Last week, workers brought from India to work in the freight wagons factory, Astra Rail, in Arad (the biggest factory of its kind in Europe before being privatised in the late 1990s) went on a wildcat strike after their wages were suddenly reduced to the minimum wage level (i.e. less than €450/month). Moreover, their transport costs were deducted from their last wages, leaving them with next to nothing after a month’s work!
This blatant case of super-exploitation comes against the background of millions of Romanian workers migrating westwards over the last couple of decades. Faced with a deficit of cheap labour (150,000 deficit in the tourism sector, alone), with the unemployment rate standing at 3.8%, bosses would rather import cheap labour from outside the EU than to offer better wages. They are assisted in that regard by the so-called ‘social democratic’ government, which recently modified the legislation in order to allow hiring non-EU workers on the minimum wage.
This import of cheap labour from outside the EU (particularly India, Nepal, Vietnam, China) is a very recent phenomenon in Romania and is aimed at addressing the shortage of workers while also enhancing competition among them. For that purpose, bosses are willing to instrumentalise national, ethnic or religious differences between workers in order to divide them, happily feeding a ‘Romanian vs foreign workers’ dichotomy.
However, the Romanian workers at Astra Rail in Arad did not fall for this. In a splendid example of class solidarity, they laid down their tools too and even brought food from home for their Indian co-workers. Furthermore, they instinctively drew the conclusion that the struggle of their Indian co-workers is also theirs, that if they also have low wages then it is because of the bosses, not of other workers.
Thus, on Thursday morning, 9 May, all the roughly 1200 workers went on a wildcat strike, the biggest witnessed at this factory in the last 20 years. This comes in the context of an upsurge in class struggle in Romania over the past year, particularly in factories from the heavy industry sector. For example, as we speak, another strike has been taking place for the last three weeks, for better wages, at a factory of electrical equipment.
The striking workers at Astra Rail demand a 30-40% wage increase, which the previous owners had agreed to, but which the current US owners have retracted, offering instead a humiliating 2-5% wage increase that falls even below the rate of inflation! The new owners are Greenbier Europe, the biggest freight wagon manufacturer in Europe, with two other factories in Romania, three in Poland and one in Turkey. They are the European subsidiary of the US company Greenbier Companies, which only last year had a net profit of $151.8 million! They bought Astra Rail at the end of 2018 after the latter had just signed several long-term contracts on Middle Eastern markets, where Greenbier was already present and therefore wanted to absorb the competition.
On Thursday afternoon, nearly 300 of the striking workers marched down to the company’s headquarters to voice their demands, as most of them declared they don’t trust the trade union leader to represent their interests. According to one of the workers, “the trade union leader doesn’t represent us. Only 37% of the employees at Astra Rail are members of the union, the rest are not. And, most importantly, none of the Indians who pretty much started all this uprising are union members.” Indeed, the union leader is accused of failing to ensure that the new owners would respect the pledge of the previous ones to increase wages by 30-40%. He defended himself by claiming that he had not agreed to any offer yet, while praising the former German owners for saving the factory from bankruptcy!
It is possible that, under the pressure of the striking workers, the trade union leadership could be pushed into action to represent their members’ interests. But if the leadership refuses to do so, the solution would not be to abandon the union but for workers to join it, Romanians and Indians alike, and try to elect a new leadership that truly represents them. For unions remain the best tools for the working class to organise and fight for its interests.
The strike continued on Friday and Monday, with the workers also demanding, besides the wage increases, the modification of the pay scale and the reimbursement of the money deducted from the Indian workers’ wages for their transport costs. However, following negotiations with the union leadership, the management is only offering a 10% wage increase as of this month, with a further 5% increase as of September. Indeed, it considers the strike to be illegal and is threatening lawsuits against the workers who refuse to return to work.
Some of the workers have ceded to the threats of the management and the union’s leadership to represent them, so they went back to work on Tuesday, 14 May. Others, however, are at the time of writing this text continuing the strike. The balance of forces on the ground is unclear at the moment, but the rest of the Romanian labour movement should immediately come to the support of those workers.
Indeed, the workers should establish a strike committee, composed of Romanian and Indian workers alike. This should organise democratic assemblies in the factories, allowing workers to debate and formulate their demands and tactics. Moreover, the strike committee should call for a protest in the city with the participation of the workers’ families and friends and of the wider community.
At the same time, it is key that workers at Astra Rail coordinate their actions with their colleagues from the Romvag factory in Caracal (a town in southern Romania), owned by the same US company. The workers there also went on strike, on Friday, inspired by the example of the workers in Arad! They are also demanding a 30-40% wage increase and they have already changed their union leaders after the former failed to represent their demands.
Thus, the workers from the two factories should coordinate their action, also in the perspective of future disputes. Indeed, they could try and link up with the workers at the Meva factory in Turnu Severin (south-west of the country), the third factory owned by Greenbier in Romania, and even with the workers at the company’s factories in Poland, who are likely to face similarly low wages and poor working conditions. A simultaneous strike in several of these factories would paralyse the production of the biggest manufacturer of freight wagons in Europe, building up the pressure on the management to make the concessions demanded by the workers. Indeed, in the highly integrated European economies of today, there needs to be more focus on international trade unionism and the growing potential for building solidarity and industrial action across borders.
CWI group in Romania, Mana de Lucru [Working Hand], expresses full solidarity with the workers from Astra Rail in Arad and Romvag in Caracal. We support the following demands:
- Guarantee the 30 to 40% wage increases demanded by the strikers for all workers by offering them new contracts reflecting these increases.
- Pay back in full the money deducted from the wages of the Indian workers to cover for their transport costs.
- Respect the fundamental right to strike, guaranteeing in writing that no worker will suffer any repercussions as a result of their participation in the strike.
- Respect the fundamental right to unionisation of all, Romanian and migrant workers alike.
- Organise the workplaces democratically, under workers’ control.
To support more effectively the struggle for these demands and others to come, we propose the following points of action:
- Establish democratically elected strike committees in the two factories to represent the demands of the striking workers.
- Join the unions and reclaim them to express and fight for the needs and interests of their members.
- Replace the union leaders who fail to represent their members and their demands.
- Establish democratic structures for cooperation and coordination between the workers from all the three factories owned by Greenbier Companies in Romania.
- Create a solidarity fund for the strikers and their families, which anyone supporting their struggle can contribute to.
- Organise mass protests in the two cities, Arad and Caracal, in support of the strikes.
- Appeal to the rest of the labour movement to act in solidarity with the strikers and link up with ongoing industrial disputes in other parts of the country.
- Link up with the workers at the Greenbier factories in Poland to explore the possibilities for international common action.