In Serbia, Union Badges Lose Their Lustre

Marija Janković

Trade unions in Serbia have lost power and squandered workers’ pride during years of bruising transition

A badge of the Yugoslav workers union belonging to the author's grandfather sits at the centre of dozens of other badges on a shelf at the late grandfather's home in Belgrade. Photo: Marija Jankovic.

Among dozens of badges, two enjoyed pride of place on a shelf in the living room of my grandparents’ home in Belgrade – one was my grandfather Dusan’s membership badge of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia and the other of Yugoslavia’s only trade union. He and my grandmother, Branka, used to describe themselves as lifelong union members, regardless of retirement.

Dusan, a municipal building inspector, had a habit of regularly polishing the badges. He would boast how he lied about his age to become a party and union member before he turned 18. His pride in unionism always intrigued me.

My grandfather passed away two years ago, and I had him in mind when Labour Day came round this year and I expected to have my first opportunity to take the pulse of protesting Serbian workers for a story I was embarking on with the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence. I was sorely mistaken.

“There will be no protests on the streets of Belgrade on May 1st,” the duty journalist at the newspaper where I work told me over the phone. “Most probably because the date … overlaps with Easter. Who’ll go out on the streets?!”

I had planned to talk to ordinary workers, to hear how they feel about the unions that supposedly represent them, how things have changed during Serbia’s transition from communism, whether their trust has been eroded by rumours and reports of union corruption and political collusion.

Workers in Serbia, you might think, would have as much reason as anyone else to hit the streets – the public sector, which accounts for a huge chunk of the Serbian workforce, has seen salaries cut and labour rules loosened under a government committed to reining in the budget deficit. Transition to a capitalist system has hit workers hard over the past 15 years.

I quickly realised that their failure to join unionists across Europe in marking Labour Day and the rights of workers had only confirmed my hypothesis – something is rotten at the core of this country’s union movement.

I visited my grandmother, where the union badge still sits on the shelf. “I didn’t expect too much,” she said of Labour Day. “But your grandfather would be disappointed there are no crowds, no speeches, no slogans, nothing…”  

A week later I sat down to interview Branislav Čanak, the leader of the Independence trade union, one of the largest in Serbia. Towards the end of the interview, struggling to hide my incredulity, I asked him: “Why weren’t there any protests on May 1?”

“Of course protests weren’t organised!” he replied immediately. “Workers’ protests used to be organised for Tito, like a parade. Then capitalism came and the layoffs began. Today, workers would go out and protest only if they were paid to do so. If we paid for their bus tickets and gave them a daily allowance. In that case, they’re better off staying at home.” 

So, I asked him, how had the unions lost the power to mobilise workers? Why did workers in Serbia no longer proudly display their union membership badges in their homes?  “That’s a whole other story,” he said.

As I write this, France is in the grip of strikes and protests by tens of thousands of workers who have come out in force against changes to labour legislation that would make it easier for employers to hire and fire staff and relax a limit on working hours. Industrial action threatened to shut down nuclear plants, halt electricity supplies, block traffic. I called a colleague who works as a journalist in France and asked him – did the workers ask for a per diem to protest?

He was confused. “It’s the first time I hear of something like that,” he replied.

Marija Jankovic is a journalist at the Serbian daily Vecernje Novosti, specialising in the energy industry. For the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, Marija is investigating the power and reputation of unions in Serbia.