Thursday, November 7, 2013


During the Confederal Board meeting in Bucharest, October 1992, host Bogdan Hossu, President of Cartel alfa, tells about the Romanian Revolution of December 1989 on a cemetery in Bucharest. In the wake of the revolution, 1,104 people died, 162 of these occurring in the protests that took place from 16 to 22 December 1989 and brought an end to the Ceauşescu regime and the remaining 942 in the riots before the seizure of power by a new political structure, the National Salvation Front.

My first WCL Confederal Board was in October 1992. This was held in Bucharest, in a typical Eastern European hotel with a cheap imitation 19th century decor that covered a soulless twentieth century architecture. I remember a much too large and high room in which we seemed to swim around. Typically Communist architecture designed to feel yourself small and insignificant as part of the megalomaniac power dreams of “great” leaders. The sharpest expression of this intimidation culture is the People's Palace built by dictator Ceausescu. It is a successful example of Romanian Stalinism. For its construction, including secret passage and a subsequent large-scale ranging boulevard for the high ranking Communists, entire neighborhoods including many churches of ancient Bucharest, were demolished.

Given the circumstances it was well organized by the trade union confederation Cartel alfa. For most members of the Confederal Board, this was their first encounter with Cartel alpha and post-communist Romania. A still messy Romania , but you could not blame the country and its people for this after forty years of Communist dictatorship. Romania was not different from the other post-communist countries. While Western Europe after World War II, thanks to the help and support of the Americans, soon became prosperous and got increasing individual freedom, Central and Eastern Europe moved in the opposite way: less individual freedom and growing poverty.

The Palace of the Parliament (Palatul Parlamentului) in Bucharest, Romania is a multi-purpose building containing both chambers of the Romanian Parliament. According to the World Records Academy, the Palace is the world's largest civilian building with an administrative function, most expensive administrative building and heaviest building. The Palace was designed by architect Anca Petrescu and nearly completed by the Ceaușescu regime as the seat of political and administrative power. Nicolae Ceaușescu named it the People's House (Casa Poporului), also known in English as the Palace of the People.

For me the Confederal Board was an opportunity to learn to know many leaders of unions affiliated to Cartel alpha as well as trade unionists from Asia (BATU) and Africa (ODSTA). The Latin Americans of CLAT I knew already a long time thanks to my work at CLAT Netherlands. I also had a brief encounter with Gerda Verburg of the CNV board, from then on she had the WCL in her portfolio. As always, she was not lacking in ambition and competitive spirit, I noticed early in the morning at breakfast. She had already made her morning run and invited me to go outside with her and explain in ten minutes how WCL worked. I've obviously done my best. At the urging of WCL President Willy Peirens I left before the end of the meeting for Brussels. As managing Director of the WCL Solidarity Foundation I should attend a meeting of World Solidarity, the organization for international development of ACW.

I knew Gerda from Tour d'Haii! an activity organized by the solidarity movement CLAT-Nederland in 1991 with the aim to collect money for the Haitian trade union. She won the Tour making 7 rounds of 30km each. After being a board member of CNV she became a member of the Dutch Parliament. From 2007 until 2010 she was Minister of Food and Agriculture. Since 2011 she is the permanent representative of the Dutch Government at the FAO in Rome.(Photo copied from Latin America, magazine of CLAT-Nederland, nr.5 1991)

In November, I was invited by the Christian Democratic Academy to give a lecture on a seminar in Budapest about the WCL and the trade union movement in Central and Eastern Europe. That gave me the opportunity to visit a number of Hungarian trade unions that maintained good contacts with WCL . The oldest contacts, before my time at the WCL, were with the Christian Trade Union Szamket led by Laszlo Lantzky. The official application for membership of the WCL was dated November 1991. However, there were many doubts about the nature, scope and significance of Szamket.

Especially the report of Günther Engelmayer of FCG / ÖGB, who in August had attended a seminar organized by Szamket, sowed doubts again. Engelmayer came to the conclusion that the confederation did not amount to a lot and that "Laszlo Lantzky's pride, ambition and poor ability to delegate" was not enough to build a movement of workers and activists.” He wrote that Lantzky lacked expertise and realism. During my visit Lantzky claimed that his confederation would have 40,000 members. He proudly told me that he was admitted as the 8th member of the Council of six confederations. This was indeed a certain recognition of his federation at national level.

The Council was established by the six main confederations in Hungary. They entered into a mutual agreement on the distribution of the assets of the former communist trade union unity SZOT . Szamket and the other " little " union Solidarity would also get some of the old possessions of the now defunct communist trade union confederation SZOT. An agreement on the distribution of union assets was important for their existence. Without possessions they would have little chance to survive, let alone develop. Voluntary membership and a culture of self-financing through membership dues payment as an expression of independence and autonomy, the basis for dignity of every worker and every self-respecting democratic trade union, was unknown in Communist times. The new trade unions had still to teach this culture to their members and that would certainly take time, so much time that most unions would have vanished before they were well and truly begun. Thanks to these former trade union assets like office buildings, leisure centers , training centers, hotels etc. they had more chance to survive.

After Lantzky I spoke with Judit Gulyas, president of the federation EDDSZ in the healthcare sector (about 100,000 members). She was also Vice President of EUROFEDOP, one of the WCL International Trade Union Federations. EDDSZ had recently joined EUROFEDOP along with two other unions (the Union of Hungarian Civil Servants' Federation with 70,000 members and the smaller Federation of Costum Officers). This expansion of EUROFEDOP was partly due to the EUROFEDOP Liaison Office located in Vienna, supported by the Federation of Public Servants GÖD affiliated to the ÖGB. Their liaison officer Erwin Kofler wrote in a report to the WCL Coordination Committee on Central and Eastern Europe on March 24, 1993 on activities in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, the former Soviet Union, Bulgaria and Lithuania. EUROFEDOP was the only WCL International Trade Federation with a liaison office for Central and Eastern Europe.
Imre Palkovics during a seminar in Budapest (1993)

My last appointment was with President Imre Palkovics and some members of the National Federation of Workers' Councils (MOSZ - Munkastanascok). We had already met in Prague during the European Forum. Then Palkovics indicated that he wanted to become a member of the WCL. On national level Workers' Councils was also a member of the Council or Trade Union Platform. The Confederation has a Christian Democratic signature but has also Social Democrats and Conservatives in its ranks. Using Workers' Councils as the basic structure, MOSZ indicated clearly that they consider themselves as heir to the Hungarian uprising or revolution of 1956.

Crowd surround a captured Russian tank during the anti-Communist revolution in Hungary, 1956. Hulton-Deutsch collection/Corbis. Photographer: Jack Esten

“In 1956 the Hungarians revolted against the communist regime. During the uprise workers' councils were formed within enterprises. It was a democratic movement which tried to act as a rival political power. Not only workers' initiatives was at stake, but also the Communist power monopoly as such (that is the core of the Communist Soviet model). When the party leadership promised to end the Communist power monopoly and announced the country's neutrality, Soviet troops invaded the country and shattered the revolt in a fortnight. The workers' councils none the less continued to function and to represent the ideas of resistance, but there functions were limited, while Communist party and union leadership were restored. In January 1957 the new government did not recognize the workers councils movement anymore. The workers' councils were then phased out.” (Floor Nelissen, Industrial democracy in Hungary on the right track?, Doctoral thesis political sciences, Nijmegen 1996 and Wikipedia)

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