour Day in Serbia passes with little fanfare, while in Western Europe hundreds of thousands take to the streets each year to vent their anger at capitalism and globalisation.

In January 2014, when the government pushed through parliament the most significant overhaul of labour legislation in years, there were only meagre protests by unions against measures raising the retirement age for women and making hiring and firing easier. The government has also cut public sector salaries and pensions in order to secure funds from the International Monetary Fund.

“None of the major union centres has opposed the transition ‘reforms’ of the past 25 years,” said Novakovic.

Canak was blunt: “Today, workers would go and protest only if they were paid to do so, if we paid for their bus ticket and gave them a daily allowance. Otherwise, they’re better off staying at home.”

Savic, the leader of the Association of Independent and Free Trade Unions of Serbia, blamed something else: “There have been attempts to come out united. But those efforts always backfire because someone gives up, or someone strikes a deal with the government,” she said. “Serbian unions are completely disunited and have no solidarity.”

The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Serbia, the successor to the Tito-era union, did not respond to a request for an interview.

The private sector is proving just as resistant to unionism.
“Unions haven’t really had much success in entering the new sector of small firms,” said Croatian sociologist Marko Grdesic. “It’s proving really hard, due to the resistance of company owners and the weakness of unions themselves.”

“The biggest problem is that one part of the workforce is left completely unprotected: precarious workers who work in occasional, temporary or unstable workplaces, particularly young people, women and foreigners.”

“Wrong side of the fence”

The big unions fiercely guard their privileges.

In 2011, a rival trade union was established within EPS. In response, one of the workers involved told BIRN on condition of anonymity that he and several others were excluded from the main union’s Solidarity Fund, a financial aid pot topped up each month with 0.1 per cent of each employee’s salary to provide workers with some kind of support for various life events.

He had been paying in since 2010, but said the Fund informed them that a condition of access to the aid was membership of the main EPS trade union.       

“In the meantime one of these guys had a child, but he did not receive aid amounting to one average monthly salary to which he is entitled. The other one had a death in his family, and the company refused to pay him financial aid,” the man said.

“I guess we found ourselves on the wrong side of the fence.”

Asked about the case, the EPS press office said it was not a question for the company.
EPS trade union leaders could not be reached by telephone nor did they respond to emailed questions.

Andjelko Kasunic, president of Croatia’s Independent Trade Union of Road Workers, in a Zagreb cafe. Photo: Marija Jankovic.

At Elektromreza Srbije (EMS), Serbia’s state-run electricity grid operator, the union last year filed criminal charges against two of its former leaders, accusing them of misusing 2,537,484 dinars (20,630 euros) of trade union money between 2011 and 2015 – the equivalent of many months salary for the average worker.

BIRN was given a copy of an internal union report compiled by a union commission tasked in early 2015 with investigating the then leader Zlatomir Dobrisavljevic and his deputy, Aleksandar Pavlovic, over the spending of funds given to the union by the company.

The report accused the pair of signing contracts leasing their own private cars to the union, expensing fuel and maintenance costs and over-claiming other expenses.

The report said both men had accepted its findings. BIRN could not independently confirm this given that both Pavlovic and Dobrisavljevic declined to discuss the case when contacted by phone. Neither has commented publicly on the case. Pavlovic remained head of maintenance of long-distance power cables, a position of considerable responsibility, for a year after the inquiry.

The press office of EMS told BIRN that it had no knowledge of any wrongdoing by union leaders and that Pavlovic had in the meantime been transferred to another position due to violations of operating procedures and work ethics, independent of his union activities. Dobrisavljevic is also still employed by the company.    

“The company gives them this money and they spend it as if it was their own,” said a union official who gave the report to BIRN on condition he not be identified. “What’s left for the workers?”

The state prosecution in Belgrade confirmed that it had received a criminal complaint of embezzlement against Dobrisavljevic and Pavlovic and said it had tasked police with investigating.

Surplus to requirements

Unlike many union officials, Ivovic appeared to have the trust of his colleagues.

In 2008, he brought 1,000 workers out onto the streets of Pancevo to protest over the actions of a Lithuanian-Serbian consortium that had bought the Azotara factory from the state two years earlier. The new owners sold a production unit in violation of the terms of the privatisation and salaries went unpaid.

Ivovic spent nights sleeping on the pavement and days blocking roads until the government took action in January 2009, annulling the sale and bringing Azotara back into state hands.

“We were on strike and we were starving,” Ivovic recalled proudly.

But six years later, he was at odds with the state-appointed management.

Ivovic had come out against plans to separate Azotara’s industrial river port from the main company, worried it would be sold off and the factory would lose access to it. Then, when he disputed the announced gas price, he received a letter, which he showed to BIRN, from deputy director Miljan Djurovic on August 11, 2015 telling him he risked “termination” of employment.

Ivovic was forced into early retirement in December 2015.

Djurovic told media at the time that the union mandates of Ivovic and three other union members laid off with him had expired and that since then they had not turned up for work at the factory.

A press officer at Azotara told BIRN that Ivovic had been declared “surplus and used his right to take a pay off and leave HIP-Azotara Pancevo.”

BIRN requested an interview with the Azotara management but received no reply, nor could Djurovic be reached on his landline or mobile. BIRN was unable to get confirmation of the gas price from Gazprom.

“People are desperate,” said Savic.

“They oppose the manager and get fired. Then we take the case to the court. Most of these people are now in early retirement. They are not even afraid any more, they just want to get out and get it over with."

Ivovic said he did not plan to sue, saying he had neither the money nor the time to fight through a court system widely seen as inefficient and politicised.

Former Azotara trade union president Milan Ivovic cuts the grass at his home in the Serbian town of Pancevo. Photo: Marija Jankovic.


Unions in most of Serbia’s fellow former Yugoslav republics fair little better.

In the European Values Study of 2008, just 18 percent of people in Croatia said they had “a great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in trade unions.

There, one trade union leader was placed under special police protection in 2010 after blowing the whistle on corruption at state-owned Croatian Highways Ltd, HAC, leading to a number of investigations, arrests and indictments over the next six years.

“I didn’t fear for my life until one day a police officer appeared at my door. He spent 15 hours a day with me”, said Andjelko Kasunic, president of the Independent Trade Union of Road Workers.

One of HAC’s executive board members, Josip Sapunar, was found guilty in 2015 of siphoning money from the company and ordered to return over one million euros. More officials have since been indicted.

“A good union will always win legitimacy among workers if it fights successfully,” said Grdesic, the Croatian sociologist. “A union is a living organism that needs constantly to be kept alive. You have to work with people, talk to them, listen to them. But here people are abandoned,” he told BIRN.

Even in the process of privatisation itself, unions have been marginalised.

“Unions have absolutely no influence over the (privatisation) process, except to be consulted over the benefit programme for surplus workers,” said sociologist Novakovic. “Most often, unions didn’t even have the right to see the sale contract.”

Union leaders, she said, simply wait the process out, safe in the knowledge they are protected by their political connections.

“Most trade union leaders will find a new career and get rich. Most of the trade union members will be kicked out of their jobs.”

“When a union does not (cannot or will not) protect workers from job losses, they lose their reason for existing and their standing among current and potential members.”

Savic said it was easy to blame the unions, but that they were only a reflection of a Serbian state and society in transition, “with all the ailments transition brings with it.”

“We don’t have a proper health system, schooling, education, we have no division of power between the executive, legislature, [and the] judiciary.

“Serbian unionism shares the fate of the state and the society in which it functions.”

Marija Jankovic is a journalist at the Serbian daily newspaper Vecernje Novosti. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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