Interview with Milenko Srećković on ”Workers resistance to deindustrialization and land grabbing”

The current urban transformations in Serbian cities are closely related to the process of de-industrialisation, the new entrepreneurial urbanism as well as to the change from social to state and private ownership. Yugoslavia was a country of workers, that is, of working people. What effect did these changes had on the workers of former public firms? And what is their situation today?

tribina

Okupljanje Pokreta za slobodu u decembru 2012.

All the mentioned processes are the consequence of the fact that people from this region have lost the battle with the imperialist plans for the region. The atomised and bickering statelets of former Yugoslavia in no way decide their fate, they are completely subordinated to the interests of big business. Being weakened, they do not have the strength to fight for the capacity to decide on anything substantial, or to protect the interests of their inhabitants, and thus all areas of social life are subordinate to the processes leading to the complete degradation of social rights. The dismemberment of Yugoslavia by the ruling nationalist elites suited international powers – bothered by every sovereign state whose existence is an obstacle to the expanding the interests of global capital – much more than them. The mechanism of destruction of Yugoslavia by instigating tribal, nationalist passions and arming their supporters is now being applied in other countries that have not yet put their markets and natural resources at the disposal of the global interests of big capital which has the world’s most powerful military force. If the general degradation of workers’ rights is considered in the context of an emerging colonial system, many things become more understandable. Every segment of society has to be subordinated to the dominant logic of profit-making ruling, to corporations and investors, whether in production, politics, urban planning, art or education. The workers are, according to this logic, the most unimportant factor; they are consumer goods, especially in a society with so many unemployed.

Adopting the political position that quickly privatising public firms is the only solution destroys social economy, which had the potential to employ a large number of people in a very fast way. In order to justify this process of social transformation, it was first necessary to publicly underrate the state of the economy in various ways. This is particularly evident in the case of driving domestic development banks to bankruptcy, thereby opening the market to foreign commercial banks and leaving the economy with no possibility of taking favourable loans. The entire social economy in Serbia was sold for 2.6 million euros – there are a handful of businessmen around the world who own more than this. Privatisation allowed a small group of people to launder money acquired through criminal activities, to obtain attractive locations, real estate, bank loans by raising mortgages, large parcels of agricultural land, and so on. The most extreme consequence of privatisation is the drastic drop in employment: for instance, 410,000 workers lost their jobs in privatised firms between 2002 and 2011, so the number of their employees was reduced by 60% – which means that an average of 45,000 jobs was lacking every year. In Serbia, there is about one million unemployed, every other young person is out of work, the official unemployment rate is between 23-26%, but is much higher in reality. The situation of workers, both employed and unemployed, under such conditions is like slavery. There is no better word to describe the current situation in which the majority of people in our society, and even globally, live.

The effect of these changes is also what you define as “the seizure of agricultural land.” How do you explain these processes, is it possible to influence them and how?

The process of seizing land is carried out in different ways in different parts of the world, with more or less drastic consequences depending on the place, but it is also a reflection of imperialist expansion and usurpation of natural resources and common goods. In Serbia, this process was carried out by privatising agricultural firms, cooperatives and conglomerates, which led to the ‘latifundisation’ and to the unification of agricultural land owned by a small number of people who rely on market speculation on the differences in land prices on the local and European markets for quick profit-making. Even the negotiations with the EU about the Stabilisation and Association Agreement were dictated by the interests of these speculators so that Serbia allow foreign corporations to buy land in Serbia as soon as possible.

People who had the power to do so implemented all these unfavourable decisions. If one was to take this power away from them, their decisions could be cancelled and the land would be returned to those who work on it and live from it. If people organise and unite with those who wage actual class struggle, then it is possible to prevent and redirect every process. At this point, people do not have sufficient influence to fully counteract such processes. But there has been some progress: the mechanism of some frauds in the illegal appropriation of cooperative and state land has been exposed, and we will see whether the new government will deal with these usurpations of agricultural land in a systematic way, or if it will all end with the couple of arrests we had so far.

How do you relate to the position of workers in the private sector that do not have the right to organise. How can they fight for their rights?

No one will give us any right that is being threatened: we have to fight for it. Thus, if we do not have freedom of assembly or association, we need to unite regardless of the lack of rights. We can fight in every way possible, by any means, it is up to us to decide how far we are willing to go. It is difficult to advise someone who may be laid off because of his/her disobedience and therefore become unable to support his/her family. On the other hand, I think we always somehow participate and contribute to things exploiting us. You must have respect for your own life, and not according to the laws, because you have not had any influence on how they were created, and they very often serve only to protect the interests of the ruling elite rather than the interests of justice.

There is a wide range of methods of struggle – from direct and open confrontation to public appeals or use of legal methods. In any case, this problem should be solved by demanding systematic changes that would alter the existing status quo. But you should keep in mind that the priority issues in Serbia are not strictly limited to trade union or low wages: rather, the priority problem is the huge unemployment putting the whole of the population, and even those who are employed, at risk. The class struggle means, above all, taking care of those who do not even have what those in work have, with all due respect to the problems that the latter encounter in the workplace.

You have advocated the protection of female workers during pregnancy. What is the position of workers in this regard today, and what are the effects of your initiative in this field?

We had many demands at the protest on 14 September last year. Among them was the demand to legally solve the problem of female workers who lose their jobs in the midst of pregnancy because their employers did not extend their fixed-term contract and they are left without an income at a time when they need it most – and the law itself allowed employers to do this. Our protest has led to negotiations with the Presidency of Serbia, where we were promised that they would work on our demands and very quickly that this demand would be adopted. A representative of the ruling party and chairman of parliament did recently make the corresponding proposal to amend the Labour Act. If the proposed amendment is adopted – and we hope it is certain since it the biggest ruling party proposed it – women in employment will be protected if their contract finishes during pregnancy or maternity leave as the extension of their contract during their absence will be a statutory obligation. Of course, this is for us only an interim solution that appeared as a result of a difficult situation: the rights of women during pregnancy and of people in employment in general have to be radically improved, with serious amendments of the Labour Act, in relation to the current situation.

(Note: A few days after this interview, the Serbian Parliament adopted the mentioned amendment of the Labour Act extending the contract of pregnant women employed on a fixed-term contract until their right to take leave expires. This amendment was adopted with 181 votes for, while none opposed or abstained).

What is your stance on unpaid work such as unpaid housework?

I must admit that we do not have an official position on this issue and that we have not engaged with this issue so far. It is difficult to even manage to think about other, numerous, wrongs in the difficult economic situation we are in, when huge numbers of people are out of work and many people in employment do not receive salaries for months. I think that, as for most other problems, those who perform unpaid work do not have sufficient bargaining power to improve their situation at the moment. Hence the answer is in a better organisation once again. The inequality of women is also reflected in the fact that exclusively women perform housework and take care of the family. The higher number of women in managerial positions only masks the fact that most women are still in an unequal position. As the entire society depends on taking care of children and housework, surely this work should be valued more, guaranteed income provided and working hours reduced so that both men and women would be equally able to do housework.

Occupying factories is one of the ways of organised struggle you participated in. How were relationships and daily life organised during the occupations and what are the effects of such forms of struggle?

We actually currently follow and support such an occupation in Thessaloniki. Workers of the Vio.Met factory are trying to inspire other Greek workers to take control of things and start production themselves. They are also trying to convince the government to accept some systematic solutions to encourage such a possibility of dealing with the crisis as an increasing number of factories are going bankrupt. I think it is impossible that this attempt survives in circumstances in which the market and the rest of the economy are subordinated to the interests of big business, but it is a very inspiring project that can force us to think about alternatives. The workers of the factory will participate in our panel in the upcoming Subversive Festival in Zagreb.

Šinvoz, the Zrenjanin factory repairing freight cars, was occupied in late 2007 and early 2008. It is this workers’ struggle that, along with Zastava elektro and some other cases, contributed the most to raise public awareness about the state’s responsibility in tolerating irregularities in the privatisation and general deindustrialisation. Now the new government is arresting only those who privatised these companies but does not examine the responsibility of the competent institutions that enabled them to loot these companies. At our last rally on 18th February this year, we tried to make a step forward in the fight against privatisation and called for responsibility to be investigated, the Privatisation Agency to be abolished, as well as future selling of companies and agricultural land to be stopped. Thus, the limitations of the current “fight against corruption” lie precisely in the fact that the system that has enabled the deindustrialising and ruining of companies remains unchanged and only the buyers of individual companies are being arrested.

A particularly important factory occupation was the one by the workers of “Ravanica” factory in Ćuprija. They refused to allow representatives of the Privatisation Agency to enter, telling them they had seen the consequences of privatisation in other factories in Ćuprija, that all these other factories had been destroyed one by one and that they did not want this to happen to them. Workers’ representatives from these factories participated in the work of the Coordination Committee that we established in 2009 as an informal and democratic network of workers’ representatives to help fight the general, systemic solutions. These activities are presented in more detail in our books Deindustrialisation and workers’ resistance (2011), presenting our activities in the period from 2007 to 2011, and Fighting for the Future: Towards a Balkan resistance movement: resisting deindustrialisation and land seizure (April 2013), presenting our activities in the period from 2011 to 2013, with special emphasis on the protests we organised in front of state institutions, following the negotiations and their outcomes.

Most of the protests you organised were in Belgrade. Why have you been focusing on actions in the capital? How do you see the potential of this form of action and what kind of support do you get from other initiatives in the city?

We have mainly organised protests in Belgrade because currently it is the only place where you can create a serious problem for the authorities and make them negotiate. Local governments do not have significant responsibility in terms of privatisation and, in such a centralised country, it was necessary to get organised and go to where the relevant institutions and media are. In 2009, the husband of the then representative of the Parliament had to give up ownership of a factory in order to end our protest. This shows that the potential of such protests is great. But to stage them takes a lot of effort and support – which is usually lacking, with the exception of a pat on the back from which is useless. Today, there are left-wing organisations that have never participated in such protests and whose members say that workers’ protests cannot change anything. These is, of course, nonsense …

Despite the (micro) effects that you mentioned, the capitalist state has generally proved to be a poor mediator or interlocutor for arbitration in the negotiations because of its economic functions. In this regard, what is potential of the fight against corruption and the demands for workers’ management of state property within the general capital-relationships? Do you consider some other forms of struggle outside these parameters?

Workers’ management of state property and capitalism cancel each other out; as long as the market and big businesses dictate the circumstances in which we live, there is little chance for companies managed by workers to survive or to have greater significance in the change of overall social relationships. But fighting for them, among other things, increases the chances of developing an awareness of the limitations of our abilities in the society we live in and therefore an awareness of the need for radical, systemic change. Such companies tend to be a good basis for the expansion of solidarity among workers’ groups, and also help a number of people to make ends meet in a certain period of time – human lives are the most important thing. On the other hand, one should take into account the statistics presented by, for example, the Institute for Economic Democracy in Zagreb, which show that companies controlled by employees proved to be at a time of economic crisis a much more stable solution for increasing the number of jobs and the level of investment in the company, because they are not oriented towards distributing profit but towards preserving jobs and salaries.

The fight against corruption ignores the fact that much of the unjust plundering of people is legalised and that this fight is thus of limited scope. However, when the people have already somehow forced the authorities to deal with corruption, then we should keep pointing to the plunder that the system continues to tolerate for a variety of individual interests of those in power, even because it is legal plunder. This is why we ask in our protests to examine the responsibility of public institutions in charge of privatisation, to get rid of them and then to drop further privatisation of society. Demands for maximum freedom need to be expanded whenever a more favourable political and economic situation emerges. The bars of the cage we live in should be cut until they break. As for the form of struggle, we choose it on the basis of what we have at our disposal and what we can do at a given moment. I think we need to consider all possible means.

You are suggesting reviving the idea of ​​co-operatives again. What are the potentials of this form of association today?

Although there is a century-long tradition of cooperatives in Serbia, it is now dying. A hundred years ago, cooperatives were created to defend poor farmers and other producers from usury. Today cooperatives should be created on the basis of a similar incentive: to protect the interests of poor producers form the interests of buyers, intermediaries, market monopoly and usurious banks. The current problem with organising cooperatives is that it does not suit the government if farmers are organised, as this would pose a threat to the interests of big capital. These are democratic associations you enter on a voluntary basis and thus their members naturally think much more about common interests. There are currently only about 1,400 active agricultural cooperatives; the food and manufacturing industries was destroyed through privatisation, because these industries were entirely dependent on cooperatives in providing the raw materials. Over 200,000 hectares of agricultural land was taken away from cooperative members; their property was unconstitutionally privatised. Agricultural complexes were also justified economic entities because they unite primary production, processing and placing on the market, allowing for the protection of primary producers and other employees from the interests of market speculators.

Do you see a possibility of linking the struggle of different social actors in the local context? Could initiatives like Right to the City play a specific mobilising role in this process?

Of course, if everything is set on a truly democratic basis … Also, it is necessary to avoid the mechanical linking driven by the “just so that there are more of us” principle, and orient ourselves towards connecting with the real actors of social struggles who do not discredit the whole fight and overall objective through their actions.

You took part in the workshop “How to organise solidarity?” in Zagreb. What does solidarity mean for you? Is it possible and how to organise solidarity today?

Solidarity is, unlike charity, cooperation between equal individuals in the fight for the overall benefit of society; it recognises the right of others to have the same rights and helps them to fight for them. Charity is hierarchical and only reinforces the humiliating position of those who are forced to depend on it: it is in itself degrading, does not bring any substantial and systematic change and is just a way for those who contribute to maintaining the status quo to ease their conscience. Solidarity is, unlike charity, disinterested, or at least not hiding common interest under the guise of humanity and kindness. The circumstances in which we live are not favourable to the promotion of solidarity and, to change these circumstances, we must first be in solidarity. It is therefore a vicious circle, and our goal should be to get out of it. Solidarity and class struggle are just empty words unless they are organised, and if they are not accompanied by concrete action –not just any, but one demanding that problems are solved in a systematic way which would improve living conditions for all, especially the most vulnerable.

How do you see the potential of art and culture in all of these social processes and antagonisms? Have you maybe collaborated with artists and cultural workers, and what are your experiences?

Culture and the arts can have both a positive and a retrograde effect on developments in society. Throughout history, artists were more the apologists and mercenaries of the rulers than having a subversive role. But artistic value works according to another logic and today works of art are mainly seen independently of the context in which they were made and the purpose they served. I think the “l’art-pour-l’art” tendency – which says that art does not need to change the world, but only to express itself within the aesthetic concept – dominated for a long time in our society, as an extreme that appeared in opposition to dogmatic socialist realism. But I think that the postmodernist tendency – whose ultimate consequences are apathy, resignation and acceptance of the existing order – is particularly harmful. The consumerist entertainment industry is certainly the most useful to the system because it turns individuals into idiots. Today neoliberal foundations, through art and “grant art,” influence the ideological indoctrination of artists who are existentially dependent on cooperation with such organisations. In this way, social engagement and criticism are co-opted in frameworks that just need to legitimise the existing order or justify imperialist interventions, presenting them as humanistic or necessary. Art that can liberate the individual is generally relegated to the margins.

What is the potential of a public good, and what kind of common good in the articulation of current struggles?

For me the main danger to public and common good is above all the one posed by public-private partnerships, which open the door to exploitation and profiteering by private companies based on a class alliance with banks and the political elite. If you allow private companies to control and profit from utilities such as water, for example, the ones guided by the logic of profit maximisation can reduce our access to these services by increasing the price or arbitrarily limiting consumption. We have cases where manufacturers of bottled water at the same time manage the water supply system, and periodically switched of the water supply system to increase demand for their bottled water. The defence and respect of the common good lay the foundations of a society that is not based on the capitalist principles of competition, selfishness, isolation, exploitation, and so on. Awareness of the common good lays establishes relationships between members of the community on really democratic foundations. In addition to water, knowledge, seeds, biodiversity, land, etc. are endangered.

In the process of resistance, we must first reinterpret the notion of the wealth of a community and abolish the interpretation associating wealth with the accumulation of private capital. In addition, we need to expose the mechanisms by which the so-called “free market”’ enslaves common goods and puts them beyond the control of local communities.

How do you relate to the policies of the funders you work with?

We primarily do educational projects in order to earn enough money we then use to organise protests and other higher priority goals of our organisation. We try to make the projects themselves as purposeful as possible but because of their bureaucratic nature they absolutely cannot be the priority of our organisation. We are an organisation that is in huge financial debt because of the protests we organised and all our work is oriented towards them; we also invest our personal incomes in them. We have worked with only two foundations so far, both left-wing, anti-capitalist and anti-NATO, which represent a policy similar to ours, have an understanding of what we do and that do not interfere with our work. There are differences in politics between us, but they are irrelevant when we consider the big picture and the position our society finds itself. Projects should not be an aim in themselves, and work on a particular issue can not begin or end with a project, as is the case with most NGOs. We have existed as an organisation since 2004 and the first time we did a project with a foundation was only in 2009. Until then, we did not know that there was a foundation that would dare to support the work of organisations like the Freedom Fight Movement.

Your initiative is entitled Freedom Fight Movement. How do you understand the concept-idea-practice of freedom today? What does freedom in practice and practice of freedom mean today?

Today there is probably more freedom in prison than for people who are ”free”; at least it is so for the majority of people. But knowing that we are not free is not enough; it requires a response to this situation, it requires some struggle for freedom. No one knows in advance precisely how and what kind of fight we should wage but learning about it is likely to occur only in a certain process rather than in passive contemplation or in thinking that we already have the answer and just need to convince the rest to believe us … For me personally, the individual should appropriate the right to freedom regardless of whether he is allowed to have this right or not. And the individual should do it without excessive pathos, without calling for compassion and mercy. But when putting in question authorities that cannot justify the reason for their existence, we should also refrain from imposing our own authority as an alternative. If we believe that people should accept our path, our struggle, then they should accept us voluntarily. Also, we need to fight for the reinterpretation of the concept of freedom – we know that there are many representatives of big businesses who are trying to say that freedom is their right to have no interference in their market transactions – that way we have “free market” but enslaved population. So, what is taking place is a class struggle, wherever you turn. Freedom exists only in the practice of providing organised resistance.

You are advocating the introduction of alternative economies. What forms of alternative economies, in your opinion, would help create a more just society today?

Alternative economies must be sovereign, self-sufficient and based on their own resources, on the control of the local community over the resources. Therefore, society must first be decolonised; agricultural land cannot be sold to market speculators, or to agribusiness corporations. Serbia makes the highest surplus in the export of agricultural products, but at the same time, there are people who are die of hunger in Serbia. As long as it is so, it means that things are set up in a completely irrational manner. The local population must have control over the natural resources and revenues that are realised on the exploitation of these natural resources must be equitably distributed among the population instead of serving the profiteering of a small group of people.

Alternative economy must be a matter of agreement, practices based on the best experiences in the past, and in some places, on experimentation. It must be able to embody progressive political principles such as real democratic governance, the right of all employees to make decisions, the equal distribution of work obligations, the absence of discrimination on any grounds, and so on.

Is there life after work, or is it possible to think of alternatives in the organisation of society and everyday life outside the traditional system of work for wages?

It is always possible to think out alternative forms of community, and in the distant past, there were some ruled by more humane relations among their members. What is more difficult is to think out how to bring about this community. Wage labour emerged in a particular historical period when individual households stopped to produce independently everything they needed daily for survival, when specialisation of labour emerged, and when individuals began to satisfy most of their needs by spending their wages to purchase goods they no longer produced themselves but from those who had become specialised for their production. Today it is possible to make a commune that would work on different bases, but the global system of domination will not be threatened by it; problems are much too complex for isolated local experiments to be able to overcome them. Regarding reflections in the direction of an economy that is not subordinated to the market but to direct decisions of local councils of producers and consumers about what should be produced and how in order to satisfy everyone’s needs adequately: I think they went the furthest in the direction of a meaningful alternative to the current dominant relations. However, the big capital, connected through interest to the ruling and repressive structures, insists on market relations because it can control them, and can always come out as the winner from them – this is what the logic of the “free market” consists of. Such injustice cannot be resolved without some kind of violent conflict with big businesses. The issue is whether people have enough power, abilities, and desire to organise themselves in this way against it.

  • Milenko Srećković –founder and member of Freedom Fight movement (Pokret za slobodu). He graduated on department for world literature on University of Belgrade. Born in 1982. in Veliko Krčmare, village near Kragujevac, Serbia. Lives in Belgrade.
  • Pokret za slobodu (Freedom Fight movement) is independent, nonpartisan and self-organized workers-peasants organization from Serbia, which supports, organizes and connects struggles of workers’ and peasants’ groups on local and international level. Pokret za slobodu established Coordinating Committee of Workers and Peasants Organizations, which horizontally connected strike committees and workers and peasants groups from a number of cities, from far north to far south of the country, for joint advance in the struggle for saving jobs, enterprises and agricultural land. Workers organizations, groups and strike committees, which are members of Coordinating Committee, reached the farthest in the struggle against privatization and jobs destruction in Serbia. Pokret za slobodu is a part of international peasants movement, and, in coordination with numerous international groups, it tries to fight for food sovereignty and against land grabbing. Multi-year Pokret za slobodu activities on creation of workers-peasants movement and on obtaining international support for concrete local struggles are summed up in recently published books Deindustrialization and Workers Resistance (2011), Land and Freedom (2011) and Sttrugle for the Future (2013).

Ana Vilenica, Uzbuna magazine

Belgrade, 25 March 2013.

translated to English by Noëmie Duhaut