The following text is an analysis of last years’ events and workers’ struggles in Bulgaria, written by a fellow communist militant from that country.
Bulgarian workers haven’t won anything, yet
The times are changing and we are changing with them. The COVID-19 pandemic – an unparalleled event of terrifying continuance — marked those times and, consequently, us. Probably as a result of these unfortunate events, Bulgaria’s 2020 political landscape was richer than many of the years before. There were both massive ‘civil’ protests and sporadic worker’s movements — the latter being so atypical for our wretched latitudes, which surprised even the most optimistic and vigorous among us. The overall social and economic tension exacerbated the rudimentary working class’ self-understanding, as well as, its generic political relevance. It started to reframe our thinking and concerns, postulating the need for a keener understanding of everyday life and interactions, a keener understanding of our shared being among and with others. It also necessitated that nourishment is unlikely to come elsewhere.
So long imposed as the last truth, the neoliberal dogma – which used to cover all things – slowly begin to be ripped off. The self-sufficient, miserably individualistic and almost onanistic creature, that the last thirty years throughout the so-called ‘Transition’ have created, began to lose ground. Another reality came to the fore. A more intensified understanding of our place, not just within the local, but indeed within the global socio-economic and political exchange breathes within it. Politically charged discussions finally made it to our city corners and park benches. Any attempt to reflect and further contextualise such a miscellaneous year must bear in mind the gradual, and yet quite embryonic, awakening of something that slumbered for too long here, namely social consciousness. An awakening that took place not only in Bulgaria but many other parts of the world and in utterly diverse settings.
Health workers’ struggle
Three decades of austerity, healthcare cuts, and relentless attacks on working people caused the country to be gravely ill-prepared to deal with the pandemic. At the beginning of March 2020, UBMS (The Union of the Bulgarian Medical Specialists, an autonomous and branch-level organization open for any specialist except physicians, essentially a nurses union) launched their sixth nationwide campaign. At the heart of UBMS now two-year long struggle lies their angst against the overall situation within the sector. They demanded decent salaries, an end to the vastly divergent pay scales across private and public hospitals, as well as improvements in working conditions. At least those three were the main focus of the media coverage. Still, there is one demand crying for attention, which has never been addressed by the outlets. Namely, the appeal for radical reform in the country’s healthcare system.
This far-reaching demand aims to overhaul the hospitals’ financing premised on so-called ‘clinical pathways’. Those pathways chief goal is to provide a ‘standardized’ and ‘comprehensive’ treatment plan based on patients’ predictable clinical courses. It helps to estimate the expected costs correctly but also ties hospitals into a market-like race. The picture becomes even bleaker with the financing of private hospitals through the same scheme. Unlike public hospitals, private ones can afford expensive equipment which makes them more suitable for treating diseases that generate a larger share of the overall public funding. Clinical pathways’ management determines the interests of the ‘company’ and thus the salaries that medical professionals receive. The more patients ‘cross’ the hospital’s highly paid ‘pathways’, the bigger it’s budget. However, this management also opens up countless doors for scams through fake papers, diagnoses, surgery and other manipulations. That money, however, got stuck at the top managerial strata — in the pockets of directors, heads of departments and so on, without ever reaching the underprivileged and most exploited medical workers.
This very same pathway system is responsible for the mass exodus of Bulgarian medical workers and the constant workforce shortages. According to a European Commission inquiry from 2017, over 90 per cent of graduating healthcare specialists leave Bulgaria each year. Milka Vasileva from the Bulgarian Association of Health Care Specialists claims that in 2014, only twenty of the five hundred graduating nurses didn’t emigrate. This puts enormous pressure on the remaining specialists. Juggling two or even three jobs isn’t enough to alleviate the shortages. The system is also incapable of delivering a decent standard of living for its practitioners. Night shift work fetches a pitiful extra €0.12 per hour, while their net salary is between €300 and €400 — an insultingly low rate that UBMS are seeking to raise. Consequently, until the first and most radical demand on the protesters’ list has been addressed, their remaining requests are more or less unachievable. Even though UBMS’s quest for abolition of the commercial experiments in the sector is indisputably necessary, it’s also an overwhelming obstacle in their negotiations with the government. At this point, the cabinet’s representatives, the coalition (and even opposition) parties and their ideologically like-minded supporters all refuse to inaugurate debate on that matter.
The unsatisfactory outcomes of their previous initiatives and the heretofore lack of strong positions within the sector necessitated a tent camp protest launched on March 1st. It lasted until March 13rd, the day the state of emergency was declared. After a few days of institutional indifference, protesters’ representatives were invited to join and contribute to the Health Commission meeting, which took place in the ex Party House on March 5. It ended more quickly than expected, without any grounding for the workers’ participation. The Commission did not raise any topic of nurses concern, leaving them stranded and hastily ended the meeting. Nevertheless, the workers’ ad hoc solution was more than surprising — UBMS leader Maya Ilieva, Boyka Anastasova (a member of the union’s board), and three other nurses occupied the meeting room, refusing to leave. Law enforcement and media surrounded the building.
However, nurses’ cause didn’t receive widespread public support. Neither the labour organizations represented at the national level nor the general public felt compelled to physically back them. Podkrepa, one of the two major labour unions in the country, presented written declarations of support, though it didn’t oblige its members to act in any specific way. From the National Assembly’s tribune, the civil disobedience action of UBMS was severely condemned. Denitsa Sacheva, the minister of social affairs, declared that these were “politically motivated” acts, accusing the opposition and the republic’s president of responsibility for the protests’ intensification. Daniela Daritkova, chair of the Health Care Committee and the ruling party in Parliament went even further. She stated that Anastasova and her peers are “mentally ill” women. Another of the ruling party deputies, Spas Garnevski, accused them of “terrorism”. The government’s response was predictable — a complete refusal to negotiate. The opposition party leader, Kornelia Ninova (from the so-called ‘socialists’), on the other hand, raised her voice in defence. Still, the oppositionists’ hypocritical behaviour was entirely in line with their one-year-long refusal — of deeds, if not of words — to comply with the protesters’ demands.
This recent attempt of resistance reveals — in addition to the deep-seated problems within the sector — the deep-seated problems within the workers’ (self-)consciousness concerning their strength, as well as the comprehensible means to manifest it. Throughout the whole struggle, we have seen a lasting swap of the notion of ‘protest’ and that of ‘strike’. Although some of the leaders of the union are somewhat experienced, they have done little to train their members and attract new. The result of a few people’s frustration and desire to be seen as opposition to the yellow unions, UBMS’ formation contributed little to the struggle in the industry. It hasn’t helped their growth as an alternative either. Individual leaders based in Sofia became worshipped because of their media appearance and supposed militancy. Such a development preconditioned the formation of a hierarchical and authoritarian structure directed towards the capital, rather than a truly horizontal and autonomous entity across the country. Despite some small victories in the provincial cities, even as a result of short-term strikes, the concentration of power in the organization is more than worrying. The assistance provided by the Sofia branch of the AWC (Autonomous Workers’ Confederation, anarchosyndicalists) didn’t nourish them either. Except for the logistics of the controversially effective protests, the allegedly experienced activists and trade unionists did nothing to convince the UBMS’ core of the need for democratization and actual expansion. Overall, the lack of class consciousness in the health workers proved the importance of such consciousness. It also proved (loudly and in front of the many) the failure of liberal “civilian” instruments to achieve real benefits for the workers.
Summer-to-autumn anti-government protests
Massive – at least initially – nation-wide protests, demanding the resignation of Bulgaria’s government, started in early July. They lasted for more than three months, inciting thorough and daily discontent in the big, and often even in the small, cities across the country. As the apple of discord quite differs from one observer to another, one thing is certain – neither of them is completely sufficient. The overall situation – additionally tightened as a result of the pandemic – permitted the development of a mass movement for the first time since 2013. The majority of the protesters were, of course, working-class people. The loudest, however, were – and again of course – representatives of the political and/or business elites. All the oppositional leaders, be they inside or outside the parliamentary life, made use of this tension. While pulling at different sides and inspired by narrowly defined partisan interests, the clique created an unbearable atmosphere of directionlessness. The convenient media outlets have also contributed to the predominance of those openly interested, one-sided perspectives.
Throughout the whole political spectrum in Bulgaria, there is absolutely no true (read non-populist) representative of the workers’ majority. The bourgeois minority, on the other hand, has many. Their rhetoric is, understandably, far distanced from the workers’ hardships. Their private affairs are, again understandably, a universal matter. Thus the focus was put over painfully worn-out wishes for equality before the law, the fight against corruption and so on.
None of them addressed the rampant social inequalities and the lack of social benefits amid the crisis. In addition, the working class, even yet not as a conscious collective subject, recognised this extrapolation of private interest over the common. One could’ve heard this across random interviews with passers-by refusing to protest. They’ve found the impossibility to put the movement on right tracks overwhelming. In the course of the first few weeks, the protests lost their charge. Fewer and fewer attempted daily rallies.
While I find it unnecessary to go into more details, mainly because of their banality, I think it is important to outline the lessons, even if they themselves are of a banal nature. Firstly, the quarrels between different factions of the bourgeois will always leave that bitter aftertaste which only abuse can produce. Secondly, the unorganised and fragmented left in the country – and if it persists in this – will further miss opportunities to guide the course of events. Indeed though in some cities local activists had delivered leaflets, organised assemblies and so forth, their persistent idleness in calmer times revealed the failure of such approaches in raging ones. Thirdly, the liberal “civilian” instruments have proved – once again! – to be ill-equipped to manifest any real strength on a political (just as much as earlier on a workplace or branch) level. For the first time in years, we had the opportunity to explain – even to a differently minded people – why a nation-wide strike is a major feature of the so-called ‘democracy’, a juridical article the whole society must strive for.
Conductor’s struggle in Varna
At the end of November last year, 280 workers in Varna’s public transport received their notice for employment termination. As early as 2013, when the project for ‘Integrated Urban Transport’ (IUT) – funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development – began, the fate of ticket-selling employees was already decided. The rapid modernization and digitalization in the sector on a world-wide scale promise nothing. However, the project itself and its delay unveil the impudent benefit that the political classes and those close to them gain from the public purse. All in all, IUT cost – to European and Bulgarian taxpayers alike – the staggering 100 million euro, an amount that is even more disheartening once the newly-built infrastructure has been taken into account. Without going into many details, I will note only the most visible problems. The ticket machines (both on buses and at stations) run on Windows XP. Quite too often they don’t return change or recognize currency. They also cause huge queues in the buses, which the stations deprived of machines (even in the city centre) further stimulate, etc. All this required millions and millions and took the municipality 7 years to finish.
Moreover, the workers’ dismissals came at the most inopportune moment – in the general pandemic situation, a period in which the state pours a reckless, uncontrolled amount of the treasury into private companies just to keep their workers (although this money rarely reaches the workers themselves), and last but not least – on the threshold of winter. The conductors though couldn’t just leave. They’ve understood the problem’s dimensions both on an infrastructural and ethical level. Few of them contacted the regional section of the aforementioned AWC and tried to organise all their colleagues, mostly elderly women. A series of protests followed, some in the workplace, other addressed to the general public, all of which – although loud and well covered by the media – proved fruitless. The workers’ attempts for radical direct actions – due to the very nature of the service, the restrictive legal framework and their own fragmentation caused by well-manoeuvred management tactics – were seized by the same fate. The short time they had to organise a genuine strike, involving drivers, mechanics and other workers (according to Bulgarian law, you need 50% plus one to have a legitimate strike within an enterprise, not just a majority of voters), was the real obstacle that overturned the cart of success.
They’ve managed to find, however, an opportunity within the juridical article under which they got sacked. According to Bulgaria’s labour law, the workers were entitled to a one-hour shift break to look for a new job. By advice from AWC, they’ve transformed this into a daily hour-long strike in both shifts. The goal was to prove Varna’s citizens the magnitude of the new infrastructure’s failure. However, it didn’t help them reach support neither within the workplace nor within the general public. In the case of the former, no positive results came because the drivers got trapped between their duty and the necessity to answer passengers about the machines’ operationality. In the latter, on the other hand, its part played the now decades-long apathy within society when comes to the public (and even more so – low-paid) workers’ woes. Moreover, the yellow unions’ sections, firmly established within the public sector since the dawn of the ‘Transition’, betrayed the workers once again. Besides the benefits due by law, they did nothing to provide a more favourable conditions. They even hid the active collective agreement, relying on the fact that no responsible institution will be able to provide it to AWC’s jurists in such short notice. On January 1, all of the conductors lost their job. The struggle in the sector, however, has just begun. The disillusionment from the yellow unions and their actions contra the conductors affected everyone. At the moment, the remaining transport workers – drivers, technicians, mechanics and so forth – are self-organising to get a better collective agreement in time.
The global capitalist crisis hit Bulgaria with the power of a freight car. According to data, presented by Varna’s Employment Agency, over 7500 people have registered as unemployed just in the last two months of 2020. The public transport workers joined their ranks in the first days of 2021. Data from the National Statistical Institute and the National Employment Agency reveals that, since the beginning of COVID-19 crisis, more than 400 000 people have lost their jobs on a national level. These numbers don’t include the unregistered. The grey sector of the economy, artificially inflated, by all means, makes it extremely difficult to calculate what’s happening.
The economic circumstances demand that the local bourgeois begin obnoxious attacks upon workers’ rights. The most unpleasant are yet to come. Still, at the very beginning of the crisis – under the threat of Bulgarian agriculture losing its harvest – agribusiness lobbyists imposed an obligation on all recipients of social benefits working on private farms. Till mid-May, they had a duty to participate in community service for 56 hours a month, for which they’ve received ‘social benefits’ of between 25 to 38 euro, or 0,44 to 0,67 euro per hour. In other words, legalised exploitation of the so-called ‘lumpen-proletariat’ in favour of municipal enterprises has expanded to their legalised exploitation in private ones. Besides, in late-summer, the government voted a double increase in overtime to a total of 300 hours per year, which employers (with the help of their convenient unions) can arrange through collective bargaining. Such a move intends to undermine past practices. So far, through a collective agreement workers’ conditions could only be improved. From now on, this precedent within the legal framework itself will benefit the way CA operates and, at some point, might distance workers from it.
However, during the crisis, the government did nothing to secure economically anyone but the ‘business’. In such a precarious environment, one might suspect that better days are coming for the workers’ movements in the country. Though those days won’t arrive by themselves. We need strong, well-synchronised and politically charged initiatives to put forward radical politics on a regional level. The belief that only a union level movement, devoted to workplace struggles, is enough to secure the growth of a healthy left movement is a cosy delusion. We need to talk politics, history and theory, thus de-demonising communist ideals and their goals. The only somehow authentic workers’ movement in the country (i.e. AWC) continuously flees from such commitment. Тheir section in Sofia has even boldly embraced left-nationalist perspectives, participating in “patriotic” campaigns of a local national-populist party. AWC’s section in Varna, on the other hand, is missing opportunities to radicalise the workers they contact with as a result of structural and organisational malformation, but also because of the lack of explicit ideological telos. Overall, the lack of enduring communication and exchange of ideas between their two core sections is the main stumbling block for the future of the working-class movement in two of the leading cities in Bulgaria. I cannot see how the activists’ and more liberal-oriented factions of the Bulgarian left will do the job done either.
But our problematic epoch is strangely intertwining the good with the bad. The rise of social and political consciousness, one that thoroughly marked our unfortunate times, seems to promise more than we can hope for. Although also more than we are prepared for. The Bulgarian working-class needs to educate itself, not only through struggle – as it already does, at least here and there – but also through theory. As it’s not enough to point that a particular organisation or community doesn’t tolerate hate speech, it’s not enough to point that one should do this instead of that. The whole of our thinking must change, if possible – promptly. Only a radical shift towards theoretically charged praxis might help us guide ourselves through this seemingly pathless present.