Friday, September 6, 2013


NKOS Secretary Pavel Matousek in his modest office in Prague (march 1992)

During the seminar in Sopot we were invited by the Lithuanian Workers' Union to visit Lithuania. Kristoff Dowgiałło had contacts with new Russian trade unions leaders we could visit in Moscow. We could also contact VOST chairman Olexander Ivanchenko from Ukraine as he had said in Sopot. Travelling by train from Kiev to Moscow was not expensive. Antony Meeuws, who volunteered for the WCL as a translator of Russian documents and letters, advised us to visit the so-called alternative union CMOT in Moscow that was already active under the Communist regime. Antony knew about CMOT and other dissidents from his volunteer work for Amnesty International. We planned to leave at the end of March; first to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and then to Moscow.

But first we went to the Europe Forum in Prague, organized by the ETUC. It was my first experience with the ETUC. I do not remember much of the meeting except that we stayed in a brand new and luxurious hotel (because of EU financing?). The role of the ETUC in former communist Europe was not yet clear because the future of Europe was still unclear. Of course, since the fall of communism in Europe, there was optimism but there was also a lot of uncertainty. The optimism was that it was now possible to establish free, democratic and independent trade unions in former Communist Europe and Russia and to support them as had happened with Solidarnosc. Probably in the near future Europe would become united within the European Union, but nobody had any idea how and when.

For the citizens of Central and Eastern Europe and Russia the downfall of the communist regimes brought not only freedom but also a lot of uncertainty. After 50 years of communist dictatorship (in Russia more than 70 years), few had any memory of what meant freedom or democracy. No one had experience anymore with the union as a free association of workers without any interference from the state, with its own democratic structure and its own program. Private enterprises were unknown. Nobody had experience with negotiating wages and other labor conditions. Even more difficult was the question what to do with your freedom and how to survive when the state does no longer take care of everything? Some dreamed of Western prosperity but had no idea how this could be realised. There existed also the not unreasonable fear that the Russians would try to recover their empire again after some time. For the new post-communist governments therefore the protective umbrellas of the U.S. and NATO were more important than creating a free market, privatise state enterprises or to get the membership of the European Union.

Within the ETUC all this stood not on the agenda. One was more concerned about the new grants from the European Union from the Phare Tacis program than to develop a political vision on the future of Europe. The Phare Tacis program of the EU was indeed meant to support projects for the development of democracy and free elections, a free market economy with private companies and to build and strengthen a civil society. Obviously the EU did have already some policy toward the former Communist countries, the ETUC did not.

Arrival of Amrita Sietaram from CNV (on the right) together with Daiva from the LWU ( on the left) and the driver of the Moskva, also a legacy from the old Communist trade union.(march 1992)

It was generally accepted that the WCL and the ICFTU would support the new founded trade unions as wel as the reformed post-communist trade unions. I was told by WCL secretary general Carlos Custer that both international organisations had agreed not to proceed immediately to the affiliation of these unions. They would get time to get acquainted with the international trade union environment. But according to Carlos this gentlemen's agreement had been violated already by the ICFTU, by affiliating the Bulgarian Confederation Podkrepa. Later on, Podkrepa President Konstatin Trenchev himself acknowledged that he would have preferred to become a member of the WCL but that the ICFTU had offered more financial support. Such practices should not occur in the trade union movement but often politics based on financial power wins from policy based on principles and values, a phenomenon as old as humanity itself.

My stay in Prague gave me the opportunity to meet Pavel Matousek and Alois Anton of the new Christian trade union federation NKOS. They had good contacts with the Christian trade union group FCG in Austria. NKOS was a nascent trade union: small and inexperienced. Maybe NKOS - with the support of the WCL – could become a confederation of national significance. However, its national future was uncertain because at the highest political level one was negotiating about the division of the country. Therefore, later that year we would submit a joint appeal not to split the country. But it was too late. On 1 January 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into two countries: the Czech and Slovak Republics. From then on each Republic had its own Christian oriented confederation. Some years later it would penetrate the European consciousness that the liberation of Communism also had freed nationalist forces, which were difficult or nearly impossible to control as was demonstrated during the civil wars in Yugoslavia.

LWU President Aldona Balsiene talking seriously with WCL Vice-President Kristoff Dowgiallo (march 1992)

Immediately after the Prague stop I went with Kristoff Dowgiałło and Amrita Sietaram of CNV to Lithuania where we were received by the board of the LWU in their office in the former Culture Building of the official Communist Confederation, near the center of the capital Vilnius. The new democratic unions including the LWU had occupied this building. At that time in Lithuania people were very curious about everything that came from Western Europe so Amrita and I were asked to participate together with LWU President Aldona Balsiene in a TV forum.

Lithuania had a tragic liberation struggle. After a landslide victory in elections to the Supreme Soviet, members of the anti-communist independence party Sąjūdis proclaimed Lithuania's independence on 11 March 1990, becoming the first Soviet republic to do so. The Soviet Union attempted to suppress the secession by imposing an economic blockade. Soviet troops attacked the Vilnius TV Tower, killing 14 Lithuanian civilians and wounding 600 others on the night of 13 January 1991 (January Events). On 31 July 1991 Soviet paramilitaries killed seven Lithuanian border guards on the Belarusian border in what Became known as the Massacre Medininkai.

Strolling through Vilnius it occurred to me how strongly this ancient and venerable city was neglected during the Communist regime. Everywhere I looked were neglected houses although there were still people living in it. Later I saw the same neglect of old beautiful buildings in many other cities in former Communist countries such as Bucharest, the capital of Romania (where dictator Ceaucescu teared down entire neighborhoods to build his megalomaniac People's Palace) and Budapest the capital of Hungary (you could still see the bullet holes in the walls from the 1956 uprising).

To be continued

The above story is a personal testimony of what happened at the end of the last century and the beginning of the new millennium in the international trade union movement, in particular in CLAT and the WCL.


  1. Que interesante. Aspectos útiles para recordar esa historia de trabajo y construcción del sindicalismo Internacional.