Marin Florian: Farmers’ and hauliers’ protests in Romania are due to competitiveness crisis

The Romanian labour unionist makes a thorough analysis of the current Romanian protest, having look at their national and international context, the role of the labour unions, the government and the political parties, as well as its dimension linked to the National Recovery and Resilience Plan

Vladimir Mitev, The Bridge of Friendship, 16 January 2024

Marin Florian is the president of the Free Trade Unions of Romania, a member of the National Trade Union Bloc (Blocul Național Sindical). He has worked in the trade unions for 18 years and used to be previously the president of the youth structure of the BNS. 

Florian spoke to Cross-border Talks and the Bridge of Friendship about the ongoing protests by agricultural producers and transporters in Romania. What motivates their joint action? How is it linked to similar protest movements in other parts of the EU, such as Germany? How are the trade unions, the government and the political parties reacting to these protests? What is the role of the Romanian National Recovery and Resilience Plan in all this?

Marin Florian was invited by Vladimir Mitev to comment on all these questions in a cross-border talk.

The causes for the ongoing Romanian protests of agri-food and transport companies and workers

Welcome to a cross-border talk on the ongoing protests in Romania. For a week now, there have been protests in Romania by farmers, transport companies and drivers, and other social groups, with various demands related to fiscal rules, the European Plan for Resilience and Recovery, and many other issues. These demands are aimed at fine-tuning economic and power relations in Romania.

I’m now joined by Marin Florian, who is the head of the Free Trade Unions in Romania, a trade union that is part of the National Syndicate Bloc. Mr Florian, let us start with this question. What are the motives for these protests at the moment? We see a lot of groups protesting at the same time. We see that there is a lot of indignation. Maybe there is some discontent that has been going on for some time. So what are the reasons and what are the big demands now?

Well, first of all, of course there is a lot of social tension in Romania. But it is not only in Romania. It exists all over Europe. You can see it in Germany, in France, and in other countries. These are countries that have consolidated democracy.

I think that the main concern of the Romanian protests is the actual economic model. I will mention here the situation in the agri-food sector. If you look at the categories that are protesting, you can see that there are both workers and entrepreneurs from the transport sector and from the agri-food sector. Both are part of what we call the Green Deal legislative package. These are the two sectors that are most affected by the green transition.

If you look at Germany right now, one of the main concerns is that the government is going to reduce subsidies for diesel fuel. This action goes against what the farmers can bear, because we have to take into account that Europe has faced Covid, and has faced an inflation crisis. And right now we are discussing the entry into force of some regulations that are part of the climate package. And I’m referring to the Green Deal, but not only to the Green Deal.

I don’t deny that the Green Deal is a must. It is a decision of our political system. Yes, we must follow the Green Deal. It is the way forward. But we have to do it in a way that is socially acceptable to the stakeholders, in this case farmers and the transport sector. Above all, we have a situation of geopolitical crisis. There are various wars and geopolitical issues. The war in Ukraine mainly affects the countries that share a border with Ukraine. In this context, there is a package of demands from the farmers, according to what I have seen in the communication between the farmers and the Romanian government.

So we have several crises that are now overlapping. And coming back to the economic model, I think it is quite important. If you look at speculation in the agri-food sector, you can see that it’s quite high. If you look at it from a global perspective, that is one issue.

But the second issue that we have to take into account is that there is a lot of inequality in the agri-food sector. In Romania we have 1 million small subsistence farmers and a few big companies that make a lot of money. And if you look at the subsidies that come from Brussels, but also at the value-added products in the agri-food sector, you see how they are distributed among the stakeholders. The small farmers are not getting much, especially with inflation and price increases. The fact that the hypermarkets basically take all the profits is a situation in which the farmers are not able to move forward.

This means that the state, the system and the market should be changed so that small farmers are able to make some profit. Otherwise they will continue to be unhappy and social tensions will increase. This is a niche that the extreme right exploits very well. They are very interested in giving a political touch to this protest movement.

In short, I think the protests are justified. They must continue.

The internaitonal context of these protests

I think you have described the Romanian context of the protests very well. Now I would like to ask you about the international situation in which these protests are taking place. At the moment there are also important protests in Germany by similar economic groups and perhaps with similar demands. And some time ago, during the Corona crisis, there was a big protest by transport companies in Canada. So I would like to ask. To what extent are these protests an echo of the international protests, or to what extent do they have some international connection, at least at the level of ideas and inspiration?

The situation in Covid-19 times was different. We have to take into account that the protest movements during the Covid pandemic faced many challenges. I don’t think the situation today is similar to the Covid-19 one. But what all these protests have in common is the market. The market is an instrument that, at the moment, does not ensure a fair distribution of added value.

Why is this happening? It is crystal clear that those who are stronger benefit most from the market. And the principle of competition is inherent in the capitalist way of doing things. The market economy favours the strongest companies. They win a lot. They have capacities and resources that allow them to survive various shocks. They have enough capacity to be stable in these difficult times.

This is not the case for many people and small entrepreneurs working in the transport sector. Workers in the agricultural and food sector also don’t have enough capacity and the means to be resilient. They don’t have the means because the market doesn’t provide them with the means to survive and develop within this framework. We are not talking about any kind of commodity. We are talking about food. It is a commodity that is critical to our existence. If you don’t have access to healthy food, your whole life will be affected. The whole of society is affected. That is what is happening now. We can all see it.

The protests as seen through the prism of the interests of labour and capital

Usually when there are protests against the market or against the dominance of big business, which is highly competitive, they are protests with social messages. But in this case we also have farmers who are owners of capital – of smaller companies or larger companies. And we also have transport companies or trade unions of transport companies. Can you analyse the current Romanian protests from the point of view of labour? To what extent are they defending the interests of salaried workers, and to what extent are they protests demanding some adjustments for capital, so that it becomes more profitable and more competitive?

We are talking about different kinds of interests. Business owners have different interests from workers. That’s true. But that is why I mentioned the market. If you look at their interests now, they seem to be the same. The functioning of the market has affected both of them – the small businessmen and the workers. They cannot survive within this framework.

The workers are protesting for their working conditions, for their wages. The entrepreneurs are protesting for their ability to survive and develop at a time when there are climate change demands to be met. We have multiple crises that overlap and there are multiple demands.

In this situation, the state has to intervene in order to balance a little the interests and to balance a little the distribution of added value. Otherwise, tensions will increase and the extreme right will flourish. An undesirable situation could mean that many programmes and values will be affected.

I am referring to the climate part, which was adopted at EU level. It was adopted by all the members, but not only by the EU, but also by other countries, like Canada, the US, which rejoined the Kyoto Protocol after Trump, and things like that. Yes, in principle the interests of small businesses and workers are different. But in these protests the small business owners and the workers have some similar interests because the workers cannot produce without access to means of production and without them the companies cannot hire and they cannot provide good working conditions for their workers. So the interests are almost the same. But I have not seen a multinational company protesting in this situation.

The role of the labour unions in these protests

I have noticed some criticism of the police intervention against the demonstrators, in particular from a police labour union called Europol. I would like to ask you about the role of the trade unions in this particular case of social conflict. There are many different trade unions. Some of them are national. Some of them are specific. Can you give a general picture of how the trade unions relate to these protests and what the trade unions are doing now?

If you look at the different protests that are taking place in Romania at the moment, you will see that they are not necessarily linked to the protest of the farmers, the transport workers and the businessmen. If you look at the doctors, they are not protesting in a way that supports the farmers. It is clear that there is a general social tension. The situation I have described does not only affect the farmers. It’s also affecting public services and access to public services, and there are other sectors that are affected. Textile workers and other sectors are also affected.

From my point of view, I think the trade union should respect the law. It is very important that trade unions act in accordance with what the law allows them to do. If you look at the values of the trade unions, like solidarity and the other values, they should act in accordance with those values. Just to be very concrete, if you look at the largest trade union organisation in Romania right now, in the agri-food sector, in the agricultural sector, they are not protesting right now. It is the farmers and small businessmen who are protesting.

These protesters are not necessarily that many, to be honest. There are hundreds of protesters. But we are talking about a sector where we have 1 million subsistence farmers. Of these 1 million farmers, only hundreds are protesting. They do it very loudly and get a lot of public attention, which is good from my point of view. But in this context, the biggest unions in the transport sector or in the agri-food sector are not involved. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be involved. I’m saying that at the moment they are not.

In my opinion, these labour unions don’t necessarily feel represented by the demands of the farmers who are already protesting. Let’s look at the structure of the demands of the protesters. They have gone to the government asking for free food, for example, or other things that are not necessary according to what the law allows. So I think that in order to act in the name of solidarity, we need to have a common set of demands to the government. This is not happening at the moment.

I haven’t seen any contact between the big labour unions and the small farmers, at least as far as I know. I think it is a good time for protests because we have free elections in Romania this year. But we need to organise it a bit better, so that all the stakeholders feel that they are represented in the protest. From this point of view, I think that we have a minority that is protesting very efficiently, if you look at the media coverage they get. But from my point of view, I think that the trade unions and the farmers’ representatives who are protesting at the moment are trying to establish a common set of demands towards the current government and the future politicians. There will be elections this year and we don’t know what the future government will look like.

The role of the government and the political parties in these protests

You mentioned that Romania has a lot of elections this year. And I also wanted to ask you about your assessment of the reaction of the government and the main political parties in parliament to these protests.

From what I have seen, the politicians are open to dialogue, which is normal, given that this is an important year for them. Some of them are trying to use the protests, but they are failing to capitalise on them. You have seen in the media that the far-right political party AUR (Alliance for the Union of Romanians) is trying to create a synergy between its political platform and what is happening in Romania. They are failing.

At the beginning of the protests there were rumours that AUR was actually organising them. Well, maybe they did, I don’t know, but at this moment I’m definitely sure that they can’t make any connection between what they offer and this protest. This has been going on for a long time. There have been seven days of protests. I think the political parties that are running the country at the moment are open to dialogue. I haven’t seen any effectiveness in meeting the demands because there has been a lot of time in the last seven days and they are still discussing. We have to mention that these demands are not necessarily fixed. If you look at the farmers who are protesting in Constanta, they have different demands from those who are protesting in other counties, for example. So it’s not very organised. If you look at it from the government’s point of view, well, it’s difficult for the government to react if there’s no common approach among the protesters.

But this is happening because even the left, but also the right, didn’t want to consolidate social dialogue. Because if you consolidate the social dialogue, the protest will be more organised. And if you don’t give much importance to social dialogue, you get reactions like this, which are difficult to control, difficult to understand, but also difficult to respond to. The protests are spontaneous. I think the protests will continue. The political parties that run the country will continue the dialogue. And the opposition will continue to use its narrative about the protests. They will try to engage the protesters and respond to their demands. I am referring in particular to the extreme right-wing parties.

The situation is fluid and will continue to be so. The protests have been going on for seven days. That means it’s not a protest in vain. There are real social tensions. Romania is not doing well. We have some GDP increases, we have some economic growth. But that economic growth is not helping ordinary people. It’s helping the companies and it’s helping a small minority who are getting most of the wealth that’s being created. I think the trade unions will promote a narrative in this direction. We’re going to have more social movements in Romania in the future. And I think that such a situation of tension could reappear in the near future.

The labour unionist’s perspective on the National Plan for Recoverty and Resilience

My last question requires a short answer. There were some demands from the protesters, there was some dissatisfaction with the National Plan for Recovery and Resilience. I remember that this plan was renegotiated by Romania in 2023. And I just wanted to ask you to what extent these claims are legitimate, namely that this plan has some negative sides and should be changed. And is it realistic to do so? Perhaps your work as a trade unionist allows you to have a specific and informed perspective on the National Plan for Recovery and Resilience?

I am not going to give you a short answer because I am going to mention social dialogue again. If you look at how the plan was negotiated, you will see that the stakeholders, and in particular the trade unions and the social partners in general, were not involved in the design of the plan. And there were only some short consultations in which the social partners weren’t able to react. The political parties were not necessarily interested in promoting social dialogue and they promoted a plan that was not socially accepted.

Why was that? Because it is too ambitious in terms of what Romania can deliver. That is why the National Recovery and Resilience Plan is so controversial. It was kept secret for many months and the social partners didn’t know what was in it and what the commitments were.

So, taking into account this situation, I think that the plan is an important tool, but perhaps it is too ambitious for Romania at this moment. I think that the renegotiation in the future could take place in the context of the EU elections, because we have EU elections in June this year. We can talk for days about the National Recovery and Resilience Plan. The political parties that have worked on this plan should be more proactive in discussing it with the trade unions to make it a balanced plan. Right now, as the market is, the National Recovery and Resilience Plan is not a balanced plan, it overestimates the social capacity of Romania to consolidate the synergy between the European economy and the Romanian, especially from the perspective of climate change. This is my very brief and very general position on this issue.

Photo: Marin Florian (source: Marin Florian)

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