Base unionism in the public sector? (Base syndicalism at the back of beyond – 3rd part)

In 2019 it has been 5 years since the establishment of the trade union in Varna. In that time we had participated in many workers’ struggles, made many contacts and many workers had joined us, some as sympathisers, others as members of the organisation. The organisation changed – we had regular meetings which were increasingly well attended, we had treasurers and co-ordinators, we made reports and plans. We ourselves changed – over the years we gained more and more trade union experience, but also a clearer picture of the difficulties facing a new type of trade union organisation in Bulgaria. Both politically and purely organisationally. 

The time had come to create a functional national organisation capable of coping with the growing number of members and laying the organisational foundations for the expected even greater expansion. What we needed most was an organization capable of producing and pursuing its own common political line, setting strategic goals and mobilizing their implementation. The concept of autonomous syndicalism, which we often used interchangeably with anarcho-syndicalism, was too general and vague. We needed an organizational and theoretical basis. 

A new beginning: the 2019 Congress

In Varna, we have started intensive preparations for the national congress to adopt the statutes and principles of the organisation. The aim of the statutes was to lay the foundations described above and to establish national positions such as coordinator, administrative secretary, press secretary and so on. The principles were to form the ideological framework of the union and prevent the growth of the organisation from taking place at the expense of its political line, namely our declaration of struggle against capitalism and the state, opposing the division of workers by gender, nationality, etc. In other words, viewing the trade union struggle in the context of the struggle to build a classless society built on the principles of equality, freedom and mutual aid. 

We have thrown immense effort into preparing for the Congress. It was to serve both to lay the organisational foundations of our future activity and to present us politically to the workers with whom we had acted together in recent months and years. For the event we expected workers from Piccadilly, a group from the transport industry and from the chemical plants. Exactly two weeks before the congress. we learned of problems in our Sofia section. It was split over scandals and political differences, generally around the issue of identity politics and nationalism, and the split was accompanied by declarations, mutual insults and accusations. All this threatened the holding of the congress. We could not allow the warring Sofia factions to turn it into a circus, especially as so many workers from different sectors were going to attend, so we could not invite both groups. We were forced to take sides. With the convenient distance of time, it looks like we missed the opportunity to not invite either of them, which would have solved a lot of problems in the future, but… We chose the faction that opposed identity politics and emphasized workers’ struggles. Something that coincided with our own line. But there were also exacerbated nationalist tendencies among them. From the Varna section we thought we could influence them by offering a critique of both identity politics and nationalism, starting from class positions. 

The event went brilliantly. It was also the organisation’s first real congress. There were speeches and votes were taken and working groups were formed to discuss the union’s strategy as well as some tactical union issues. According to many of the participants, this was the best organised event they had attended to date in Bulgaria and all the individual participants came away extremely enthusiastic. In addition to the goals set beforehand, we decided to change the name of the organization so as not to deepen conflicts with the breakaway faction in Sofia. We left them the name ARS, and we changed our name to ARC (Autonomous Workers Confederation). 

Offensive in the public sector

With the change of name and organisational structure, we  entered a new phase of the struggle. The creation of a real national organisation allowed us to work on a common strategy and focus. The establishment of positions such as press secretary and administrative secretary, secretaries and section coordinators, treasurers, etc., helped to divide tasks and helped us to expand our activities even further. Having a common treasury has also helped us to plan our expenses and pay for activities without having to constantly dig into our pockets for donations. Very soon we had the opportunity to try out our new organizational tools in practice.

The nurses’ protests

In the spring of 2019, mass protests broke out in the health sector. Thousands of nurses across the country rose up against low pay and poor working conditions. According to official figures, the country’s healthcare system is short of more than 30,000 nurses. Professionals are leaving the country en masse in search of better working conditions. Those who remain are subjected to intense exploitation, unbearable shifts and miserable pay. Many of them are long past retirement age, but cannot retire because there is simply no one to replace them.

The nurses’ basic salary is close to the minimum wage – around 700BGN. They are forced to work two or more jobs to survive. Why is there no money for the nurses? The state spends only BGN 5 billion from its budget into health care, which puts us second to last in Europe. At the same time, Bulgarians individually pay the most for health services in the whole of Europe – 48% compared to an average of 15% in other countries. Huge costs are passed on to patients, who pay twice – once through their health insurance and a second time through direct payments, but these do not go towards improving health care but sink into private hands. In 1999, hospitals in Bulgaria were transformed into commercial companies. The National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) was established and through the so-called ‘clinical pathways’ scheme (also known as ‘money follows the patient’), the siphoning of public funds from the system began. The scheme proved extremely profitable – hospital directors and some of the medical elite made millions, at the expense of health care workers and patients. The hundreds of private hospitals that have sprung up like mushrooms in the country, which, although private, operate mainly with public funds from the NHIF from where they make their huge profits, have also joined in the massive theft.

We were in contact with the protesting nurses even before the 2019 congress. At the congress we had decided that the health sector would be the focus of the organisation for this year. In pursuance of this decision, we deepened our contacts with the nurses and joined the protests – initially as a group of workers and trade unionists in solidarity with the struggle, and subsequently as co-organisers. The nurses’ demands were socially responsible and even radical for the Bulgarian context – a drastic increase in the basic salary for all medical professionals, equal basic salaries for nurses across the country, a return to medical standards and opposition to the commercialisation of healthcare.

The protests began with a series of local protests outside dozens of hospitals across the country, and then transformed into nationwide protests where thousands of nurses (and us) flocked to the capital. We participated in the organization of several such nationwide protests, where we blocked streets, organized a tent camp in front of the Ministry of Health and other similar actions.

During one of the protests, together with the nurses, we overran the headquarters of the largest hospital trade union, the KNSB/CITUB, whose leadership had been involved in the dismissal of one of the labour leaders at the country’s largest private hospital, Tokuda.

The headquarters of the KNSB/CITUB decided (or were ordered) to intervene to appease the union. So they decided to organize a fake protest with miserable demands that would be convenient for the government. As soon as we learned of the yellow unions’ preparations for a protest, we attacked them viciously on our media and called on the nurses to boycott the protest. The anti-campaign was a complete success – only a few dozen people gathered at the fake protest, all KNSB/CITUB union reps from different hospitals and not a single rank and file nurse. The protest was a fiasco. 

The nurses’ protests lasted for more than a year, during which time the idea of forming a new nurses organisation was hatched among them.

In our organization, we discussed the issue at a series of meetings and decided that the best strategy was to help the sisters form their own independent organization rather than persuading them to become a section of the ARC. First, because we were not yet ready organizationally to welcome several hundred, and perhaps more, nursing workers. Second, because the nurses’ organization was not yet established and it was not clear what path it would take. After all, we were not just a small trade union, but one that was proposing a radically new (for Bulgaria) type of trade unionism, and it was important that this vision was understood and at least to some extent shared by the new organisation before we came together in a formal common structure. In the short and eventful period of our acquaintance with the sisters, we did not have enough time to discuss in depth the principles of the work of our organisation, the principles of autonomous trade unionism. Therefore, we decided that instead of inviting the sisters into the ARC, it would be better to help them build their own independent organization, along the way helping them to organize democratically, as a class organization with a focus on direct action, and in time, when the organization is stable and has a clear vision and direction, to discuss how we can come together in a common structure.

We were actively involved in discussions about the new nurses organisation, putting forward arguments towards an independent trade union, against other proposals such as the creation of an association of health care professionals. In the end, the nurses established both, but only the union organization was filled with substance. The name of the union was chosen to be SBMS – the Syndicate of Bulgarian Medical Specialists.

Apart from the protests, we actively participated in the establishment of the sections of the SBMS in the cities where we also had sections. In Varna and Sofia, where the largest sections of the ARC were, we invited nurses to use our clubs for meetings, and apart from sharing the premises themselves, many of the meetings were joint – with ARC workers attending the SBMS meetings and vice versa, nurses often coming to the ARC meetings. Eventually we started sharing the rent as well.

In just a few months, sections were organized in dozens of cities and hospitals across the country, and the membership of the newly formed nurses’ union swelled to 600-700 people. The response was not delayed. Hospital directors began a crackdown on active nurses. Two of the union organizers in Sofia were fired on trumped-up charges. This was followed by the sacking of chairmen of sections of the new union around the country – in Burgas, in Stara Zagora, etc. The leader of the nurses’ section in Varna was attacked with threats and subsequently with cuts in salary and bonuses.

Subsequently, almost all of those dismissed were reinstated by the courts, as the dismissals were completely illegal, but the effect of intimidation was achieved.

It was the protests that provided the basis for the creation of the SBMS. At their peak, the nationwide protest in March in Sofia involved over 2000 nurses. After more than a year, the protests began to thin out, which is normal for this type of mass mobilization. People are exhausted, especially when it comes to people working one of the toughest jobs in the world. At the same time, although the main organizers of the protest were a few nurses from Sofia, the participation of nurses from Sofia hospitals was noticeably low. Most of the protesters were from hospitals in the countryside, traveling by bus each way to Sofia for the nationwide protests. This costs money, not everyone can afford to do it every month or two, especially when they work for close to minimum wage.

So the organizers in Sofia had to get creative to keep the `spark` going. On 17 October, shortly after another nationwide protest, 7 nurses tried to occupy the Ministry of Health from inside. They went inside and refused to come out, while we from ARC together with a dozen other nurses were enforcing their blockade from outside. However, after several hours of negotiation, the blockade was lifted and the nurses came out. Less than a year later, on 7 March 2020, again after a protest in Sofia, several nurses occupied the National Assembly building, going inside and refusing to come out. The occupation continued into the night, until the government sent in the NSO (National Security Service) to try and clear the building from the inside – at which point NSO agents attacked the nurses, and one of them managed to escape and was only caught after an impressive chase across the rooftops of parliament.

Although the mass protests helped generate the necessary enthusiasm among the profession to form a new union, and although the spectacular occupations, tent camps and street blockades made the nurses’ protests headline news in all national media, they did not result in the nurses’ demands being met. The only victories that were achieved were in a few hospitals in smaller towns (Sliven and Karlovo) where nurses organised effective strike action and won significant wage increases. Today, more than 2 years after the beginning of the struggles in health care, we can use this experience to draw some conclusions. Foremost among these is the paramount importance of workplace organisation. Mass protests have had an effect in drawing attention to the problems of the profession, but there is no power in them. The power of the workers is industrial power and it is not in the square but in their workplace. Where nurses were able to organize at their workplaces and lead the fight directly against their immediate bosses – there the fight was successful. What the sisters need to do, and what all workers leading struggles need to do, is to focus their energies on their particular workplaces, on the daily struggle against their immediate bosses. Only then can workers build the strength necessary to improve not only their working conditions and pay, but those of the entire sector and the entire working class. It is only when we as workers have the strength in our own workplace to say no to the bosses that we can unite these forces and win victories at the national level as well.  

To start a discussion on these very issues, in early 2020, in Varna, we decided to start a union newsletter with a focus on healthcare. Together with some of the active nurses in Varna, we came up with the name – `Medical Alarm Clock` and started working collectively on its publication. The idea was to make it our independent voice in the sector. The newsletter was published both electronically (we created a website and on paper, with a first print run of 800 issues and 40 pages. Half the articles in it were written by nurses, the other half by trade unionists from the ARC. We used the medical newsletter both to spread news of the nurses’ struggle around the hospitals (nurses from the SBMS helped us with distribution in dozens of hospitals around the country), interviews with nurses on the front lines of the struggle, and analyses of the health care situation, and to suggest different tactics and strategies for moving the union struggles forward. In the first issue, we argued for the idea of forming a union rather than an association. In the second, where union organizing was already a fact, we promoted the idea of organizing nationwide industrial action in the form of an overtime ban, which generated a lot of discussion. Given the specific nature of the nurses’ activity, the restrictive legislation, and the weakness of the new nursing union in most hospitals, an effective strike would be very difficult to implement at a national level. But refusal of overtime could be successful. Given how much hospitals rely on nurses’ overtime, this type of industrial action would have had a serious effect. Unfortunately, the discussions did not lead to any real mobilization, and the main nursing leaders in Sofia continued with what they had been doing – organizing protests and spectacular actions outside the hospitals.  With the onset of the pandemic, the actions and protests died down, and the active nurses turned to setting up new structures and joining local collective agreements.

The struggle of transport workers

In the autumn of 2020 protests broke out in Varna’s public transport. This happened after the management announced that they intended to lay off over 300 conductors. Upon receiving the news, the workers went on a spontaneous protest in front of the bus depot. When we heard about the protest, we immediately contacted our contacts at City Transport – Varna (who we have had since the time of the congress in 2019 in which city transport workers also participated) and informed ourselves about the situation. Urban Transport – Varna is a municipal enterprise and like most public enterprises in the country it is highly unionised – there are 5 unions in the enterprise covering 100% of the workers. However, none of the unions wanted to support the protesting transport workers. But we were going to support them. The reason for the cuts was the introduction of an automatic ticketing system that made the conductors’ work redundant. We are not, of course, against technological progress, but we are against 300 workers being made redundant in the middle of winter, in the middle of a pandemic, and without adequate compensation. That is why we  united around the demands for a postponement of the redundancies until at least the spring and 3 times higher compensation for the workers than is provided for in the order. 

 We organized a series of meetings at the union club to which an average of 15 to 30 transport workers came – mostly conductors (since it was they who would be hit by the cuts), but also drivers who wanted to support them. Together with the workers we organised another protest at the bus depot. 

The workers decided to have the protest at 4:30 in the morning, because that’s when the drivers were covering the shift and it would be the liveliest, and we were counting on their support as well. It was the weirdest time of the day that we did mobilization, but we still managed to mobilize. The protest went well, but not with much activity from either the drivers or the majority of the conductors who were afraid to speak on the megaphone and actively participate lest they be labeled as leaders. 

Then we organized a bigger protest, this time in front of the City Hall. More workers joined in and there was less fear because we were away from the depot and the eyes of the management. We also got serious media coverage. Apart from direct action, we also activated all the other tools at our disposal – we wrote articles, we filmed a series of videos on public transport buses, we wrote letters to the European Commission responsible for funding the project under which the machines for which people were to be made redundant were introduced, we organised meetings with nurses from Varna who wrote a declaration in solidarity with the transport workers.  But protests and other actions were not enough, we needed industrial action to force the management to back down. The problem was that the workers had no industrial power – they had become redundant and the machines were already installed on the buses. How can you strike when the company doesn’t need your labour anyway? The only thing we could count on was the drivers joining the strike out of solidarity and refusing to pull the buses out of the depots. That was the strategy, albeit a risky one, and on that basis we took action. We organised a series of meetings with conductors and drivers. We set up a section of the ARC in Urban Transport which about 50 people joined – mainly conductors, but also a few drivers and mechanics. We submitted a notification to the management to start effective strike action. We decided to act according to the law because the workers were afraid of an unregulated strike, which was a very justified fear given their vulnerable position, their lack of industrial strength and the fact that they risked losing what little benefits the management was throwing at them. The management tried everything to stop us bringing in the official strike papers – they barricaded themselves in their offices and wouldn’t let anyone into the building. The local Labour Inspectorate also joined in as an accomplice of the Director of Urban Transport, refusing to accept our documents and complaints. In the end, this delay put us in the situation of launching the strike just a week before the cuts took effect. The lack of time, as well as the lack of a clear willingness on the part of the drivers to join in solidarity with their colleagues, tipped the scales and at the meeting 2 days before the scheduled start, together with the workers we decided to call off the strike. A week later, the workers’ redundancies took effect and 300 people lost their jobs. Despite the setback, the workers were grateful that we had stood by them in the struggle and were impressed by the union’s actions, which were unlike anything they had seen before from the affiliated unions. So, after the protests ended and the conductors were laid off, a group of drivers decided to form an ARC section in Urban Transport. After an attempt to join the collective agreement in the enterprise, an action necessary for our union members not to lose all their social benefits, the affiliated unions, in complicity with the management, succeeded in fixing us and isolating us from the contract, by providing false documents (with the help of the Labour Inspectorate) and other tricks. Then the reprisals began, as unionists from the newly established section started receiving threats against themselves and their relatives. Two of them quit the union because of the repression, and the rest were disheartened. So we decided not to announce the newly formed syndicate publicly until we had gathered enough people in numbers and in confidence to resist the attacks of the leadership. We decided to set a deadline to gather people and strength by September 2021 when we would formally announce the union section and attack the collective agreement again, and until then, the section would function as an informal group. 

Inter-syndicate meetings

In the midst of the struggle in Urban Transport, we decided to start an initiative to organize monthly inter-union meetings. The idea was that once a month we would get together workers and trade unionists from the different sectors and workplaces in the region where we had sections or supporters. The first meeting was attended by workers from ARC – Varna, the IT section, the Art Gallery section, as well as drivers from City Transport, conductors and nurses. The meeting was extremely productive, especially considering that it took place in the midst of the struggle in Urban Transport – workers exchanged experiences, tactics and strategies were discussed and solidarity was shared between workers from different sectors. Afterwards we held another similar meeting, which was also fruitful, but we temporarily stopped organizing them due to internal problems in the ARC and the pandemic. We believe that these types of gatherings are key to building class solidarity in the region and intend to resume them at the earliest opportunity. 

In the summer of 2020, we organized a trade union training, which brought together the most active workers from the ARC, from the nurses’ union and from the chemical plants in Dimitrovgrad. The idea was to propose for discussion the principles and tactics of autonomous trade unionism. As we organized the discussion panel, we included several points, including the most important (in our view) principles of basic unionism -overcoming occupational divisions, fighting for the whole class and not just union members, self-organization and worker power instead of negotiations and collective bargaining, etc.

The discussion was lively and interesting. Some of the issues provoked arguments and no unanimity was reached. At this meeting, a proposal came from the other organisations to unite the three unions into a common organisation – the NCT (National Confederation of Labour). This organisation came into being only a few months later. The process of its formation in turn became the catalyst for the break-up of the ARC and our departure from the organisation. It is this process that we will examine in the next and perhaps most important part of this text.

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