Flipping the Transition Script

The mediatized narrative of social struggles in the case of ITAS Prvomajska

I came to know “ITAS Prvomajska,” a company in Northwestern Croatia that produces machine tools, through my contacts in the leftist activist scene in Zagreb. The story of this company is unique in Croatia: it is the only enterprise taken over by its workers after privatization, first by physically occupying the factory and then by obtaining ownership rights over the firm. This outcome seemed to be very different from other privatization stories from Croatia and other former socialist countries (Bridger and Pine 1998; Burawoy and Verdery 1999). Anthropologists in this part of the world have documented the dispossession of working classes (Kalb and Halmai 2011), drastic changes in the organization and disciplining of labor (Dunn 2004), and the rearranging of social relations (Alexander 2004). It appeared that ITAS workers had managed to successfully confront these problems. 

A page from a regional newspaper on an improvised bulletin board in the factory; the story titled “Guilty For Damaging ITAS!” details the first instance verdict against the previous owner and her accomplices. Ognjen Kojanic

The Yugoslav principle of socialist self-management (socijalističko samoupravljanje) in enterprises was predicated on the idea that the working people (radni narod) of Yugoslavia were owners of all companies. Legal and constitutional changes in Yugoslavia and its successor states gradually destroyed self-management and transformed social property (društvena svojina) into private property. Like other Croatian companies, ITAS went through the gradual process of property transformation and privatization (pretvorba i privatizacija). An individual became the majority shareholder in 2001. Believing that the new owner was trying to destroy the company to make a quick profit by selling off its assets, the workers entered into a protracted conflict with management in which they employed various tactics, including a hunger strike. In 2006, workers’ control over the company was recognized in a bankruptcy process when they succeeded in converting unpaid salaries into shares and buying out other creditors’ shares.

The case has been well covered by the news media in Croatia. The union representative, who was the workers’ leader throughout this conflict, became the main liaison with the media. Immediately after the workers’ takeover in the bankruptcy process, significant coverage was given to a trial of the previous owner and others accused of conspiracy to gain unlawful income. Although such crimes were rarely prosecuted, the idea that a new owner could destroy the company she bought was not surprising to many familiar with postsocialist privatizations. Insisting on the owner’s guilt was one of the main points in the union representative’s narrative, which was organized around the slogan of “the factory is defended from within” (tvornica se brani iznutra). This slogan pointed how fighting attempts to sow disunity by the management allowed the workers to forge solidarity in opposition to the owner.

Over time, coverage shifted to focus on workers’ shareholding (radničko dioničarstvo) or, sometimes, “self-management for the 21st century” (samoupravljanje za 21. stoljeće). The media narrative positively presented the attempt to introduce some aspects of economic democracy after the takeover. Some organizational innovations were portrayed as allowing the workers to expand workers’ rights. The union representative would use his access to the media to recommend these innovations to other workers, framing them as having to do with both the managerial success of beleaguered companies and workers’ dignity.

The case of ITAS has drawn the attention of many left-leaning activists and artists in Croatia and neighboring countries. These external actors usually reproduce the narrative found in the media, amplified with a more direct critique of capitalism in the peripheral countries of the European Union. The activists lent their platforms to the union representative to present the ITAS case as a model to be replicated in other places. They point out that companies like ITAS face an uphill battle with competitors in the market, who have more advanced technology; with the banks, which make access to credit under favorable conditions difficult; and with the Croatian state, whose policy agenda focuses on privatization as a panacea for the problems of the postsocialist economy. Despite all this, they present the ITAS model of successful struggle and worker-ownership as a potential path for other companies facing similar problems.

I admit that these mediatized narratives about ITAS were intellectually and politically attractive to me, given my interest in afterlives of Yugoslav self-management in the context of accumulation by dispossession after the fall of socialism (Kojanic 2015). ITAS seemed like an excellent fieldsite for a doctoral project. Furthermore, the attempt to create a new model of worker-ownership and workers’ participation could be seen as offering an economic and political project that goes against the grain of policies of neoliberalism and austerity, which anthropologists tend to critique (Razsa 2015). My ongoing research has let me see how much more complex the situation on the ground is. ITAS remains one of the most inspirational cases for those interested in leftist activism and labor struggles. However, focusing only on the successes creates certain blind spots in the narrative presented to external audiences.

The thrust of the mediatized narrative is not in itself a source of conflict within the company, unlike, for example, management decisions regarding salaries and bonuses, which are hotly debated. Yet the mediatized narrative about ITAS produces ambivalent feelings among workers, many of whom would have pointed out to me that “things are not really like they are presented in the media; they could be much better.” The brain drain and disinvestment before the takeover have left ITAS badly positioned to compete in the market, and the company’s inability to obtain loans under favorable conditions only exacerbates that. Although the union representative does not shy away from mentioning some of these problems, my conversations with workers show that “bread and butter” issues appear much more urgent than the more abstract notions of ownership or economic democracy, which are put front and center for external audiences.

A scholar and activist from Argentina, his translator, and a documentary filmmaker from Croatia stop in front of the mural “Factories to Workers,” painted by two artists from Serbia, while on a tour of the factory led by the union representative. Ognjen Kojanic

Shaping media representations entails a hope that they will have material effects. In this case, the union representative was hoping initially to attract public attention that would help ITAS workers to fight off the private owner and gain ownership of the company. As the main liaison of the company with external actors, he was strategically positioned to shape the narrative. Years of stage experience as a musician and his confrontational nature made him a very charismatic figure; ITAS workers followed him in the struggle with the previous owner and continue to elect him as their union representative and president of the company management board. Similarly, the journalists and activists, whose attention the successful takeover attracted, are genuinely thrilled to talk to him due to his approachable demeanor. They were interested in finding cases that inspire would hope in a wider struggle against the dispossession and marginalization of workers. However, maintaining ties with the external actors was not enough for the union representative to present the case as just a successful “defense from within.” Rather, the case had to be redefined as an example of a creative appropriation of the socialist past that allows the expansion of economic democracy.

Thus, the pressing daily issues of late wages and company debt take a back seat in favor of discussions about the progressive aspects of the case. In conditions where any leftist political and economic project has a hard time surviving, no one has had the incentive to investigate this case deeply and dwell on the internal problems that endanger its survival. Even the workers who pointed out those problems to me did not see these as the primary issues for discussion.

As we get access to a growing number of relevant actors in our fieldwork, we naturally start noticing certain blind spots and distortions that allow us to question mediatized representations of our fieldsites. At the same time, we are responsible not to make the lives of the people we work with more difficult. This is especially the case when we study political and economic projects that inspire hope among those who are otherwise marginalized and dispossessed. How do we remain critical while at the same time not endangering the projects that are already frail? How do we weigh the consequences of discussing as opposed to those of not discussing the issues that hinder these projects? Ethnographic fieldwork is indispensable in understanding various positionings and untangling interests that shape narratives about social issues, but our ethnographic representation of those social issues is not neutral. We should be aware of the ethical and political dilemmas involved in such representation, and use our own strategic positioning wisely.

Ognjen Kojanic ([email protected]) is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, and the winner of the 2016 SAE Graduate Student Paper prize for the paper titled “Countering the Exclusion of the Working Class Through Worker Ownership in Neoliberal Croatia.”

Cite as: Kojanic, Ognjen. 2018. “Flipping the Transition Script.” Anthropology News website, April 13, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.826

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