For May Day 20 organizations from the European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and Right to the City gather in Cluj-Napoca

Interview with the Cluj-Napoca university professor and housing activist

Enikő Vincze currently works at the Department of European Studies, Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Her research interest focused on nationalism, racism, feminism and intersectionality, socio-spatial marginalization and exclusion, uneven development, urban development, housing, real estate development. Enikő is a political activist on housing justice, involved in to the local movement Căși sociale ACUM!/ Social housing NOW, and the national coalition Blocul pentru Locuire (Block for Housing).

This interview was originally given to the Bulgarian National Radio.

Mrs. Vincze, how is the significance of the day of labor changing in Romania over the last 30 years, and what is its significance today?

Thank you for your interest in learning about Romania from this point of view. When we think about the 1st of May, which is International Labour Day, indeed, we need to recall the changes of its significance.

The 1st of May was totally different at the end of the 19th century. Internationally speaking, during times of industrial capitalism, we know that’s the origin actually of International Labour Day. The riots and worker strikes for eight hour work days at the end of the 19th century. Um, and obviously it meant different things and manifested itself in different events during state socialism in Romania, which was also marked by a huge industrialization. So the increase of the number and not only of the economic but also political power of workers was important by those times. However, in socialist times, the events organized with the occasion of 1st of May were not manifestations for workers rights, you know, or higher salaries. Uh, but they were more like, um, parades which reflected the dedication of the workers to, to the state and party politics. That was supposed, um, that was supposed to support the workers interests. So and also, I remember when I was a child, I took the road with my parents together. It was kind of compulsory, I guess if you were employed somewhere at a factory or somewhere else, you know, you had to attend these marches. Well, they were also kind of like military parades. So in a strange or not strange way, these 1st of May manifestations combined military parades with the worker parades. I guess it was about, you know, showing also the military power of state socialist countries. You should remember that this was the period of the Cold War. So it must have had this significance as well in all the former state socialist countries from Central and Eastern Europe. I mean, it’s very easy to conclude further that the end of industrial capitalism and industrial state socialism changed not only the condition of workers leading to job losses leading, resulting in weakening actually the, the economic and political power of the workers and their organizations, weakening the power of trade unions, which were supposed nevertheless to represent the workers interests. So all these big changes in the field of labor again under the aegis of industrialization, obviously resulted in doing different events with the occasion of International Labour Day.

Nevertheless, the day still remained a national public holiday in several countries. Also, it remained a public holiday in Romania too. But yeah, it’s important too, to say that this day totally lost its significance in regards to the struggle for workers rights. However, this would be the moment, actually, when the workers should express their problems regarding precarious labour, vulnerability at jobs, low salaries, high costs of living. Nevertheless, this strange or not, we don’t see workers manifesting around these issues, not even with the occasion of May Day being a public holiday. People consider it as a, I don’t know, free time in a continuing weekend and usually it seems that this dimension of picnicking or going out and spending time somewhere in nature remained dominant.

What we can also see in parallel not so much in Romania but very much in several important European countries such as France, Germany and Great Britain where there are strikes in different economic sectors and the street protests regarding the politics of retirement in France. So we see a strengthening of the expression of revolt of the workers against state politics, which supports mostly the capital and the employers and the entrepreneurs and less supports the interests of the employees of the workers. As I said, in Romania, we hardly see any similar manifestations. Well, maybe we can speak more about why this is so.

I wanted to ask you about the relation of your organization, which is the organization for right to city and right to housing to 1st of May. You are making a march on the 1st of May and maybe you have some theory as well as practice that somehow links this day to your leading issue of housing and right to city.

Yes, indeed. Our local movement, which is called social housing now, has a long history. It emerged 10-12 years ago. But under this name, Social housing now!, we exist only since 2016. But anyway, yes, our focus was on housing politics around the political demands regarding the need to increase the public housing stock in order to have more homes which are not created and distributed according to the rules of the market. But they are supposed to be produced and distributed to respond to people’s social housing needs. Nevertheless, with this focus on our movement, we realized in time that we cannot just have a struggle around housing rights and housing justice. We should address the housing crisis as part of larger critical aspects of capitalism today and, and to link it, among others, to labor issues. The message around this is quite simple, which is that in order to create conditions for a decent life for everybody, people need decent salaries which can cover the costs of living. And also they need lower costs of housing. So the two together are actually twin factors in creating, as I said, better housing and material conditions for everybody.

So the message is quite simple even though it is very difficult, for example, to establish contacts and collaboration with trade unions who are focusing on labour rights and very rightly demanding the increase of wages of employees. So it still takes a lot, I guess, for different movements to find the similar interests and to see how the violation of labour rights go together with the violation of housing rights and vice versa.

So to keep the story shorter on the occasion of 1st of May in Cluj, we initiated a public event, which has a specific character this year. Why? Because around the 1st of May actually before the 1st of May and on the 1st of May itself, we hosted in our city more than 20 activist groups, part of the European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and Right to the City. And with that occasion we will have a series of public events talking about different aspects of the housing crisis in different countries. And that will be great for the local public to learn about this and about the strengths of struggling together across countries. But also we had this public event on the 1st of May, which was explicitly dedicated, to increase awareness about the links and dependencies between labour and housing rights and labour. Very important for us at this moment is again to critically address the critical situation of many workers who are faced with the consequences of current inflation. The rising costs of living all together rooted very much in the increase of the energy prices in the past one year. So we will try again, you know, to speak about this cost of living crisis alongside this with the housing crisis. What does it mean if price increases for food, for everything actually on the market adds to the already existing housing crisis, which is a housing affordability crisis at the end of the day. So in cities like Cluj, this is a huge problem that well more and more people are forced to leave the city and move somewhere else because they cannot afford to pay any more for the housing costs, be them rental costs or the price on the market. So the presence of these activist groups from France, Germany, England, Holland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Serbia, just to name some.

It’s important that on this day, we are able to show the need to have international struggles. Housing is not a local problem. It’s very much affected by what is happening in Europe and in the world generally speaking in the financialization of housing. This internationalism is important in these struggles and, but in addition, nowadays we face the war in Ukraine, which seems to escalate towards a global conflagration. Regardless of the specific topics of our local movements. We need to take part in larger efforts to stop this war and to bring the participant parts to the negotiation table. So a lot of challenges are in front of us to which we try to react, for example, through this small event that we are going to organize on 1st of May.

Okay. Cluj-Napoca is known in Romania as some kind of great success of, let’s say, capitalism, or it has a lot of very strong IT industry, foreign investment, real estate industry, etcetera. How is your organization reacting and possibly correcting the use of this model of development which is applied in Cluj-Napoca?

Yes. We have different types of activities that we try to do together. We do a lot of militant research, which means that we conduct investigations about, as you said, the real estate development in the city, how it is informed by the interests of local and foreign real estate capital, how the City Hall facilitates this kind of urban development, which is very much under the logic of profit making. So in the past six years, we did a few investigations around this. And yeah, we also publish our results in different formats like in small books, brochures and in our local magazine called The Brick. What gives us a strength somehow is that this issue of profit oriented urban development is becoming more and more a concern of larger categories of people. So everybody has some complaints around this, not necessarily targeting the profit making process as a capitalist process as such, but you know, different kinds of complaints and dissatisfactions which make the life of of lower income city inhabitants so difficult under the pressure of this real estate paradise that was created in in our city and the urban regeneration programs, which at the end of the day all contribute to continuous increase of the of the residential real estate sector.

We do this research, then we do small actions and obviously we are aware that we don’t really have powerful tools against these big coalitions, urban growth coalitions composed by real estate, investors and the city hall, as I said, which supports them strongly. We don’t really have powerful tools against this coalition. Our small actions are at the point of awareness raising. And we do city tours and we tell the stories of a few or several real estate investments, what is behind and so on and so forth. So yeah, basically, this is what we could do until now – awareness raising and creating or contributing to the creation of a political solidarity around, around this, this challenge. Who knows, maybe this will make a difference sometimes. Maybe during the next local elections, this urban development model will be a core issue. If this is going to happen, I guess this is also due to our awareness raising actions. We continue claiming the demands around the public housing sector.

We have very little social housing in the city like around 1% of the total housing stock. And nevertheless, in the Romanian law, social housing is not supposed to be dedicated only to the very poor, but for everybody who doesn’t have a property and did not have one after 1990 and did not sell it, who earns a wage below the national average income. So many people could be entitled and eligible, so to speak, for social housing. Nevertheless, in Romania as well as in Bulgaria as well and other former socialist countries, a strong stigmatization of social housing considering that that is something under the dignity of people and only the very poor demand social housing and social housing should not be of good quality standard. All these are kind of myths and negative stories. maintained by a discourse and governance practice which wants to keep social housing stock low and legitimate the market dominated housing regime. So we make protests.

We also have court cases against the city hall, which are around the issue of social housing and the allocation criteria. We attack the subject from different perspectives and through different tools. And in our core group, which actually initiates organizing this or that, we are together – Romanian, Hungarian and Roma persons of different socio economic background. I am a university professor and there are more researchers in the group. Alongside are employees in sanitation companies, people living in the very difficult situation in the area of Cluj-Napoca in very deprived housing conditions nearby the city landfill. And when we organize events like demonstrations in December we do that commemorating a big eviction which happened in the city in 2010.

We always try to expand our messages to call for solidarity between evictees and renters, for example, to make people aware that housing unaffordability is not only a problem of the very poor. Under the current conditions interest rates of mortgages increased a lot. So even the middle class people who have, for example, mortgages can feel the pressure of these issues and insecurity that many many social categories go through nowadays due to these high prices and interest rates and rents in a private market. Nevertheless, we cannot say that we have a lot of followers and that our demonstrations, we are at most 100 persons, which is a small number in a city like Cluj.

But you know, we feel this problem exactly because Cluj is considered to be a rich city and a city of those who manage to pay for the costs of living in the city. For many people it’s a shame, you know, to go together with the lower income workers or poor Roma people and be together in the streets in a demonstration. It’s a shame for many social categories. So there is still a lot of work on how to reconstruct actual political solidarities across social categories belonging to different status groups and different segments of the labor classes because the IT workers are also employees. They are also, at the end of the day, part of a laborer class, which is much better paid. They can afford more in terms of spending. They can have a more or less good lifestyle and good living conditions, but still they can also be there right at the, at the at the at their jobs might be might be violated. They don’t really have organizations which support their interests.

And especially since the COVID and since many workers do work from home, actually it’s even more difficult for them to organize and to even know their colleagues not to speak about thinking on how they could organize together. So everybody is occupied with themselves and they are happy if they can maintain their jobs and relative privileges in relation to other labor classes.

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