Interview with Jovica Lončar from Organization for Workers’ Initiative and Democratization

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Jovica Lončar from the Organization for Workers’ Initiative and Democratization lives in Zagreb, Croatia. For the last eight years he has been involved in workers rights, activism and also ecology. He has never been a member of a political party and studied technology, philosophy and literature.


“Croatia used to be more or less a two party system: social democrats and Christian democrats. But this has been changing. For the last 27 years Christian democrats have ruled in the government. There have been coalitions with smaller parties, but these were the two main parties. To have Croatia’s political landscape, we should also mention the liberal party and we also have a couple of regional parties. In the last couple of years we also have a few anti-establishment parties that have emerged and some of them have managed to come in the parliament since the last election. We have never had a green party in the parliament. The biggest success a green party (Sustainable Development of Croatia) had was during the European elections three or four years ago, just after Croatia entered the EU. They managed to get one MP elected and he is still in the European parliament.


Almost ten years ago I was involved in a student movement and we had quite a bit of activities: we did a couple of student protests and also a blockade of the educational process. From that moment on, some of us got interested in workers’ issues and started to make connections with worker movements, trade unions and so on. They had issues of their own since a lot of companies went bankrupt and a lot of workers ended up not getting paid. When we were still in the student movement, we used to come out and support them in their protests. Another issue is that workers’ rights are not really developed: a lot of people are working without getting paid, their wages are too low or you’re discriminated if you belong to a minority.


“Our idea from the beginning was to try to connect with workers’ movements and the trade unions.”


Our idea from the beginning was to try to connect with workers’ movements and the trade unions that seemed to be doing a good job in representing people, organising strikes and so on. We wanted in some way to help them as well. We succeeded in doing so and we helped them in organising, but also with attracting media coverage, so with different sorts of little things. Organisations that were not visible before are now visible and people who didn’t knew each other are now communicating. The groups are also very diverse: from trade unions, to non-governmental organisations and organisations that are into green issues, women issues or LGBT+ issues. I’m not claiming it was all our merit, but we played a part in that whole change. The trade union movement and the workers in need found themselves in pretty bad situations: they were not getting paid because their companies went bankrupt. They also were having a very hard time getting media coverage to talk about these issues. As we had a lot of connections to journalists from our student base, we used those connections for the people who needed it.


Most members of the trade unions are in the public sector and maybe only 20% of the workers in the private sector are a trade union member. So the media automatically uses this narrative that all these people are working for the state, so they have the best jobs. They only selfishly want more and the strikes serve a greedy purpose. The media’s perception of trade unions is pretty bad in Croatia, like in most of Europe. And for that reason, young people came and said: “That’s not the case, a trade union is something that is good and is needed in a society, they have their roll. Trade unions don’t take advantage of the society.” That message actually got through to the media in the beginning, but it was difficult to keep it up. Thanks to several non-profit media outlets, we established ourselves. We made it possible to intervene in the media space.


Every couple of years, there’s a big wave of company bankruptcies, even bigger than the last one. When it happens, you have a lot of people who are on the streets, striking, trying to get their basic rights.


In 2014, when social democrats were in power, the government tried to privatise the Croatian highways. We were able to gather this broad coalition of civil society and trade unions in order to gather signatures for a referendum. In the end, we were able to gather enough of signatures, 10% of the electoral body. In the end, no referendum was organised, but they didn’t sell the highways either, so it was a big and successful action.


“[I]n Zagreb the civil society started a citizen platform that is trying organise a city assembly, […] to find ways to democratise the city and get more and more people involved in day-to-day life.”


Now in Zagreb, the civil society started a citizen platform that is trying to organise a city assembly. They find it a bit of a struggle to get to know all these different levels of governance, what is going on, find ways to democratise the city and get more and more people involved in day-to-day life. It is important that workers can also collaborate in political parties, because it is an important way to influence laws and factories’ management. The latter is very difficult because our laws don’t enable them to influence the every day politics of their companies. In a lot of cases it ends up that the company goes bankrupt, not because it was a bad company or didn’t have a bad market, but because it was run in a bad way. And the people who were working there, who were actually making the product and creating the profit of the company didn’t have any say in what was going on until it was too late. And this happened and happens in a lot of companies.


Present-day social democrats actually originate from the old communist party, which was the ruling party from 1945 until 1990. It was established in 1920 from the trade unions and the working people, so it was a party of the people, party of the workers. The social democrats that we presently have, they have never been like that. They are actually a transformed bureaucratic communist party that lost connection with the working people. In the eighties only the bureaucrats remained in the party, so when they transformed to social democrats, they actually didn’t have much interests in representing working people anymore. And with time, they adopted all the liberal policies that came from German and British social democrats. Their politics are pretty similar to the British labour and the time of Tony Blair, or the German social democrats from Schröder until now.


The rights of workers were much better in the communist period. Especially in Yugoslavia. It was a softer version of the communism, if you compare it with the rest of Eastern Europe. People actually had high rights. We also had a free trade union movement. In in the eighties, there were a lot of workers’ strikes. Back then we had no laws against strikes, but now it is almost impossible to organise themselves, especially to self-organise, because, like in the most of Europe, we also have labour laws here that says that only the trade unions are entitled to organise strikes. So if you want to organise a legal strike, you can only organise it through trade union, you cannot self-organise while this was perfectly legal during the Yugoslavia time. So it is much harder now for workers to get their voice heard.


“[P]eople who are running right-wing parties like in Austria or in The Netherlands, [in Croatia] still are part of the Christian democrats.”


Concerning right wing politics, we have a kind of specific situation. Presently we don’t have anything that is more right wing than Christian democrats in the parliament. But they actually recovered a lot of people from smaller more extreme right-wing parties and gave them a place on their own lists. We don’t have one prominent right-wing leader, like the rest of Europe. The main reason is because our Christian democrats are still very powerful and unified and people who are running right-wing parties like in Austria and The Netherlands, here still are part of the Christian democrats.


In the beginning we tried to connect with trade unions, because our experience taught us that it would be extremely difficult to get to workers otherwise. Most of the trade unions don’t actually want anybody from the outside involved, however. They are kind of afraid, and want to defend each other. So we have problems to connect with them, especially with the big trade unions. We had some opportunities with smaller ones, because they don’t have enough resources and only then they start to open up for others coming in from the outside to help them. Our trade unions are not affiliated to political parties, we are more familiar with the British situation. Here we also have different ideologies of different trade union confederations, but the division between memberships is not that political.


“Solidarity between workers is very important, without that it is very difficult to connect with and to organise people who work in different places.”


We have around 25 people who are actually member of our organisation and who are actually helping to finance it, and about twenty to thirty people who are working with us on different projects. We mostly try to empower workers and try to unite people to organise. We also try to empower them in some way to become an agent of democratisation, because most of our trade unions lack real democratic procedures internally as well. This turns out to be a big problem when you want to organise strikes. But if they organise properly, they can be really efficient. The question that rests is what it means to organise properly and for us that means to strike where it hurts. That is pretty difficult. I will give you an example: when you want to increase wages or working conditions for people who work for Zagreb Electrical Tram, but when only they go on a strike and nobody else, then the chance that they will get what they demand is not high. Zagreb Electrical Tram is assembled together with all other public utilities in one big Zagreb company. If we also organise a strike in the waste collecting company or the public schools and we can coordinate and organise it in a proper way, the strike can be really effective and get demands. Solidarity between workers is very important, without that it is very difficult to connect with and to organise people who work at different places. Especially with these precarious and scattered jobs, where people work far from home and not like the old days in one big factory or in one building. We learned a lot from some partner trade unions from Great Britain, and also from Germany and we also like to collaborate a lot with people in other countries of former Yugoslavia, like Slovenia and Bosnia.


“Our biggest success was to have a couple of our activists employed in the trade unions with whom we started to collaborate.”


Our biggest success was to have a couple of our activists employed in the trade unions with whom we started to collaborate. It was really difficult to achieve something like that and it also meant that you had to have people in the trade unions that were able to understand why that would be good for them and it was really a long and hard process, but we’ve managed in a couple of cases and I think this is our biggest achievement. In the trade unions there tend to be more older people, because young people tend to work more in those precarious jobs and within these jobs it is very difficult to get people to organise, to educate themselves about their problems and so on.


The general unemployment rate fluctuates between 12% and 17%, but for young people it’s more than 30%. It has been like that for ten years for sure, and that’s one of the reasons why many people fled abroad after we joined the EU.


The educational program in Croatia is not that bad, but it could be better as well. People can study here and then go abroad to continue their PhD without any problem. Only for research maybe it ‘s more difficult, because you need more resources.”

Interview and photo by Sonderland