Base syndicalism at the back of beyond
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.
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.
Autonomous unionism is a weapon: struggles at work and beyond
When we formed the union in 2014 we had a pretty idealistic view of workers’ struggles and our role in all of this work. These were the years of the Occupy movement, the anti-capitalist revolts in Greece, the anti-establishment struggles in Spain, the Arab Spring, the anti-government revolts in Turkey, the Nuit Debout and general strikes in France and so on. We were strongly influenced by these movements and especially by the elements that distinguished them from previous protests, namely the assemblies and assemblies representing an attempt to seize public spaces from the control of the state and the logic of capital, and experiments with mass direct democracy. We had developed the conviction that it was enough to gather enough workers in an assembly that was organized on a direct-democratic principle, and from this alone the right tactics of struggle would emerge and radicalism would be born among the participants. Naturally, this was quite naïve and the experience we gained quickly brought us back to reality. Nevertheless, the concrete struggles we participated in showed us not only the limitations of organizing as workers, but also perspectives we had not suspected at the beginning. The struggles of the Piccadilly workers showed us not only the negative impact that managerial hierarchies in the workplace have on workers’ abilities to organize for effective struggle but also the possible trajectories for overcoming them. But beyond the petty tactical issues, the struggles in the early years of the union’s existence have revealed to us ever more clearly the potential that the working class has to overcome the artificial divisions imposed by capitalism and the state and become an engine for radical social change. Assemblies and mass meetings were just one of the tools available to the working class, among many others that we gradually began to discover. Workers have a key role to play in society and their struggles must be seen in this context. Therefore, after the victories of the first stage of the union’s activities, we have focused our efforts on linking workers’ struggles to the broader context of the city, the community and the diversity of social struggles existing beyond the workplace, however scarce they may be in Bulgaria.
Because of the struggles of the Piccadilly workers, and because of the many small victories in the smaller cases of unpaid wages and wrongful dismissals, we have gained some prominence in the city. More and more workers sought us out for advice or solidarity, most having heard about us from their colleagues or friends we had helped before. In one case, we were contacted by workers from an upscale restaurant in the city’s iconic Black Sea Hotel. The boss wanted to lay them off without paying their wages, using the excuse that he was bankrupt. After talking to the angry workers, we immediately mobilized for action. The plan was to act according to the strategy of rising tension that had already been tried many times in the union – first we start with something smaller, such as an article on the internet describing the employer’s arbitrariness, which we circulate in local Facebook groups. Then we start ringing the employer and threatening them that if they don’t pay immediately the union will start a campaign. We then picket (protest outside his business doors) or put posters and stickers around him, or both. Followed by a bigger protest, blocking streets, etc. with the idea being that each subsequent action is bigger than the last. This tactic creates tension with the bosses who see the situation escalating, which (in most cases) makes them pay. In this case, the employer backed down at the first step. After we wrote an article about his wage theft and circulated his name and picture, and the local media shared the news, his image and company suffered. So after just a few days all the money was paid and some of the workers became our members. During this period we also helped workers from a large tour agency in Varna, a worker from one of the local internet providers, etc.
Despite the positive results, almost all the struggles we fought were related to workers who had already lost their livelihoods. They turned to us because they thought they could not fight on their own. The unionization of the workers and the struggles that followed, whether successful or not, were most often an expression of the workers’ collective weakness, not their strength. If they had been strong in the workplace, if solidarity among them had been sufficiently developed, they would have been able to wage and win these struggles without the help of our organization. These types of after-the-fact struggles did not allow us to participate in the process of building solidarity and worker power in the workplaces themselves. Rather, they put us in a situation where we had to fill their lack, through activism. However, in the course of these struggles, some of the workers who actively participated alongside us learned a great deal about the need for solidarity with colleagues and the power of direct action, which we hope they will put into practice in their next workplace.
In addition to purely union struggles, the organization has also been active in a variety of community-oriented initiatives.
Against collection companies
In 2015, we launched a campaign against private debt collection firms that harass debtors of telecom companies, fast credit firms and banks. The campaign consisted of a series of articles against these companies, materials with tips on how to deal with them, poster and sticker campaigns, and the launch of a hotline to receive reports of harassment. The campaign was successful in the sense that we were contacted by hundreds of people, sometimes receiving five or six calls a day. It was also successful in that we helped some of them through advice or legal assistance. But the long-term plan, which was to organise a collective backlash against these companies, remained unfulfilled because of the individual nature of the cases.
Cultural events and initiatives
Alongside the campaigns and trade union conflicts, we also initiated numerous cultural events. Every year we organised a workers’ festival in the city centre, at which we screened films on anti-capitalist, social and trade union themes. We hosted trade unionists and revolutionaries from other countries who told us about their struggles. Locally, workers from Piccadilly joined the festival, sharing about their struggles and victories. Local bands played for free to support the cause. Many leftist and anarchist collectives from around the country also participated. With these events, we were able to attract many new members from the left activists, but not workers or casual passers-by.
Another annual initiative of the trade union was the organisation of a march for 1 May as well as 8 March. We also organised events with radical poets and numerous film screenings both at the union club and at various central venues around the city.
At our Congress in 2018 we decided to be more active in the area of migrant labour. In recent years we have seen an increasing trend of migrant workers in our country, mainly from Ukraine and the Russian republics, doing mainly (but not only) seasonal work. But Bulgaria is primarily an exporter of migrants. More Bulgarians work abroad (2.5 million) than in Bulgaria (2.2 million). Migrant labour is the main livelihood for most Bulgarians – both for those working abroad and for their families in Bulgaria, who rely on the monthly remittances sent by them. It is a key sector for the Bulgarian economy, yet those working abroad bring more money into the local economy than all foreign investors combined. So unlike in Western countries where trade unionists and political activists face the problems of language barriers, cultural differences, national divisions and restrictive migrant regimes, here the main problem is how to organise for struggle in the workplace once higher wages abroad are the easier way out for the vast majority of workers.
Our activity in the area of migrant labour has been quite high. We set up a `Migrant Workers Section` which was more of a committee than a trade union section. Through it, we started translating materials concerning labour rights in the European countries where most Bulgarians work – mainly England, Germany and Sweden. We used texts and materials from SolFed, FAU and SAC, as well as others we could dig up from the internet, such as materials published by the affiliated trade unions in the respective countries. Several union workers who work seasonally in the west brought detailed information on working conditions that was very useful to us. We organised training by putting up posters and distributing leaflets around the local employment agencies. We printed a booklet on employment rights which we gave free to departing people who visited our club. In it and in the online materials we produced, we tried to synthesize some of the basics, such as the state-regulated minimum wage and our rights as workers in the respective state, as well as contacts for local unions. The contacts we gave were primarily those of anarcho-syndicalist and base unions, but also those of caucus unions that have good translators from Bulgarian (in Germany, for example, the DGB has several Bulgarians working for the union).
We were actively involved in dozens of conflicts abroad. We were contacted by various Bulgarian workers, mainly from the transport and logistics sector. Most often it was again about unpaid wages or illegal dismissals. In one case, we helped drivers to retrospectively receive money owed by their German employer. In another, Bulgarian workers at XP Logistics’ warehouses near London were fired for laughing during the performance of the English national anthem. We put them in touch with people from the Angry Workers collective who helped them fight back. In a third, where we were helping truck drivers in Sweden (with the help of SAC), we even set up a migrant workers section. Unfortunately it quickly disbanded due to logistical and organisational problems, due to the workers not having enough time and enthusiasm, and because the struggle hit an obstacle.
In 2016, we began publishing a monthly, printed newsletter. In it, we covered the union’s current struggles, essays on strikes and protests around the world, and theoretical texts on anarcho-syndicalism. It was difficult to publish the newsletter every month. The problem was mainly one of distribution, which happened mostly internally – in the syndicate’s clubs, at events and protests we participated in or organised. But if we draw the line at the money and effort wasted on the editorial and design, compared to the number of people it reached, the newsletter was more of an expensive pleasure than a real tool bringing concrete results.
Over the years we have held various initiatives: reading groups, discussion meetings, etc. In 2018, we organised a trade union training together with the workers of the chemical plants in Dimitrovgrad, where, in addition to discussing trade union tactics and the principles of autonomous trade unionism, we also screened a film about the workers of the Thessaloniki factory VIO.ME, who occupied it in 2011 and resumed production under workers’ control. The lectures took the form of a presentation and discussion dealing with the origins of the labour movement and with it the various political currents – anarchism, Marxism and their offshoots. These lectures played an important role in the political education of the newly joined workers and also of some of the `old` members of the trade union.
Trade unionists from our organisation were among the active initiators of several local environmental protests against property developers in Varna. We were also involved in national level eco-protests in 2017 and 2018. We also participated as speakers in two environmental conferences where we raised the issue of the relationship between workers’ struggles and ecology. One of the examples we gave was about the strike at the Obrochishte manganese mine mentioned above. The miners then brought out information about the private company running the mine, which made it clear that the management was pouring tons of poison into the nearby river. This led to an environmental disaster across the whole region. We also discussed the attempts of the government and employers to oppose environmental causes against workers’ interests. In many places workers are siding with the employers, that is, against environmental initiatives, mostly under threat of job losses. At the same time, many green activists in Bulgaria are completely unconcerned about the social impact of their policies, which further alienates workers. This is particularly true of the Green Party, which, unlike most similar parties in Europe, openly positions itself on the right.
In addition to the environmental protests, in this period we were actively involved in the two larger social ones. In Varna, they were more like the discontent against the 2013 electricity price hike – class-crossing protests with predominantly working-class participation, as opposed to the anti-corruption protests in the capital, which were also cross class but with more prominent participation of small businessmen and the professional classes, mostly lawyers. Social discontent against the fuel price hikes in 2018 quickly turned into demands for more comprehensive social reforms – wage increases, price cuts on necessities and nationalisation. At the second larger protest of this type, we managed to take the `helm`, initiating a meeting of the representatives of the different groups (motorcycle clubs, the BSP youth organization, the organization of mothers of children with disabilities, students, etc.). At the meeting we managed to direct the protest demands in a more social direction and to counter some nationalistic and propagandistic tendencies. By achieving this influence we realized that we had become an organization of local importance, a factor in the social life of the city.
The union’s membership also grew, though those joining were either individual workers (signing up after solving personal or small-collective cases, like the one at the restaurant) or left activists joining to help the cause. But that soon changed.
After a union member worked briefly at the City Art Gallery, a dozen workers decided to form a section of the ARU. It was also our first workplace section. We began to grow significantly. A little later we also created an IT section, which was joined by programmers from different cities, most of them members of the Bulgarian Anarchist Federation (FAB). The growth of the union and the many victories gave us confidence that we were on the right track, but also confronted us with a number of organizational problems. Politically, what our anarcho-syndicalism expressed itself in was opposition to reformism, to political parties and to participation in elections. Instead, we relied on workers’ self-organisation, class struggle and revolution as the only means of abolishing capitalist exploitation and state oppression. Tactically, this translated into direct action and direct democracy within the organisation. The trade union is run by the workers who are members on the principle of one man, one vote. Our long-term aim was to create an organisation that was capable not only of waging struggles in the workplace, but also of linking these struggles to wider social issues, that is, of politicising them. The goal, in other words, was to unite these fragmented struggles into a common, revolutionary struggle against the system. Today, we still defend these positions, but – then and now – we see them as woefully inadequate to lead an effective trade union struggle from a principled class position. Up to that point, the organisation had been working in a very chaotic way, and despite the many new people, we had still not managed to break out of the framework of the “friends group”. The sections functioned through weekly meetings which were supposedly democratic and anyone could participate, but in reality decisions were made by one or two of the active trade unionists. Most of the organisational work was also done by a few who overworked themselves. There was no common political line or strategy at national level, and in some sections even at local level. There were also no democratic institutions, apart from the good intentions of the leaders to `work anarchistically`. Above and below during this period (2018-2019), the more concrete dimensions of class struggle and the building of an authentic workers’ organisation crystallised before us. This was helped by our experience of previous struggles, as well as the entry into the organisation of several people with serious experience of base unionism from different countries in Europe and the Middle East. We have thus outlined some of the most important principles of our organisation:
- Overcoming occupational divisions (creating enterprise-wide unions rather than separate ones for each occupation);
- A strict class line, expressed in fighting for all workers, not just for the members of our sections;
- Democratic structure. Bottom-up decision-making, with each member having an equal vote with all others, and the main body being the union section meeting;
- Direct action and power building in the workplace, rather than negotiations and collective agreements.
Building on our strong class positions has taken the union to the next level, both organizationally and politically. But alongside this, many of the structural problems within the union, political differences and organisational impediments had crystallised, which we will hint at in the next part of the article, but will look at in more detail in the last.
Base unionism in the public sector?
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 ARU, 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 KNUB, 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 KNUB 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 case 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 CPSU 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 nursing 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 nursing 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 UBMS. 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 http://sestri.avtonomna.com/) 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 UBMS 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.
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.
Analysis and self-reflection
From the beginning of 2020, in Varna, we started a process of analysis of our actions so far as an organisation, from which came a serious criticism of the chosen organisational forms and the strategy for attracting members to the union. The struggles with the nurses, the transport workers and our experience with the City Gallery section were at the heart of this criticism. Not only was the ARC failing to stand up to the yellow unionism tendencies among our friendly unions and newly formed sections, but we ourselves were acting more and more like a yellow union and provider of ‘union services’. At the same time, in an effort to attract new members, we increasingly compromised the union’s political line. The concept of Autonomous Syndicalism (based on the traditions of anarcho-syndicalism) began to be diluted, and the entry into the organisation of dozens of new members, most of them either totally apolitical or drifting towards liberalism and/or nationalism, only added to this process. At the same time, severe conflicts emerged between the two largest sections of the ARC – the one in Sofia and the one in Varna – over issues of nationalism within the organisation. The Sofia organization was turning more and more openly to the right, and our failure as an organization to address these issues led to several people from the Varna section leaving the organization.
These political disagreements were accompanied by personal conflicts, which also contributed to exacerbating the rift within the organization. Against this background, we had to start discussions about unionisation with the nurses and workers of Neochim.
The proposal to form a joint confederation came more quickly than we had expected. Of course we also wanted to unite in a big general organisation, but we saw this in the future. Our plan for the present was to propose the building of a solidarity network of friendly unions to help each other in their struggles. The solidarity network would have given us the opportunity to act together and help each other without binding ourselves ideologically and organisationally. Coming together ‘on the fly’ without a clear vision for ourselves sounded absurd. But for the other organisations our political considerations were not on the agenda. For the nurses and for the workers of Neochim, this was an important step forward towards creating a nationally significant organisation. Questions about its character, its mode of organisation, its principles and methods of struggle seemed unimportant as long as we supported each other, were in solidarity and were larger. At the same time, the Sofia section of the ARC took an opportunist stance and began to actively agitate for the immediate creation of the new organization in concert with the other two organizations. The Varna section of the ARC and the IT section insisted on not being hasty. It became clear that our organization was divided and we could not formulate a common position on the issue of unification.
On top of that, the leaders of the nurses’ union insisted that we establish the new organization as quickly as possible, lest the big unions find out about the formation of the new organization and try to stop us. This increased the tension even more and eventually at a general meeting of the ARC we decided to join the newly formed confederation – a compromise on the part of the opponents of this decision which was made in order to preserve the integrity of the ARC.
In Varna we decided to try to do the best we could in the limited time we had and we managed to convince the other organisations and the ARC section in Sofia to postpone the incorporation for a few months so that we would have some time to at least try to work out some collective vision for the future federation.
To this end, we initiated a series of discussions to try to converge our positions on the type of trade unionism we want to practice and to try to determine some common direction for the future joint organisation in general.
During the discussions and meetings with the nurses and chemical workers, the democratic structure and class line, which are among the basic principles of autonomous trade unionism, were a priority only for the most active trade unionists of the ARC, and only in the Varna section (and in the IT section). For some of the other members of the union in Varna, as well as for all in Sofia, these issues were seen as unimportant or downright superfluous, and instead the opportunistic line of ‘uniting with the other organisations at any cost and in the quickest way’ was followed. This line of some of the active trade unionists of the ARC, especially of the core in the Sofia section, coincided with the tendencies among the other 2 organisations, who saw little point in discussing organisational and strategic principles, driven above all by the enthusiasm to be ‘united’, ‘in solidarity’ and more. For some of the leadership of these unions, the creation of a common organisation was a step on the road to national representation. For us, its hasty creation was a decisive step towards yellow unionism. When I say ‘us’ I mean the group that formed within the ARC, which was critical of the hasty merger with the other organisations and which tried (and still tries) to defend the principles of autonomous unionism . It includes all those who subsequently left the ARC – the active core of the Varna section, the IT section and some individual members on the ground.
We started to criticise the hasty establishment of the new organisation.
The proposal that was on the table was to create a national confederation – a bureaucratic structure uniting the three organizations with separate leadership, treasury, etc. This was absurd – the nurses’ union had just been formed and did not yet have a clear organisational structure. The ARC was also in the process of forming one after the 2019 congress, but this process was slow and difficult. The only stable organisation in the newly established confederation was the chemical workers’ union, which was, however, present in only one workplace. At a time when we and the nurses were throwing so much effort into building our national organisations, to throw ourselves recklessly into building a new one was a huge mistake. We didn’t have the resources for it.
The only thing this new organization would have brought was additional bureaucratic burden on the already thin foundations of our fledgling national organizations. Not to mention that we didn’t have the human capacity to fill these new institutions with content, and the only way that could happen was for some people to hold multiple positions (as happened when the new confederation eventually became a reality and many of its leadership members had to hold three positions at the same time – for example, as president of their workplace section, national secretary of their organization, and secretary of the new confederation). But the problems are by no means limited to these purely practical considerations. We represent three radically different organisations – an apolitical nurses’ union uniting nurses from across the country, an apolitical small chemical workers’ union uniting workers in one hall of the plant, and our organisation – a union with a revolutionary political line uniting mainly individual service workers (except in 1-2 workplace sections) and left activists with a vision of a new type of trade unionism. Although we have shown over the years that we can act together and help each other with the other two organisations, in order to be able to come together in an effective common structure, a lot of work had to be done to develop a common concept of how the trade union struggle should be waged, the internal organisation, and a common trade union and political vision. We had not yet done this work in our own organisation. As became clear during the discussions on the formation of the NCT and afterwards, we had no common position among the sections in the ARC on what autonomous trade unionism was, what our principles of action were, etc. The huge political differences within the ARC that had already surfaced around the discussions on nationalism erupted again in full force. At this point it was difficult to call ourselves an organisation. In this frenzied period and in the tense atmosphere it created, working to build a political line, a convergence of positions and a common vision of trade unionism both within the ARC and between the ARC and other organisations was simply impossible. However, we tried, but suggesting in-depth discussions on these issues was met as unnecessary stalling and almost an attempt to sabotage the formation process.
So we were gradually marginalised and lost the leading role we had at the beginning – both in the process of creating the new organisation and within ARC. The three organisations merged to form the National Confederation of Labour (NCT) and all those opposed to this line left the organisation, including half of the Varna section, Those of us who left the organisation were the main part of the ARC core over the last 6 years (all of the conflicts and initiatives discussed in this text were the work of people from this core, except for the nurses’ campaign, in which Varna and Sofia were involved on an equal footing). After our departure, nationalist tendencies in the ARC no longer met any resistance and finally dominated the organisation. In this sense, our departure cannot be seen simply as the separation of a group of dissenters, but as the end of the ARC as we had founded the organisation. The ARC was a great initiative and we are all proud of the successes we had in those 6 years of struggle. Unfortunately the organization was built on a weak foundation that collapsed at the first major strategic challenge.
In the previous 3 parts of this text we have traced the main activities we developed as part of the union in chronological order, sparing a more in-depth analysis and sticking to the initiatives organised in Varna or those in which the Varna section had a leading role. Today, when we are no longer part of the ARC, it is important for us to look back and see what we did well and what we failed at. And most importantly, to look for those lessons that will help us in our current and future struggles.
In the context of small conflicts in the private sector, individual or collective, most often over unpaid wages, we had almost 100% effectiveness – we won almost all the fights we fought. Of course, we have to keep in mind the specific context in which these struggles happened – they took place in non-unionized, precarious workplaces where workers had virtually either nothing to lose (it’s easier to change jobs than to fight for your rights) or had already lost it, as the struggles started round after workers were laid off/fired and/or had their wages stolen by bosses.
Things are different with our interventions in the public sector Unlike small private struggles, in large unionised public sector workplaces workers have a lot to lose and the nature of the struggles was quite different, as were their outcomes. Naturally, we achieved quite a bit there too – we made many valuable contacts in some of the most important sectors – health and transport. Thanks to these interventions, we maintain close relationships with dozens of workers across the country who trust us, and who are as willing to participate in solidarity with our initiatives and struggles as we are in theirs. We have been able to learn a great deal about the organization of work in the public sector, the most common problems among public sector workers, and potential trajectories for resistance. But in the end, both the health and transport struggles suffered immediate setbacks, though both can be seen in the long term as still ongoing. The failure in urban transport was due on the one hand to the weak position in which the workers were and the lack of industrial strength, and on the other to the lack of experience in our organisation of waging an effective struggle in the public sector. In the health sector, too, the struggle did not lead to immediate results – neither working conditions were improved nor nurses’ wages increased. There was some increase nationally, but it was planned rather than the result of our actions, and its size was a mockery. Even during the epidemic, the state refused to increase nurses’ salaries, instead offering them one-off bonuses. The only successes were achieved in those hospitals where the nurses’ collective was united and which had the strength to organise strikes and raise their wages. This they did entirely on their own, without us as an organisation helping them organisationally or strategically, except by encouraging them.
In the context of the new nurses’ union, we can mark as a success its very creation, in which we participated actively and whose motive and main driving force was the realization among nurses that yellow unions cannot defend workers, but instead workers must organize themselves into their own fighting unions with which to defend their interests. But its creation was only the first step. Where we failed as an organization is that we failed to help the sisters organize their union as a base union (autonomous, self-organized). Because of their genesis – street protests centered in Sofia – from the beginning the protest leaders in the capital also distinguished themselves as the natural leaders of the union. This is quite an expected and understandable development. But as the national structures of the organisation were built, it emerged as highly centralised and hierarchical, with the leadership centred in Sofia. We made repeated attempts to convince the sisters of the advantages of a democratic way of internal organisation and the principles of basic trade unionism. To this end, we organized a series of union trainings and discussions, both locally and nationally. For some minor organizational issues these had an effect, but overall they did not change the character of the organization, which remained a unionized, centralized organization focused on signing collective bargaining agreements and participating in government committees, which did not even hold a founding national congress. Union positions were simply allocated from above. The reason for this is not in the bad intentions of the leaders, but rather can be sought in the fact that in the grassroots structures most of the sisters have no trade union experience whatsoever, while some of the leaders in Sofia have their experience as trade unionists in the structures of the yellow unions. This experience has proved both invaluable in solving some immediate union problems and dealing with repression of nurses at the grassroots, and harmful in that it has unwittingly carried the practices of the caste unions into the organizational structure and day-to-day activities of the newly formed nursing union.
Although resentment against yellow unions was the main motive for the creation of the new nursing union, it unwittingly took the same type of unionism. And this is a failure not of the nurses, for whom it is quite normal to replicate the only known models, which in Bulgaria are limited to yellow unionism, but of the ARC. For all our claims to be an organisation offering a new type of base unionism, and despite enjoying and still enjoying the full confidence of the workers, we have failed to lead them in that direction. This is due in part to reasons beyond our control, such as the complete absence of any trade union tradition beyond yellow unionism in Bulgaria. But on the other, our failure to act as a united organisation during the campaigns with the workers and especially in the process of unionisation with the other two unions.
The inability to articulate a clear political line is rooted in the organisational weakness of our organisation, determined by its very genesis and development over the years. Despite our active work and the many successes we have achieved, the union has had some problems from the very beginning. Although it was organized as an anarcho-syndicate and we adhered to anarchist symbolism, in reality only 3-4 people out of an average of 30-40 active members of the Varna section, shared anarchist ideas and identified themselves as anarchists. The Varna syndicate included activists from a variety of ideological currents – left communists, Trotskyists, generally leftists, but they were also a minority. Although the most active trade unionists were from the groups listed above, in reality the mass of members were either completely apolitical or inclined towards some of the mainstream ideologies of the moment – nationalism, liberalism, etc. Apoliticism was dominant and all issues of strategic and theoretical nature were discussed in only a very narrow circle, while most members were not interested in them.
From the very beginning of our active organizing, to avoid some of the bad (and wrong) associations that most people make when they hear startling words like anarchism and communism, we decided that we needed something new. So we developed our concept of “Autonomous Syndicalism”. The idea was on the one hand to put the theory and practice of basic syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism, in an acceptable package, and on the other hand to be able to enrich and transform them into something different by embodying our own experience of struggles in the new concept. It was also a good way to iron out the contradictions between the representatives of different revolutionary currents in the syndicate. The idea was that Autonomous Syndicalism could serve as a common platform in which anarchists and other revolutionary leftists could unite around a class line and a self-organized type of syndicalism. So instead of talking about anarcho-syndicalism, we started talking about autonomous syndicalism. This was one of the tools to achieve the main strategic goal we had set ourselves when we created the ARC in 2019 – the building of the organisation. The other two, more important tools for this were our actions on two fronts – recruiting members among politically active people and recruiting members among individual workers and creating workplace sections. On the first strand we quite consciously welcomed people of different political persuasions into the organisation – anarcho-syndicalists, communists, Stalinists, etc . The idea was that in Bulgaria the left is too small to be able to afford sectarianism, while at the same time the arena of class struggle is a place that can unite different tendencies in a common goal and over time, in collaboration within the organization, bring their positions closer together. On the other strand the method was similar – to bring as many workers as possible into the organisation and, once they were inside the organisation, to act to introduce them to the ideas and practice of autonomous trade unionism, to the different political currents within the union and .. in short to politicise them and help them if not to become active trade unionists, at least to understand what we do in the union and why. I think we failed on both counts. Over the last two years we have thrown all our efforts into recruiting new members and creating the infrastructure to ensure that expansion of the organisation, while at the same time almost completely neglecting action towards ideological cohesion and developing a common political vision for the organisation. At the founding congress in 2019 we had decided to work together on theoretical texts that would serve as the ideological basis of the union – a task that was badly needed and which we never fulfilled.
At the same time, in the name of recruiting as many new members as possible, the union’s main tactic has been to disguise the ideologies underlying its foundation in order to “not scare the workers”. This concealment of ideologies, besides being unfair to new members and our friendly organisations, has played a bad joke on the people who share them.
Thus, on the one hand, the union has been filled with people who have no idea what organization they belong to, and on the other hand, this tactic has given power to the dominant ideologies and practices in the state (nationalism, yellow unionism, liberalism) to gradually infiltrate the union. In the end, it turned out not that the new members did not know what organisation they belonged to, but vice versa – politically active people turned out to be members of an essentially apolitical organisation.
Both the new members and that part of the old members who generally did not hold the union to be associated with particular left ideas began to insist that the goal of the union struggle was not some ideology but the effective performance of the day-to-day tasks of the union.
The road to this situation was paved by what in the classical labour movement is called voluntarism and opportunism. Voluntarism is the idea that only with enthusiasm and activism can we create strong class organisations. Opportunism is when politics is abandoned or hidden in exchange for short-term goals such as rapid organizational growth. We based ourselves on the idea that you can build a mass fighting union in a period of low working class activism. To that end, the union accepted anyone who wanted to join, the idea seeming to be that if we could get all these people around us, eventually everything would just sort itself out. This strategy, even in a time of heightened class struggle, would have been risky, and outside of that period it proved disastrous.
Thus, as the organization grew and as it united with the nurses and chemical plant workers, this problem became even more acute. Our organization was unable to follow a unified and clear political line. This inability was clearly manifested when we had to work to develop a common union line with the nurses’ and chemical workers’ organizations. They are apolitical organizations, and apolitical organizations, because of the lack of a political line of their own, tend to follow the dominant ideologies in society (nationalism, liberalism) and the dominant practices in labour struggles (yellow unionism). Instead of confronting these tendencies as a cohesive organization, and presenting a clear alternative to base unionism, the opposite has happened – we have allowed these tendencies among other organizations to link up with the same tendencies long existing in ours, and become the dominant political line, with autonomous unionism being pushed into a corner.
The hasty establishment of the new confederation was of course not the result of organisational or strategic mistakes alone. All the participants found themselves in the common situation where they all think they are talking about the same thing and are filled with a lot of hope, when in fact they are not talking about the same thing. This can be clearly seen with the confusion of the nationalist ideas and our own.
Of course, we can find fault for this defeat in a multitude of individual and collective mistakes, but the question of organisation stands out clearly before us. On the one hand, we have always been guided by the idea that we need a strong and mass organization to serve as a catalyst for the class struggle as well as for the political and organizational training of the workers. By learning to self-organize and manage our unions, we and other workers are preparing ourselves for the management of our economic sectors and society as a whole. But organization, apart from the enormous administrative costs in terms of labor, time and money, often becomes an end in itself. The expansion of the organization, its strengthening and the attraction of new members inevitably takes an increasingly central role and threatens to shift and distort our focus from the class position that should address the interests (and struggles) of the class as a whole. An example of such a conflict between the class line and the interests of the organization can be discerned in our approach to the nurses’ initiative. We chose a strategy of encouraging the formation of a nurses’ union not because it would move the nurses’ struggle forward, but because it served the interests of our organization and future unionization with the nurses, which could only have happened formally if they had formed a union similar to ours. If we had focused our efforts on helping nurses better organize in their workplaces instead of building a national organization, perhaps it would have made more difference to the struggle and in the long run would have helped workers in the sector get off the rails of caste unionism. Similar considerations have dominated our policy towards our newly established Art Gallery and City Transport sections, with the same results accordingly.
Another significant organisational problem we have faced over the years, and which has come to the fore in full force over the last year, has been our inability to move out of the role of union service providers, particularly in the public sector. In our struggles with the transport workers, we organised all the paperwork around organising a strike, submitting demands, drafting a CBA, setting up sections and so on. Even in cases where we had successes, like setting up the Art Gallery section and signing a collective agreement, in the end we won nothing. This section has been a part of the ARC for almost 3 years now, but our relationship is exactly the same as it would be in a yellow union – they seek us out when they need help with paperwork or writing complains and statements, but hardly get involved in the union’s activities otherwise. This was all the result of the passivity of workers who were used to seeing the union as some higher authority that should solve their problems. But also from our willingness, as an organisation, to step into that role, feeding the illusion that someone else could fight for workers’ interests.
These things make us think, do we even need the traditional trade union structure with all the paperwork and bureaucracy associated with it, when all the successes we have had so far have been related to direct action actions, organising informal meetings and assemblies with workers, industrial action and collective acts of solidarity? Do we need endless union meetings on bureaucratic details instead of discussing strategies and tactics of struggle? Do we need a huge membership that doesn’t understand the principles of autonomous unionism and that uses us as union service providers, no different from the case unions?
These questions, after 6 years of active organizing, also contributed to our decision to leave the ARC and look for new forms of organizing, beyond traditional unionism, that would allow us not to waste time and energy on bureaucracy, but to focus on concrete struggles and the political education of those involved. This critique is not directed at the need for organization, but the opposite. What we seek is the building of a strong class organization capable of working out strategic and political goals and putting them into practice. One that does not replicate the models of yellow unionism, but is focused on building the collective power of workers in their workplaces, on self-organisation and struggle, one which does not compromise its political line for short-term gains, but stands on firm class positions.
8 thoughts on “Base syndicalism at the back of beyond”
You seem to make a very realistic evolution.
What do you think about the KAI (the Kommunist Workers International, with Herman Gorter and the KAPD) in which the Bulgarian Left Kommunists participated?
What is your analysis about struggles in the 1940-50s in Bulgaria, which were heavely repressed by the Stalinists?
Hi Jan, Im one of the members of Konflikt in Varna.
The history of the left communist faction is largely forgotten in Bulgaria and there are no recent texts about it. All we know is coming from the distorted “official history” of the Bulgarian Communist party or from foreign sources. What I know is that the largest left communist faction was based in my home city – Varna. The leadership and most of the members were industrial workers in contrast of the communist party which was lead by intellectuals. I think they had an official rule in the party statutes about workers leading the party that forbade intellectuals.
It was destroyed during the mass state repression after the unnecessesful September Uprising in 1923 and never recovered. We plan to go to dig into the city archives sometime in the near future and try to write a comprehensive history of left Communism in Varna (and maybe elsewhere in Bulgaria If we find enough information) so hopefully soon we’ll publish something on the matter.
Following the question of the German comrades, what do you guys think about the platformist Bulgarian Anarchist Communist Federation?
Hi Mike. Are you talking about the current one or the historical one?
hi comrade, The I meant the historical one. I don’t know nothing about the present one (if you could explain it as well, you’d do me a favour).