Poland was unique in East-Central Europe for the size, strength, and pivotal role of its labor movement, Solidarity. In no other country in the region did workers take the lead in challenging the communist system. But that doesn't mean that worker movements were not important in other East-Central European countries. In Bulgaria, for instance, Podkrepa was a key part of the opposition representing workers' voices.
From the word "support" in Bulgarian, Podkrepa had its start in February 1989, before the spike in popular revolt. Later, as change accelerated in the country, it was a founding member of the opposition coalition known as the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). Through "citizens committees," Podkrepa campaigned on behalf of the UDF in the first free elections in 1990. By 1991, and the election of the first non-socialist government, Podkrepa formally withdrew from the UDF.
But those were challenging years for trade unions affiliated with the political opposition. There were fierce debates within the union over whether to be involved in formal politics. When opposition parties supported economic reforms that adversely affected workers, these debates became even more heated.
"We made the same mistake as Solidarity," Oleg Chulev told me. "We participated in governments. I was the head of the national employment service for four years: at the time when the unemployment rate ranged around 18-19 percent. This led to shrinking membership. And the repressions at the enterprise level pushed a lot of people away."
I met Oleg Chulev of Podkrepa back in 1990, when it was a relatively young organization. Since then he has continued to work with the union and has also participated in government, heading up the national employment office.
Our conversation focused on what workers have gained and lossed in Bulgaria over the last couple decades. "The hired labor force now has the freedom to choose what to study, where to study, what to work, where to work," he told me. "They have the freedom to move. But this comes with a price."
That price can be measured in different ways: "If you consider the standard of living in Bulgaria now and back then, you'll see that people live better now. They have a higher standard of living. But there was no unemployment back then. There was so-called artificial employment for all. Now, the GINI coefficient can be felt by the man on the street even if he doesn't know what this coefficient is. The gap between the rich and poor is much higher now in material terms than the gap between the nomenklatura and rank and file was back then. The insolence of the new rich is no way smaller than the insolence of the party nomenklatura was back then."
Our conversation ranged from how economic reform could have been done differently in Bulgaria and the failure to create a Labor Party to labor-market policies and the impact of the European Union on the Bulgarian economy.
Are there any things you would have done differently from a trade union point of view back in the 1990s?
Plenty of things, starting first of all, with the privatization process. Privatization was carried out unfairly. Well, fairness and unfairness are emotional characterizations. Let's say, rather, that it was non-transparent. The winning bidders were known in advance. Enterprises were not sold so that the factories could continue working. Rather, the new owners cashed in the mortgages and took the money. There were no safeguards to preserve the workplace and the jobs.
There are so many examples. There was the sale of the national refinery to Russia's Lukoil, which made Bulgaria dependent on this company. There was the sale of the Bulgarian national carrier, Balkan Airlines, which went bankrupt after its purchase. With the privatization of mines and metallurgical companies, the new owners, instead of modernizing manufacturing and making it more environmentally correct, squeezed out as much money as possible and then went bankrupt.
This all resulted in structural unemployment. The government kept giving bonuses to employers through tax benefits and by reducing the insurance contribution rates. They ended up creating the so-called bad debt millionaires by providing them with a state guarantee. These bonuses given to the employers didn't go to creating jobs or higher salaries. Over the last 7-10 years, businesses failed to pay $10 billion in taxes. And instead of raising salaries, they bought yachts and Bentleys.
Plenty of things could have been done differently. The fact that we were half a trade union, half a political organization: now I can say that this was a mistake. Back then, however, this may have been necessary. Together with Fratia in Romania, we were the first two trade unions after Solidarity. Fratia consolidated with the former government trade union and lost influence in society. And now there are other strong players in Romania. Despite the errors that we recognize now in our political commitments, Podkrepa managed to preserve its influence.
Only very late did we learn the lesson that it's not so important who is in power but how they exercise this power. Currently the members of Podkrepa do not vote for socialist parties and will not vote for the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). But if we consider the economic claims of Podkrepa, they are much further to the left than the Socialists. It can't be otherwise. The Socialists evolved in a weird way. The Socialist Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev, who is now the chairman of the European Socialists, introduced the flat tax in Bulgaria, something that two right-wing governments didn't dare to do. This party, in other words, was protecting the interests of big capital. One third of the members of the BSP Executive Board, the leaders, are millionaires!
One of our mistakes during the transition was that we did not consider setting up a Labor Party. Until the mid-1990s, we identified ourselves with the party of the right wing, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). But within this right-wing coalition was Petar Diertliev of the Social Democrats, the Agrarian Party, and the Green Party. It was a political mistake for the UDF not to have specified its identity. Initially, it filled the whole political spectrum. It shouldn't have identified itself as the right wing, leaving the whole left to the former communist party.
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