Economic Crises, Labor Movements and New Forms of Resistance in Central and Eastern Europe
The article has been originally published in the blog of the International Sociological Association: The Futures We Want. Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World.
Adam Mrozowicki and Justyna Kajta
In the last 25 years, Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries have been deeply affected by deep economic transformations and cyclic recessions. Yet, the intensity and scope of trade union mobilization in the region were rather limited as compared to Western and Southern Europe. Sociologists and labor scholars offered several explanations for this situation. They pointed, among others, to the role of state socialist legacies of passive and state-dependent trade unions, structural labor weakness under new capitalist conditions and the expansion of market-liberal, individualistic workers’ subjectivities.
The thesis about labor weakness has been challenged by scholars analyzing growing trade union assertiveness in pay demands, new union activism and organizing campaigns in multinational companies in the first decade of the 21st century. A slow process of union renewal was explained by economic recovery in the mid 2000s, mass migration abroad following the European Union enlargement, as well as the transformation and internationalization of union strategies.
Some observers expressed their hopes that trade unions might be able to regain a more prominent place in CEE politics and societies following the economic downturn of the late 2000s. However, regardless of notable exceptions, the crisis did not contribute to strengthening national and sectoral level social dialogue. Conversely, the further decentralization of collective bargaining took place. It was accompanied in some countries by unilateral wage cuts and freezes in the public sector, further flexibilization of employment and austerity measures imposed by international financial institutions and the European Union.
Yet, even though strike levels in CEE in 2009-2013 remained on average lower than in the Western and Southern Europe, trade unions in the region did not remain passive. In some countries, including, for instance, Poland, Lithuania or Estonia, they resorted to unilateral strategies against the precarisation of employment and austerity measures, involving trade union organizing, street protests and public campaigns. In others, such as Slovakia and Slovenia, responses based on sectoral and national level collective bargaining remained important despite an observed shift towards more decentralized models. The role of labor mobilization in defense of high quality public services and against their privatisation and liberalisation is particularly worth mentioning.
What is relatively new in the region is the growing relevance of collective mobilization of unions and workers beyond traditionally understood employment relations and workplaces. Protests involve awareness raising campaigns about the problems of precarious workers which make use of social media and internet, experiments with community-based organizing by smaller, often politically radical unions (such as Workers’ Initiative in Poland) and the emergence of non-union organizations that seek to represent those in atypical employment and self-employed.
The shift from traditional approaches, based on collective bargaining and social dialogue, to more innovative ones coincides with new forms of citizens’ mobilization. The examples of the latter include new urban movements in Poland fighting for the rights of tenants in privatized tenements, anti-corruption and anti-austerity movements leading to spectacular anti-governmental revolt in Slovenia (in 2013), as well as reinvigorated far-right movements in Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and other CEE countries. Due to the protracted decline of post-socialist left and the relative weakness new left movements, collective discontent in CEE is increasingly framed in nationalistic terms and expressed as protest voting and growing support for radical right-wing parties.
The various forms and expressions of workers’ and citizens’ discontent in CEE leads us to a number of questions which will be addressed during the panel on “Economic crises, labor movements and resistance in Central and Eastern Europe”, as a part of the ISA Research Committee 44 program for the ISA Forum of Sociology in Vienna. Can we observe a “disenchantment of the market” in Eastern Europe? Is it possible to speak about the emergence of “counter-movements” against the unleashed expansion of the market forces across the region? What are the relationships between labor movements and other social movements of protests, including nationalist movements?
While the postulates of labor movements clearly reflect a need of stronger regulation and social embeddedness of markets, the Polanyian idea of counter-movements for greater social protection might fit uneasily the postulates of nationalist movements in some CEE countries. The revival of nationalist/radical right movements in Central Eastern Europe is often explained by reference to historical legacies (mostly related to interwar period in the 20th century), post-communist transition, the expansion of neoliberal economy followed by increasing inequalities as well as to identity politics. The nationalism might be interpreted as a response to both neoliberal inequalities and post-modern uncertainty, but the relative importance of economic and cultural factors differs across the CEE countries.
The case of the nationalist movement in Poland might be a good example of favoring cultural program over economic demands. The National Movement, the political party established by the members of two main nationalist organizations in Poland, the All-Polish Youth and the National Radical Camp, presents itself as young, anti-systemic movement whose aim is to change old political elites as well as “build a strong state based on the developing, self-conscious and proud nation.” Thus, the defense of the Polish identity, Catholic values, political history, anti-communism, anti-homosexual, anti-gender and recently anti-Muslims statements comes into foreground. The relative silence over economic problems can be linked with the lack of coherent economic program, as well as the heterogeneity of its members economic attitudes. On the one hand, there are members who support libertarianism advocating laissez-faire approach. On the other hand, there are those who express the need of retaining some elements of welfare state. As opposed to the coalition between the right-wing conservative party, Law and Justice, and Solidarity trade union, the linkages between the National Movement and labor organizations in Poland are rather weak.
A contrast example might be the Movement for a Better Hungary, Jobbik, which has built its political success not only on anti-establishment and anti-Roma discourses but also on the criticism of poverty and inequalities triggered by capitalism. Anecdotal evidence suggests some support for Jobbik among rank and file Hungarian trade unionists; Jobbik has also recently supported trade union initiative of a referendum that would give men the right to retire after 40 years of employment. However, it can be still questioned to which extent the party really defends the interests of Hungarian labor and is not just instrumentalizing for its overarching cultural and political goals.
The revival of new nationalism in Poland, Hungary and other CEE countries makes it necessary to rethink the political positions and organizational resources of labor movements. The history shows that unions can be important foundations and, indeed, crucial defenders of democratic principles against the dangers of authoritarian politics. However, the erosion of social dialogue in the time of the crisis, the anti-union politics of national governments and austerity measures imposed by international financial institutions pushed some of union membership to support various “anti-systemic” and anti-establishment social movements, regardless of fuzziness of the economic programs of the latter.
Even though situational coalitions with populist, right wing parties might be tempting and bring some short-term political advantages, they do not guarantee the long-term renewal of Eastern European trade unions. Paraphrasing the observation made by David Ost in his Defeat of Solidarity, trade unions have to combine new tools and fields of activities with their capabilities to frame workers collective interests in economic and social class terms rather than more exclusive, cultural ones. In the context of increasing flows of people and capital in Europe and beyond, the re-nationalization of labor movements seems to be dead-end path. It is an open question to which extent the CEE trade unions are really capable and, most importantly, willing to develop more inclusive frames for new solidarities.
Photo: Polish and European trade unionists marched together for European solidarity during a massive demonstration in Wroclaw, 17 September 2011, organized by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) with the support of the Polish trade union confederations Solidarność, OPZZ, and FZZ (Photo: Adam Mrozowicki).
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