It was a tough year for most of us in Central and Eastern Europe. By the end of 2021, we hoped that another war in Europe would not happen. By the end of 2022, we have no idea when Russian invasion of Ukraine might end. Inflation and rising prices’ crisis came as soon as we thought that the worst pandemic time was over. Once again, capitalist system turns out to be unstable, vulnerable and eager to leave the weaker ones behind. For the richest of the world, pandemic time turned out to be the golden time. People living in Central and Eastern Europe, like Cross-Border Talks team and many of you, could say exactly the opposite. Nevertheless, we want to close this year with a shy burst of optimism – by bringing back memories of some remarkable moments of 2022.
Even in our region there were moments when people’s self-organisation, determination and courage proved that a change is possible. We chose five inspiring moments of social life in Central and Eastern Europe in the year that passes, hoping to see even more of them next year.
#1: Ukrainian trade unions in the wartime
– Sometimes I get calls from people saying ‘my relative has been killed in battle, his body is lying somewhere on a neutral strip, help me pick him up’. We need to deal with such things somehow. And we do – this is how Yuriy Samoylov, the chairman of Independent Miners’ Trade Union in the city of Kryvyi Rih describes his work in the union since 24 February. During the war, Ukrainian labour unions took up all kind of tasks: from helping their members to get warm clothing when serving in the army in the winter, to organising and distributing humanitarian aid. In addition, the unions still must do what they were born for: protect workers’ rights, including the right for payment and safety at workplace. And Ukrainian government is not really helpful at this point: it has been pushing for more privatizations and introduced new labour laws that hit thousands of workers directly. There is an enormous amount of work to do for the Ukrainian trade unionists – and they are not giving up.
#2: The victorious strike of Vilnius public transport
If you look at the final agreement between the striking bus drivers of Vilnius and their employer, a city company named VTT, you could wonder why such basic questions still need to be resolved in a European city. It should be logical that people get a pay rise when inflation hits everyone. It should be obvious that bus drivers are granted time to rest and to have a meal. Then, what is the problem about collective agreement in the workplace, that gives minimum stability to the staff? Yet, the drivers needed to stop working between 5 and 22 December to see their rational demands becoming reality. Before that, their trade union succesfully defended the right to strike in court, against VTT’s attempt to ban strikes on public transport. They also heard from the city leaders how wrong their actions were. Nevertheless, their solidarity prevailed – and led them to victory. A truly historical one for workers in all Baltic states!
#3: The strike on Solaris plant, Bolechowo, Poland
Among the buses which did not circulate around Vilnius due to the strike, there were those produced by Solaris, a Spanish-owned factory located not far from Poznań, Poland. Solaris workers also made history this year – by starting and winning a six-week strike. No workers’ protest lasted for so long in the newest, post-Socialist period of Polish history. The demand of pay rise united male and female workers, Poles and Ukrainians – everyone employed in the plant that boasts about making the most modern & ecological buses, but does not care that much about the workforce. While the final agreement granted workers a smaller sum that the one they fought for, the strike will be remembered for long nevertheless. Looking at the faces of the strikers, one understood in a minute that the spirit of militant working class was not dead in Central-Eastern Europe.
#4: The ongoing mobilization of Hungarian teachers
The same protest spirit remains high among Hungarian teachers, who, deprived of their constitutional right to strike, were able to inspire the hugest demonstrations in Budapest this year (and not only). The Democratic Teachers’ Union or PDS has been fighting for pay rises for years, pointing out that Hungarian education personnel is the worst paid in the EU, which drives young people away from this job. And their protests are not only about money, as they speak also against ideologization of schools and the need to spread knowledge and not propaganda. While the demonstrations have not yet led to a real victory, the teachers of Hungary managed to unite the people more effectively than any kind of all-in opposition: their marches are joined by worried parents and brave students as well. They will definitely need a lot of determination to see their fight bear fruit, but the example of bravery and responsibility they gave is inspiring even now.
#5: Polish food delivery workers organise
In the end, let us come back to Poland and see another group labour activists who did something deemed impossible. Young people associated with Labour Confederation (Konfederacja Pracy) umbrella group did not just wonder how to reach platform workers – they found ways to talk to them and spread the word about why organising a trade union could genuinely help. And while the activists were afraid that workers might be sceptical about the whole idea, it turned out that the interest to join was quite high. Right now the union of food delivery workers is waiting to start official talks with Polish branch of Takeaway.com to discuss extra payments for more experienced workers and for working overtime.
In fact, we could go on with the list.
If we count Austria as Central-European country, there is the inspiring story of Elke Kahr’s experience as Graz mayor for a year now. There is Slovenia with a center-left ruling coalition that does not allow the country to repeat the Hungarian path. Last but not least, there was a huge mobilisation of millions of people of Poland, Moldova, Czechia, Romania and elsewhere, who have done an enormous effort to welcome, accomodate and support Ukrainian refugees. Despite all differences that exist between us, at that moment we showed that we can show solidarity – that we can be humans in the best sense of the word.
Let us remain human and build bridges, not walls, in the year 2023 as well!