Slovenia: 145,000 workers mobilise in national strike over wages

On March 12, 145,000 workers took part in a massive work stoppage in Slovenia. Rising inflation and low wages are pushing the workers onto the path of class struggle. In line with the process of radicalisation taking place across Europe, the Slovenian workers are beginning to mobilise in a big way.

Last week on March 12, Slovenia saw its biggest strike since independence in 1991. With more than 145,000 workers attending this walkout, it even eclipsed the 70,000 strong demonstration that took place last November 17. The radicalisation of the youth and workers in this small country of two million people, which had already begun with mass protests at the end of 2005, is now sharpening further. Thus the country now stands with Germany, Greece, Portugal and others, where the working class is starting to awaken and is fighting back against the ongoing misery caused by the "market economy", i.e. capitalism.

Slovenia's gross average monthly earnings, based on inflation-adjusted terms, had only gone up by less than one percent in December 2007 compared to the same period in 2006. This is in actual fact a wage cut in real terms if one takes into account the fact that inflation was up by 6.4 percent in December 2007 (Source: International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions; March 10, 2008). More and more people are finding it hard to make ends meet. The same wage as in the past is no longer sufficient to cover for basic needs. The example of food prices is a clear one, where they have been going up steeply in the recent period. That explains why one of the main slogans on the rally was "Stop inflaciji" (Stop inflation).

The main private sector union, the Alliance of Independent Unions of Slovenia (ZSSS) has been demanding wage increases of between 5.6 to 10 percent (depending on the category of worker and the wage group). They are also demanding an increase in the minimum wage, which currently stands at 390 Euros per month after tax, by 50 Euros. They are also seeking an agreement for further increases if inflation remains high. These demands are in actual fact quite modest if one considers that the retail prices of foodstuffs rose by 15.6 percent in 2007, compared to the 7 percent average for the whole of the "euro zone."

At the same time the workers have had to bear the brunt of an increase in the intensity of work. Growing productivity levels allowed for an economic growth of 6.5 percent last year. But none of this growth this benefits the workers as a whole. The increased wealth goes into the pockets of the capitalists, leaving the workers with very little to live on.

Negotiations over pay, holiday bonuses and other work-related expenses, dragged on for a few months and finally ended in a deal between the so-called "social partners" at the end of January. Employers and unions agreed on a wage increase of 4.7 percent and the union therefore called off the planned February 6 mass strike. This result was again very modest. The 180,000 strong ZSSS could have mobilised further as the support of the members of the other three small unions, counting together 170,000 organised workers, was guaranteed. Thus, in spite of the militant language of some trade union leaders they have not in fact abandoned the idea of "social partnership".

In spite of all this, the bosses did not keep their word and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Employers' Association (ZDS), broke off negotiations and did not sign the agreement. In response to this manoeuvre on the part of the bosses, and also in an attempt to keep the radicalising movement under their control, the union federation leaders then called a strike for March 12.

The response was incredible! In an 18-hour stoppage the energy sector workers, the postal, textile and leather industry workers came out on strike together with council workers, and workers in insurance, real estate, agriculture and the cattle breeding industries. Retail, manufacturing, waste disposal and water utilities were also affected by the strike. A powerful response from the massed ranks of the Slovenian working class!

The concrete results of this strike are not clear yet. One can however say that this strike was more than justified, and the powerful head of steam that has built up within the movement has not evaporated. Molecular processes are taking place beneath the surface.

Last November, parallel to the mass protest in Ljubljana, there was a wildcat strikes in Maribor. Three hundred workers at the "Swaty" factory, an engineering plant, spontaneously laid down tools and won a five percent wage increase. This is an important development for it demonstrates that fighting for better living standards gets concrete results. It shows that the working class in Slovenia has started to move and that it can win.

The trade unions leaders should abandon the illusions they have in the idea of "social partnership". The bosses have already broken it! Slovenian capitalism is not prepared to give the workers what they want. The reason why there has been a lot of foreign investment by German, Italian, Austrian capitalist, and so on, is precisely the low level of wages in Slovenia. To expect, therefore, that in these conditions it is possible to build in Slovenia a harmonious and peaceful relationship between the classes is a pipedream. It is no longer possible in big and powerful Germany. How can it therefore be possible in small and weak Slovenia?

What is happening in Slovenia is an indication of what we will see across the whole of Eastern Europe. With the collapse of the old Stalinist regimes, with the collapse of the bureaucratically planned economies of these countries, illusions were fostered that the "market" would solve all problems. The market has not solved any of the problems, but it has brought back on the agenda of these countries the class struggle.

The workers of Slovenia have no other choice but to struggle. But Slovenia is small and its workers need the help of workers in other countries. The workers in Greece are in struggle as are the workers in Germany and many other countries of Europe.

On this basis it is possible to link the present movement in Slovenia with that of the movements in other countries, as it is the same capitalist system that causes this downward trend in wages and living standards. The European Central Bank (ECB) is crying out for "wage moderation". A further squeezing of our purses will be discussed when the ECB Governing Council meets with EU Finance Ministers on economic and monetary policies in Ljubljana. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has already called for a demonstration on April 5, 2008. This would be a good opportunity to show the strength of the European labour movement, to learn from each other's experiences in order to succeed in future struggles.

[I would like to thank Domen Rus in Slovenia, who helped me in writing this article and provided me with a lot of facts and figures.]

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