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Looking back at 2019 – Croatia

If 2018 in Croatia was marked by „ideological“ protests and political initiatives, 2019 was without a doubt defined by workers’ movements. Already in January a strike broke out in the Same Deutz Fahr Žetelice combine harvester factory in Županja, demanding a 750 kuna (100€) wage increase, and extra pay for special working conditions. Županja is located in the economically and demographically devastated region of eastern Slavonia, which has been the epicentre of emigration during the last several years, in good part precisely because of low wages and bad working conditions. However, the Supreme Court of Croatia banned this strike at the beginning of February and has thus taken the side of the company’s (Italian) owners. This sort of behavior of the Croatian judiciary is neither new nor surprising (we must only remember 2018 when – to name just one case – the courts banned a strike of Croatia Airlines workers because it could „bring financial damage to the company“), and we’ll get to see several more instances of its anti-worker policies during 2019. Despite this, it seems that later in the year the SDF-Žetelice workers’ union managed to negotiate a gradual wage increase of 750 kuna by the beginning of 2021. Without proof of the workers’ readiness to fight this most definitely wouldn’t be possible.

The first important country-wide union initiative came about in the spring. During April and May, three large union centrals (SSSH, NHS and MHS) organized a referendum campaign[1] against the proposed pension reform, which was being pushed by Andrej Plenković’s conservative (HDZ) government. The proposed reform would raise the age limit for retirement from 65 to 67 years, and it would include everyone born after 1966. This reform rightfully alarmed the unions, which quickly organized a campaign against it under the title 67 is too much! In a span of several weeks the unions managed to collect around 700 thousand signatures – more than enough to call a referendum. However, the referendum never took place because a few months later the Croatian government simply agreed to all union demands and has (for the time being) left the retirement age at 65 years. In spite of this success, it must be noted that a trend of extending the working age beyond 65 years has been ongoing for a long time in Croatia, mostly through the use of various special laws and legal loopholes. Croatian pensions are generally very low and a large number of older citizens are basically forced to work even after they have officially fulfilled the necessary requirements for retirement. Both the government and unions, as well as employers’ organizations, are in support of „allowing“ work for people over 65 years of age. Thus, we can count on this form of „voluntary“ exploitation to continue in the foreseeable future.

The union-led initiative against the proposed pension reform managed to mobilize large segments of society and forced the government to back down from its plans. (Photo: tportal)

While analyzing last year’s events, we must not forget to mention the two instances of state repression over socialists which happened in 2019. The first one started in January, after hammer and sickle graffiti appeared on the newly placed monument to Croatia’s first post-Yugoslav president, Franjo Tuđman, in the centre of Zagreb. The ruling HDZ party immediately started a media and police witch-hunt in order to find the culprit. The amount of time and resources spent on locating the person who „desecrated“ Tuđman’s statue is probably unparalleled in contemporary Croatian history – after all, the destruction of „unwanted“ (Yugoslav/partisan) monuments during the 1990s was generally given a green light by Croatian authorities, even though in a lot of cases the destroyed monuments were unique pieces of art. The culprit was identified and arrested after a few days, and the local prosecutor’s office demanded a strict punishment: 10 months of jail with 3 years of probation. A fundraising campaign was soon started in order to pay for the accused comrade’s defense, successfully reaching its goal just a few weeks later. The trial is still ongoing, but in any case it’s painfully clear that the current regime is going to crack down on any attempt to make fun of its „holy symbols“.

The ruling conservative HDZ party showed that it would have no mercy towards those who dare “desecrate” the holy symbols of new, post-Yugoslav Croatia. (Photo: tportal)

The second instance of repression mostly went under the radar of mainstream media, but is possibly even more dangerous than the first one: we’re talking about the lawsuit initiated by the PPDIV union against the left-wing webiste Radnički portal. Radnički portal published an article in 2018 in which the authors claimed that one of the main reasons for bad working conditions in the Koka poultry company (centered in northern Croatia) was the passivity of the local PPDIV union. PPDIV’s leadership decided to sue Radnički portal for „publishing false allegations“ and claim 44.000 kuna in compensation. This process is also ongoing as of March 2020.

Workers’ struggles continued during summer. Communal service workers in Obrovac went on strike at the end of June. Their demands were basic – signing a new collective agreement which would raise wages from 3300 to 4000 kuna (440 to 540€), strictly define regular bonuses and make it impossible for the employer (in this case the City of Obrovac) to fire employees without the union’s consent. The workers’ union sent its first draft of the new collective agreement to the management already in mid-April, but got no response. After a one-day warning strike on May 20th, all 14 workers of the Obrovac communal service (tasked with cleaning streets, collecting garbage etc.) stopped work indefinitely a month later. The strike very soon led to the complete collapse of communal services in Obrovac and surrounding areas, with heaps of garbage starting to appear on the streets. The City and the local communal services management weren’t planning on giving in to workers’ demands, and soon after hired a private company from a nearby town to collect garbage for the duration of the strike. Workers from Obrovac tried to physically block scabs from entering the town but were forced off the blockade by Croatian police. After 10 days of strike, the County Court in Zadar ruled that the strike was illegal and ordered the workers back to their workplaces. This ruling was later upheld by the Supreme Court of Croatia. As we have already seen in earlier examples, this is the usual modus operandi of the Croatian justice system.

One of the most interesting examples of workers’ struggles during the summer of 2019 was the July wildcat strike in the Split Airport, where the cleaning staff went on strike because of late pay. The airport’s (mostly female) cleaning staff was paid 3100 kuna per month, with an additional 300 kn for travel expenses. Since they weren’t organized in a union, the workers fought back by collectively calling in sick and taking vacation days. Out of 90 employed cleaning ladies, only a handful continued to show up to work. Mainstream media was mostly critical of the strike, publishing articles about its negative effect on the Split Airport during a „record tourist season“. Meanwhile, airport management started using university students – employed on different positions over the summer – as scabs, which they unfortunately mostly accepted. This strike completely vanished from the media spotlight only a few days after it started, so we are not sure of its results. In any case, we hope for the best!

A „warning strike“ of bus drivers took place at the end of August. Bus drivers’ unions demanded a wage increase through a new sector-wide collective agreement, as well as better legal protection for drivers in case of physical assault or maltreatment on the workplace. The strike was widely discussed among transport workers for several weeks before its scheduled date, and there existed a willingness to continue beyond the purely performative 10-minute „strike“ which actually took place. The unions threatened with new strike action around the beginning of the new school year (September), but later decided to postpone them „indefinitely“ because government ministers „convinced them that their demands would be met“ during preliminary talks. It should also be noted that workers of the Zagreb public transport company (ZET) didn’t take part in the „warning strike“, even though a majority of them supported its goals. The reason behind this lack of action lies with the ZET workers’ unions, which are almost consistently passive.

The pinnacle of Croatian working class activity took place in the autumn. To start with, unions of healthcare workers threatened with a strike if the planned new collective agreement wouldn’t include a wage raise and bonuses for special work conditions. Nurses’ unions started a series of protests and short work stoppages, and were officially given support by the Croatian Doctors’ Union. Health minister Milan Kujundžić agreed to raise bonuses for 7% after a few weeks of strife, but insisted that any raise of basic pay should be discussed separately in the following months. The unions were content with these concessions and halted further activity. However, the nurses themselves weren’t satisfied by the deal and felt betrayed by their unions[2]. A grassroots movement of nurses organized through social media sprang up in hospitals all around Croatia. There were several people with strong nationalist views among the initial core of militants, but their political stances had little to no impact on further activities. This grassroots initiative organized a protest in Zagreb in the beginning of October, which was attended by around 2000 nurses from all parts of the country. The protesting workers seemed ready to continue the struggle without formal union structures, but the movement’s initiators/leaders decided to formally create a new union, after being convinced to do so by prime minister Plenković during a short round of talks. Plenković argued that any talks concerning nurses’ working conditions must be conducted exclusively through dialogue with formal union structures, and the new movement’s leaders fell for his bluff. This attempt at „formalizing“ the nascent nurses’ movement resulted in a sharp decline in active membership and the final passivization of the movement itself. We should definitely learn some lessons from this experience!

The grassroots nurses’ movement grew out of opposition to union compromises with the government, but it dissolved not long after its protest gathering in Zagreb – mostly because of attempts to “formalize” it in a new union. (Photo:

However, the hardest struggle was yet to come. In mid-October, after several months of fruitless talks, all 3 unions of education workers (SHU, NSZSŠH and Preporod) decided to go on strike. The unions had one main demand – a raise of „complexity coefficients“[3] for school employees, including those for the non-teaching staff (cleaning staff, accountants, etc.). The teachers had one of the lowest coefficients among all high-skilled employees in the public sector, which was deemed unfair. There were disagreements about the timing and tactics of the strike but the unions managed to temporarily smooth their relations, so the union membership participation in the strike was massive. For the first few weeks the strike was conducted using the „circular“ method – schools in different counties took turns striking during the week. So, for instance, on Monday the schools in Zagreb would go on strike, on Tuesday the schools in Istria, etc. This tactic lasted for 26 days and proved to be useful in maintaining mass support and gradual radicalization of the striking workers… but it didn’t lead to an agreement with the government. Prime minister Plenković and his government ministers offered a 2% raise of the base pay throughout the public and state sectors, which the unions declined and decided to start with a general strike until their demands were met.

Mainstream media immediately went on the offensive against the strike. The usual rhetoric about „lazy“ teachers and the „worthless“ public sector was being constantly pumped out, journalists took turns calculating the „real“ average wage in the education system (with the insinuation being that teachers’ wages are already too high) and the hourly wage of teaching staff was compared with that of manual laborers, as if those two types of work are comparable on such a basis. But unfortunately for the media vultures, all polls showed that a majority of the population consistently supported the strike.

Further radicalization of the strike began with the all-out stoppage of work in mid-November. Demands for higher coefficients evolved into wider demands for better work conditions for teaching staff, and critiques of the recently and ad hoc implemented education reform were starting to be raised, as well as general opposition to government policies. Several thousand education workers and citizens attended the union protest in Zagreb on November 25. The protest was massive, but the unions managed to keep it within boundaries of a traditional Croatian „singing and dancing“ protest gathering, even though a lot of those attending were ready for a stronger show of force. A few days after this protest, a new round of talks was held between the government and unions. The new government offer was put on union referendums and was overwhelmingly rejected by their membership, possibly even against the will of union leaders. In the meantime, the education workers’ strike was officially supported by several dozen unions from both the public and private sectors, which stressed their readiness to join the strike unless the government gave in to education workers’ demands. Solidarity wasn’t confined to unions, though: teachers joined the protests of striking workers of the Đuro Đaković factory in Slavonski Brod, and the staff of some Zagreb high schools collected supplies for their families. Talk about possible implemetation of compulsory work service for teachers started spreading through media outlets.

The situation really seemed like it was getting out of the unions’ hands, so an agreement was reached with the government without consulting the union membership on December 2nd. Union members rejected the previous government proposal on a referendum, so it was quite probable that they would reject this one as well, which was something neither the government nor the leaderships of the two largest unions (SHU and NSZSŠH) could afford to happen. Only the minority Preporod union nonetheless held a union referendum, and its members rejected the newly proposed agreement. This, however, had no influence on the outcome of the strike. The new deal was a sort of compromise solution – teaching staff is now supposed to get a raise of coefficients in three waves until the middle of 2021, while non-teaching staff is supposed to get a raise of base pay.[4] The second part of the deal was the most controversial because for the whole duration of the strike the unions stressed that they insisted on a raise of coefficients for non-teaching staff as well, and that demand was completely dropped out of the final agreement. There are also rumors that the coefficient-raise for non-teaching staff was always considered to be nothing more than a bargaining chip by the unions. Of course, the whole act of ignoring the will of union members during the final negotiations with the government left a sour taste to most education workers. Unfortunately, every possibility for a wider social movement ended with the prime minister’s and union representatives’ press-conference on December 2nd.

The education workers’ strike grew into a wider movement which was getting out of union control. Union membership unanimously declined the first government proposal – so the second one wasn’t even put on a union referendum. (Photo: N1)

At the end of our analysis of last year’s workers’ struggles, we will mention yet another story of betrayal of workers by the Croatian judiciary. The PZC Varaždin road repair company workers’ strike was banned after 20 days, on 2 December 2019. Union demands were mostly about better pay for workers in the new collective agreement, and the strike was banned by the County court in Zagreb. After 3 examples in 2019 and at least another 2 from 2018 it becomes crystal clear that the working class cannot trust the judiciary; it is always on the side of capital.

The political situation in Croatia during last year was mostly stable. There were just a few moments worth noting:

  • European Parliament elections. Several interesting things have happened on these generally unimportant and ignored elections. First of all, the ruling conservative HDZ party made an electoral list composed of „fresh faces“, considered loyal to prime minister Andrej Plenković. Among them we could single out Karlo Ressler, vice-president of the European People’s Party (EPP) youth section and protégé of HDZ éminence grise, the omnipresent Vladimir Šeks. This move angered the right-wing of the party, which was then more than happy to give out smug remarks after HDZ got only 4 seats in the EU Parliament, when it was supposed to be a landslide victory against a basically non-existant opposition.
  • SDP, a party with weak leadership and consumed by internal conflicts, unexpectedly also won 4 seats, which represented a huge morale boost for the social-democrats. The remaining 4 Croatian EU Parliament seats were distributed between Human Shield (Živi zid – a conspiracy-theory based populist party which imploded in the days following election), the liberal and Istrian regionalist „Amsterdam coalition“, ex-judge with authoritarian tendencies Mislav Kolakušić, and the far-right and eurosceptic Croatian Sovereignists, led by Ruža Tomašić. The EU Parliament elections also precipitated an important split within the Croatian extreme right political scene: the nazi-apologist Independents for Croatia (Neovisni za Hrvatsku, NZH), led by Željko Hasanbegović and Bruna Esih, didn’t support the Sovereignist coalition and decided to run in elections independently. This caused a split vote among the far-right base and effectively blocked the Sovereignists from taking another seat in EU Parliament. This move later resulted in a further split within the NZH party itself.
  • Citizen and youth protests. The global „School strike for the climate“ protest movement shortly engulfed Croatia as well. The first and largest elementary and high school students’ protest took place on 20 September on the main square in Zagreb and was attended by several thousand pupils and other citizens. Even though media pundits tried to present these protests simply as a way for children to skip class, it is obvious that the younger generations take the climate crisis very seriously – which should surprise no-one, given that climate catastrophe has gotten much closer in recent years. Unfortunately, this youth movement (in Croatia, as well as globally) suffered from a lack of understanding of deeper systemic problems which lead to uncontrolled climate change. It is our duty as socialists to intervene in this matter.
  • Another protest movement worth mentioning sprang up under the name „Justice for girls“ („Pravda za djevojčice“), and was motivated by the release of five suspects in a case of underage rape. These protests also took place in the fall of 2019 and resulted in the abolition of the ridiculous concept of „sex without consent“, which was then finally put under the legal category of rape.
  • Attacks on Serbs. Last year saw a sharp rise in the number of physical attacks on Serbs in Croatia. From throwing Red Star waterpolo players into the sea in Split, through the brutal beating of seasonal workers (Serbs from eastern Slavonia) on the island of Brač, to the organized attack on a Serb-owned café in the vicinity of Knin. The beating and later death of Radoje Petković, a local Serb minority council member in Kastav (on the northern Croatian coastline) went a bit under the radar for most media outlets. In any case, these are clear examples of rising hatred towards the Serb community in Croatia, and as communists we must decidedly act against such incidents. As always throughout history, we must confront ethnic struggle with class struggle.
  • Immigration. The Croatian state took to heart its role as the new guard dog of Europe, and the border police got a free hand in its treatment of migrant workers trying to get to the richer western EU countries. Hundreds of people have been beaten and robbed by Croatian police officers, and several people have even been shot, but the Croatian Ministry of Interior claims that nothing of the sort is taking place. Just in case, a police investigation into police abuse was conducted and – unbelievably – no instances of human rights abuses were recorded. Thousands of people are still stranded on the Croatian-Bosnian border.
Croatian police continued with its role as the guard dog of the EU, which includes regular beatings and robbing of migrant workers at the border. Croatia was rewarded for this dirty work by receiving a “green light” to join the Schengen Area.
  • Afghanistan. The death of one and wounding of another Croatian soldier in Afghanistan in July 2019 kickstarted a wide discussion about the Croatian role in military operations in that country. Although the Croatian military is taking part in „peacekeeping“ operations in Afghanistan since 2003, Croatia’s role in the NATO occupation of that country hasn’t been a source of debate until last year’s events. The unfortunate death of soldier Josip Briški got the topic of withdrawal of Croatian forces from Afghanistan into the social and political mainstream.
  • Presidential elections. Elections for the mostly ceremonial role of Croatian president took place in late 2019 and early 2020. Among a record number of candidates, three major ones stood out – the then-incumbent president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, SDP ex-prime minister Zoran Milanović and independent candidate Miroslav Škoro, a popular singer aiming at the votes of the right-wing of HDZ and even more far-right voters. The right-wing split between Škoro and Grabar-Kitarović was quite obvious in the first round of elections in late December, when Škoro was only a few percentage points away from getting to the second round. Škoro won nearly all of the traditionally conservative-voting eastern region of Slavonija, which thus became uncertain terrain for HDZ – a situation not seen for a long time. From the other candidates we could mention Mislav Kolakušić (who has a fixation to become president, prime minister and justice minister at the same time) whose campaign ended on a distant 4th place, after which he decided not to take part in the upcoming parliamentary elections. As a curiosity we should mention the (perhaps temporary) political demise of Ivan Pernar, who split away from Živi zid after the EU Parliament elections, formed his own party, barely got enough signatures to take part in the presidential elections, and – got devastated.[5] The appearance of Dario Juričan as a sort of „clown“ candidate is interesting inasmuch as he got a significant number of votes in Zagreb, where he concentrated his (anti-)campaign. Given that his campaign was based on (repetitive) jokes about corruption in Zagreb under the rule of mayor Milan Bandić, we could consider this as more proof of weakening popularity of the „eternal mayor“ of the Croatian capital.
  • Zoran Milanović won in the second round of elections. In essence, nothing has changed apart from the person enjoying life in Tito’s villa on Pantovčak hill.

All in all, 2019 was a militant year for the working class of Croatia, with a few moments of mass mobilization, several (compromised) victories and ever more cases of judicial attacks on workers. All important lessons we should learn from for the future.

[1] That is, collecting necessary signatures to call a referendum on the matter.

[2] Medical staff are among the sections of the Croatian working class most hit by emigration because of bad working conditions. This is causing a lot of strain on the Croatian public healthcare system.

[3] Wages in the Croatian public sector are based on 3 components: the base pay, the complexity coefficient and bonuses. The base pay is multiplied by the coefficient, with the bonuses added at the end.

[4] Of course, with the recent COVID-19 outbreak and following recession, it is unclear whether this deal will ever be fully implemented. Pay cuts in the public sector have already been discussed by the government.

[5] Ivan Pernar was the most well-known face of Živi zid and got a reputation for spreading conspiracy theories and being a constant nuisance during parliamentary discussions. He is also the most vocal proponent of the anti-vaxx movement in Croatia. During the last few months (in early 2020), he started to openly espouse white nationalist and antisemitic views.