How do we create an anarcho-syndicalist organization in enemy territory? (Base syndicalism at the back of beyond – 1st part)

This text was written by a group of workers and trade unionists who left the ARC in early 2021 to form a new organisation. Due to its large scale, the text will be published in four parts, tentatively dividing the different stages of the union’s development and a review after 6 years of activity. In the text we trace the history of the union, focusing on the events in which we were directly involved. In addition to a chronological history of the various workers’ struggles in which we participated, this text includes an analysis and self-reflection on both the successes and the many mistakes we made over the years. We hope the victories of the workers in this history will serve as inspiration to those of you who, like us, realize the need for organization and struggle. We also hope that the analysis of the mistakes we have made will help workers and trade unionists who have taken the path of autonomous, base unionism in order not to repeat them.

How do we create an anarcho-syndicalist organization in enemy territory?

We created the union in Varna in 2014. In the beginning we were a dozen people from the city, most of us worked in different companies in the service and tourism sector, there was also a driller. We had met at the protests against the electricity price increases a year earlier and decided we were anarchists. That’s why the union started as an anarcho-syndicalist initiative, even though we didn’t have any political or trade union experience at that time. It turned out that there was already an anarcho-syndicalist organisation in Bulgaria, namely the ARS (Autonomous Workers Syndicate), based in Sofia, so we just joined them and called ourselves ARS – Varna. It turned out that they also had no people with trade union experience nor did they have any serious trade union activity apart from organising protests on social issues and May Day events. That’s what we started with, and at the time we were more an activist group of supporters of anarcho-syndicalism than a trade union organisation.

At that time we attended several international trade union conferences which helped us to get our bearings.

It is important to mention the context in which we were (and still are) forced to develop our organizing activities. Bulgaria is a small country on the edge of Europe, which many people would describe as “not very significant” politically and economically . The typical processes of privatisation, liberalisation, deregulation are taking place here but what perhaps sets it apart is the extremity of their manifestation and effects – Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU with the lowest wages, the lowest pensions, and the worst public services, including education and healthcare. It is also the country with the lowest strike activity in Europe and union membership is slightly below the continental average, covering around 18% of the workforce, mostly in the public sector. The deindustrialisation characteristic of the restructuring of European capitalism that began in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Europe reached Bulgaria (and the Eastern bloc) about 10 years late, but it was nevertheless carried out considerably faster and led to a sharp change in the country’s economic structure and the composition of the working class.

From the point of view of trade union and revolutionary traditions, it is important to mention that there is a huge generation gap in Bulgaria. Before 1944, there were relatively many and relatively strong revolutionary organisations and trade unions in the country, but after the repressions of the 1920s and 1930s and the establishment of state socialism thereafter, they were all either destroyed or integrated into the state apparatus, and today these traditions have been completely wiped out and there is no living memory of them.

Varna is the third largest city in the country with a population of about 350,000. Before the founding of the trade union there was not a single left-wing organization here, unless we count the fictitious structures of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and a few elderly communists. 

Politically, among the workers in Varna (and in the country in general), the narratives of the so-called `Transition` dominate, characterized by virulent anti-communism at one pole and nostalgia for the socialist past at the other. Refracted through the prism of the Transition, these two tendencies take on a particular shape. Anticommunism is tied to democratisation, but also to free market policies, privatisation and deregulation, as well as to the country’s Western geopolitical orientation. Anticommunism itself exists in ahistorical form and is internalized by a large part of the population. It is not uncommon to hear a colleague define a company’s pay cut or bullying by the boss as `communism`. All of this makes it extremely difficult for workers not only to act but even to think politically.

Nostalgia for socialism, on the other hand, is defined through the prism of nationalism and finds expression mainly in the idea of a “strong state, a strong army and a strong national economy”, nostalgia for the welfare state of the post-war period, and a geopolitical orientation towards the East. These tendencies vary, with anticommunism prevailing in the large cities in the western part of the country, while in the east and in small towns and villages, nostalgia prevails.

First steps

In this environment, and now having a clearer orientation, we began active work. Our first trade union club was housed in the social centre we had opened a year earlier. Subsequently we rented a separate room. In early 2015, discontent broke out on the railways. The management was preparing privatisation and the workers were pressuring the affiliated unions to organise resistance. The discontent was so great that the Podkrepa trade union was forced to announce a protest against privatisation and redundancies. We also decided to intervene, not in the initiative of “Podkrepa”, but through a separate protest at the railway station in Varna. We managed to mobilise twenty people from our newly created trade union. Several railway workers also turned up. The protest was a success, and afterwards we organised a meeting to discuss the problems in BDZ and the possibilities for resistance. At that meeting we talked about organising an illegal strike and other forms of direct action. The meeting and discussions went well, with several workers from the railway joining in. Two of them even signed up for our `union`. Naturally, they didn’t stick around long. The organization was not yet ready to accept new members, its structure was unclear, we had no union experience, and the struggle in the railroads soon died down.

However, this gave us the enthusiasm and confidence we needed to participate effectively in labour conflicts and attract workers. In the months that followed we were involved in many small labour conflicts. In one of them, waitresses from a nightclub in Golden Sands near Varna came to us. All the staff – bartenders, waiters, hostesses and even the construction workers who had done the renovation of the restaurant at the beginning of the season had not received their wages. After a little research we found out that the boss of the nightclub was a Sofia thug and a well-known crook, from whom it was hard to get anything by `legal means`. So we decided that our best approach was direct action. Together with the workers and their relatives who came for support, we organized an action in front of the nightclub, located in the famous International Hotel. This happened  on 8 March. We managed to make a big circus in front of the hotel. We even got the local TV to film a report. The company in turn sent private security guards who looked bad and took pictures of us with a camera, although they did not intervene. The results were not delayed. An hour after the protest, we got a call from the hotel manager, furious about the attack on their image just before the season started. The very next day the nightclub boss was kicked out.

On other occasions, things were much easier. Once a construction worker came to us, also about not getting paid. In a threatening tone, we explained to the boss over the phone that if he didn’t pay immediately, the union would intervene. That was enough and the money was paid to the worker the same day.

Our tactic was to use any means, depending on the case. We also resorted to complaints to the Labour Inspectorate. This sometimes had an effect, although in most cases direct action was far quicker and more effective.

These small successes were useful to gain union experience. They did not, however, help large scale organising. Although some of the workers we helped became members, they did not become active  unionists either.

The struggle of Piccadilly workers

A turning point for us came in early 2017 when eight hundred workers at one of the then major retail chains were made redundant and left without wages by bosses. When we learned about the situation at Piccadilly, and that workers were organizing to protest outside the chain’s largest site in Varna, we decided to immediately intervene. First, we did some research. The company had declared bankruptcy and the bosses had gone into hiding. It turned out that nobody knew who exactly the owners were. The company was registered as an offshore company in Cyprus, which in turn was owned by another offshore company in the Seychelles. We went to the protest that the workers had organised outside the biggest shop in town and made contact. We helped them collectively write a list of demands and organised an impromptu general meeting after the protest to discuss next steps. It turned out that they didn’t know who the boss (or bosses) of the company were either. Rumour had it that it was owned by the Popov brothers (famous for bankrupting a large enterprise in Sofia), although there was no documented connection to prove this. The situation was difficult. With the enterprise bankrupt and no bosses, all our previous strategies were useless. We cannot attack the image of a bankrupt company with unknown ownership.

It was important for us to push the workers towards collective decision-making to help bring them together, to overcome internal hierarchies (more on these a little latter) and to gain clarity on the goals and the methods to achieve them. These meetings also helped us, as external actors, to gain insight into the internal dynamics of the collective and the possibilities for organising common resistance. Most of the victims had worked for the chain for over a decade. They knew each other well and this had created a natural sense of camaraderie and solidarity, despite the lack of a shared history of workplace struggles, which were completely absent from the workers’ collective memory.

Various strategies were discussed at these general meetings. At the beginning, two female workers suggested that we occupy the shops, especially the administrative rooms with the safes (where it was assumed there was still money). The idea was to deter their seizure by the bank, which was due to take possession at any moment, at least until we received assurances that the contents of the safes would be used to pay the workers. In spite of our vociferous support, this plan was not approved by the other workers, and we had no time to discuss it more seriously, for the very next day the bank took possession, and the safes were empty.

So we went to plan B, which was to attack the so-called ‘Claims Guarantee Fund’. This is a special body set up under EU rules into which every medium-sized and large employer is required to pay a minimum annual levy to be used to pay wages in the event of non-payment or company failure. The problem was that in the past, employers managed to push through legal changes in Parliament that made this fund inaccessible, introducing an unrealistic application deadline. The fund stood full of money (then nearly 260 million levs) that workers could not use, and under the pretext that the fund was full, employers had stopped compulsory annual contributions. Together with the workers, we decided to put pressure for the fund to be opened, continuing with the protests.

We set a date and time, inviting them to the union club the day before to prepare posters and banners together. Several people responded, and as we worked together on the materials we were able to bond. The next day we organized a protest that started at the doors of the shop and ended in front of the town hall. About a hundred people from Piccadilly and about ten or fifteen from the union joined in. After a few loud speeches, we headed to the creditor bank, which was now in possession of the company’s assets after its bankruptcy. The angry workers besieged the establishment and – to the horror of employees and customers – began pounding on the windows. After a brief scuffle with the police, passions subsided.

We were struck by the transfer of hierarchies from the workplace to the protest. The most vocal and active at the beginning were those from the lower levels of management – supervisors and site managers. The majority of workers, on the other hand, predominantly cashiers and cleaners, were passive and looked to the small managers for leadership. But the protests grew into a year-long campaign. Many of those who were active at the beginning became tired and disillusioned. But new leaders emerged from the majority of ‘ordinary workers’ who were determined to see the struggle through. In time, some of them stopped coming to meetings and cancelled their membership, but a few of the “new leaders” not only stayed but became some of our most active trade unionists. One of them, a woman of Turkish descent and a former cashier in Piccadilly, is now the national president of the union. But let us look at the campaign in detail, as it has led to some unexpected developments for ourselves.  

After the big protest in Varna, we started having regular meetings with the workers and organised several more protests, including a national one in the capital. It was attended by workers from the chain’s stores there, as well as workers from the telecommunications company Max Telecom, with whom we had been in contact for some time and who had also not been paid. The fact that we managed to unite the protests of people from different sectors facing the same problems at work was a great success for us. But the big surprise came when, during the protest, we were joined by several workers that nobody knew. When we started talking, we found out that they were from the Neochim chemical plant in Dimitrovgrad and had travelled several hundred kilometres to support the protest “against employer arbitrariness”. Unbelievable! We subsequently established a very close relationship with them. We went to Neochim several times (most recently last year when they needed help to put pressure on the management) and eventually in 2020 we came together in a common organisation, but more on that later. 

The protest in Sofia achieved its goals. Wage theft went national. In its aftermath, the mood and enthusiasm were whipped up. At about the same time, an unregulated strike broke out in a manganese mine near Varna. The day shift miners barricaded themselves in the mine and refused to come to the surface. The reason again was wage theft. Together with a few workers from Piccadilly we organised a small demonstration. All day long – together with miners from the other shift who had gathered in front to support their colleagues – we blocked the entrance to the mine.

We collected money for food for the strikers, which we dropped to them with a rope and a bucket underground. Struggling workers from Piccadilly exchanged experiences and shared solidarity with the striking miners. It was a great day. Eventually the strike was called off after the intervention of the yellow union, whose representative went underground with a management representative and, after countless exhortations, persuaded the workers to end the strike. Despite the union’s lies, they never received all the money they were owed. We are still in contact with some of the miners even though the mine is no longer operational and they are working elsewhere.  

This was the peak of the Piccadilly protests. Since then, we have organised several more actions locally, but with ever-decreasing attendance. A year had passed since the campaign started and gradually we all started to get demoralised. We reflected on how to make something good out of the inevitable failure, how to explain to the workers that although we had failed to win the wages, the struggle itself had been inspiring and had opened the eyes of many of us to the need for workers’ solidarity and resistance to boss arbitrariness. We didn’t want all this enthusiasm, especially of the workers who joined us, to dissolve into the mire of frustration and defeatism. But while we were considering exactly how to lose with dignity something unexpected happened – we won! The protests in the capital and the media attention to the problem had set the cogs of the political machine in motion. With an election looming, several opposition politicians decided to use the occasion to score social points by putting amendments to the Claims Guarantee Fund Act to the vote. Thus over 800 Piccadilly workers received their due wages. Moreover, the opening of the fund meant that all other workers across the country who had similarly been victims of wage theft would be able to get their money from the fund. Over 4,000 people benefited in just one year after the fund opened. A spectacular victory that showed how, when workers fight for their material interests, they have the power not only to win, but to win gains for the entire working class. This was our greatest victory. 

It was during the campaign with the Piccadilly workers that the moment came when we could now rightly call ourselves a real trade union organisation, capable of waging serious struggles and winning.

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