Ana Jakopič is a lawyer, organizer, and trade union leader in Slovenia. Currently, Ana is working as a field organizer and lawyer for KS 90, the Trade Union Confederation 90 of Slovenia (Konfederacija Sindikatov 90 Slovenije), where she focuses on organizing kindergarten workers, food industry workers, and port workers. We talk to Ana about the different kinds of workers she organizes with on a daily basis, the struggles working people across Slovenia are facing, and how connected/disconnected those struggles currently feel to the strikes taking place in Europe and beyond. But we also talk about Ana’s life and her winding path into the labor movement; we talk about growing up in the post-Yugoslavian world, and about the impacts the Russo-Ukrainian War is having on Slovenians’ lives today.
Additional links/info below…
- Ana’s Twitter page
- European Fair Mobility Project Fact Sheet
- Luka Lukič & Ana Svenšek, MMC, “A Rally Against Political Hatred in Ljubljana”
- Maximillian Alvarez, Breaking Points, “‘We Need ESCALATION’: More STRIKES Coming In UK And France“
- The Real News Network, Workers of the World (series)
- AFP, “Thousands of Nurses Strike over Wages and Poor Working Conditions in Slovenia“
- People’s Health Dispatch, “Health Workers in Slovenia Go on Strike“
Permanent links below…
- Leave us a voicemail and we might play it on the show!
- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org)
Jules Taylor, “Working People” Theme Song
Music / Post-Production: Jules Taylor
Ana Jakopič: Hi, my name is Ana Jakopič. I come from Slovenia. Slovenia is part of the European Union. I am a trade union organizer, a trade unionist, and a lawyer by profession.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network. So if you’re hungry for more worker and labor-focused shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network.
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My name is Maximillian Alvarez, and I am super, super excited for our episode today. As you guys heard, we’ve got Ana calling in from Slovenia right now, on the other side of the world. And I’m so, so grateful to Ana for making time to chat with me, especially with all of the things that she is doing for her fellow workers there in Slovenia on a day-to-day level. Also, while we’re in the midst of an ongoing horrible war in Ukraine, a cost of living crisis that is squeezing working people across Europe and beyond.
But as you guys know, we’re also seeing incredible fight from working class folks in the United Kingdom, in France, in Belgium, in Turkey, in Hungary. So workers are organizing, mobilizing, and fighting back. And this is a really exciting opportunity to hear directly from Ana about what she and her fellow workers over there, in a part of the world that we don’t get to hear a lot from normally, we get to hear directly from Ana about what the state of the class struggle is over there in Slovenia.
So again, Ana, I just wanted to thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with me today. And before we talk about some of the bigger questions like the state of the labor movement in Slovenia, what role the war in Ukraine has played in your lives and your organizing, I wanted to get to know more about you and your path into the labor movement. So could you tell me a little bit about where you grew up and what it was like growing up there?
Ana Jakopič: Yeah, thank you so much for inviting me. It’s a really big pleasure to be here today and to talk to you. So yeah, my upbringing actually started when Slovenia was still part of Yugoslavia. So after the fall of the Berlin Wall, also Yugoslavia started to fall apart. So Slovenia and Croatia at that point decided to become their own countries, which started a big war in Yugoslavia, which you probably heard about.
But in Slovenia, we did not have a very lengthy and horrible war. It only took around 10 days, but still there were big pressures on the workers’ movement and working class people because one of the things was the change of the political system. So we went from socialism to capitalism. And the second thing was that, actually, we had our markets crash because of the war in Yugoslavia, which meant that a lot of companies went bankrupt or had to change their markets.
So that was in the early ’90s when the trade movement started to have a renaissance in a way, because there was this big need to blockade the privatization of the companies and breaking of the big companies and letting go of people in masses. Therefore, trade union confederations organized a big strike in ’92, and then we had more striking happening in the years that followed.
So my mother was a trade union sympathizer, therefore she took us to all these strikes and gatherings of the working people. So this is how my path in the trade union movement started.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, I have so many questions [laughs]. Because the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.
Ana Jakopič: Yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: And the 10-day war for Slovenian independence was in ’91, as you said.
Ana Jakopič: Yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: So do you mind my asking how old you were when all of that was happening?
Ana Jakopič: When the Berlin Wall fell, I was six years old. And then, I was then eight years old when the Yugoslavia fell apart.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow. So we’re pretty similar in age. I was born in 1986, and so I remember seeing stuff on TV in the early ’90s, but as a little kid, a lot of that I couldn’t really process what I was seeing. But I was just wondering, do you have any memories of growing up in the former Yugoslavia? Are there parts of that experience that you still remember now, years later?
Ana Jakopič: So it’s really hard to say. I do have some memories, but a lot of things were said to me later on, and then it’s a question of how much you remember and how much you think you remember but were actually told about. But I do remember the war because we had to shelter once, and I do remember that having a big impact on me, although it was just a false alarm. So actually there were no planes coming, dropping bombs, but that was the situation that we didn’t know what will happen. So we all had to go to the shelter.
And it had a big impact on people’s lives, since later on, a lot of people had family in the war. So in the other countries of the ex-Yugoslavia. For example, my mother comes from Croatia, so there was a big war in Croatia, although my mother comes from a part where there was no war, no direct war. But also my family’s mixed. So we had people that we knew that were directly in the war and lost their lives. So that impacted greatly on us. And we also had a mass refugee crisis of people coming to Slovenia, and then later on going also to Germany, to Scandinavia, and also to the USA.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow. It’s always interesting to think that even when incredible, terrible, massive world events are happening all around us, life still goes on. You know?
Ana Jakopič: True.
Maximillian Alvarez: It’s like even during the middle of war, people fall in love, children grow up. It’s just like, I don’t know, it’s not like everything is necessarily defined by the war, by the fall of the Soviet Union or the Yugoslavia or these big economic changes happening across the globe. And I say all that because I wanted to ask, as two kids who grew up in the ’90s, we still had other stuff that we were doing as kids. We had friends, I assume, and went to school and lived our lives. And I wanted to ask what it was like for you growing up in that time? What was it like going to school? With those changes happening to the economy, like going from communism to capitalism, did you have a sense of what you wanted to do when you grew up?
Ana Jakopič: So I actually come from a family which is middle class. My parents both have high education and they had a steady job all the time. Of course, during socialism, people usually had the whole… Their lives, they had only one job or maybe two jobs. So the jobs were very stable, the paychecks were very stable, and the housing was very stable. People would pay actually 10% of their income, and they would get a flat for a very low rent, which would be like 10% of today’s rents. And that would mean that they could live normal lives.
Also, the working hours were mostly from 6:00 to 2:00, which then enabled people to come home to be with their kids at around 3:00 PM. So people, families were very much more together than they are today. And also the schooling system and kindergartens in Slovenia are free. So even today, and they were at that time. So the economic pressures were not that high for my family. And also for the families around, the ones that were from the working class, later on, when the markets crashed, they would get renewed. And so in a few years, two to three years, things would stabilize.
And one of the things which was very important for Slovenians was this law which was introduced, that people could buy off their apartments for a price of 10% of the market price. So people would buy their apartments at that time for, I don’t know, $15,000, something like that, and they could take it in the form of loans for 20 years. So people then got a lot of these apartments as ownership, which even today is one of the big important things why people still live quite a quality life in Slovenia.
But the new generations don’t have these advantages. And with the coming of capitalism, the crashing of these permanent contracts came. So for us, then later on, we were wondering when we were going through schools what jobs we will get, what paychecks we will get, but that was something that was unknown to our parents. So that was definitely different, but still the atmosphere was positive.
So schooling, also with university schooling, is free in Slovenia. And there is this system that if you work during your studies, then you don’t pay so much taxes. So that’s also something that helps a lot of students.
But of course during the ’90s and later on, these differences between people in their economic status became bigger and bigger. We used to have very small differences in comparison to other Western countries. So we were actually leading even the Scandinavian countries, but today we are not at that point anymore.
My upbringing, I think it was quite classical. I mean, nothing really special. But yeah, because my parents were highly educated, then they also put all of their three children through schooling, so we were able to finish our faculties. It’s interesting that my mother was the first to be highly educated in her family, and my father was the second generation.
So both of my parents come from miners, mine workers background, like three generations back or two generations back. So they were working class people, but during socialism, the possibilities to get education were pushed. So a lot of people got education that they wouldn’t be able to. So that changed a lot for my family. So my upbringing was very happy, I have to say.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, that’s not a bad thing. Yeah. I was going to ask, tell me a little bit about it. What would you and your siblings and your friends, what did you guys do for fun as kids in Slovenia after the fall of communism?
Ana Jakopič: So it’s quite funny to think about it today. In the ’90s, we played outside a lot. We played still in the woods, because I lived in a smaller town near our capital, Ljubljana, where I live today. And we played a lot outside. We played a lot of games where you have to work together. So it was very positive and… But later on, it is funny that when the big shops came, that was the main thing for children to see these big shops. Because in times of socialism, we had very small shops. The shops were not big, we didn’t have these malls. So when malls came, that was a big thing.
And then McDonald’s came. I remember it so vividly when I came to Pula, that’s in Croatia where my mother comes from, and my cousin, she said to me, you know, something really big happened, but you have to come in summer and I’ll show you. And I came, and she took me to McDonald’s [both laugh]. That’s so funny today, but at that point, that was the thing. And then when we were in primary school, when we were a little bit older, for the weekend or the Friday night, we would go to the cinema, to the movie, sorry, and then to McDonald’s. Yeah, and that would be the thing.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow. What was your impression of McDonald’s when you first tried it?
Ana Jakopič: Yeah, I didn’t like it [Alvarez laughs]. Nobody liked it. Nobody liked it. But a few months later, everybody ate it [both laugh]. That was so funny.
Maximillian Alvarez: That’s the American way, baby. No one likes it, but you’re all going to fucking eat it [both laugh].
Ana Jakopič: Yeah. And it was quite expensive for us at that time. That’s also something which is interesting, because nowadays, of course, it’s considered a very cheap food. And at that point it was quite expensive in comparison to the food which was freshly grown and cooked and prepared in restaurants. Actually, it was more expensive.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, Jesus. I mean, that is funny. Because it makes me think, as a kid growing up here in America, the heart of empire, and not understanding… I didn’t understand a whole lot about America’s place in the world. It was just we were told from birth, this is the greatest country on earth. Everyone wants to be us. Everyone wants to come here. Everyone wants the kind of society that we have. That’s just what we were taught.
And I remember when my family and I, my extended family, we took a trip when I was nine years old to Mexico to visit our family there. And it was the first time that we had all gone as a big group. And so we went and we visited our family in Guadalajara, and then we visited our family living in Yucatan over in the south.
And it really sticks out in my memory now, because we spent a couple days in Cancun. And everyone goes to Cancun. It’s the big vacation spot. And it felt like an extension of the United States. We went there, and there were a bunch of restaurants that I recognized. There are these big, gaudy American restaurants, because it was really catering to an American tourist audience, but it was in Mexico. And at the time, as a kid, that just made me feel like, oh wow, this is other countries wanting to be like us.
But now much later in life, I look back at that and I just feel so gross about it and sad about it, because now I look at that and I see how all the Mexican people who live and work in Cancun, they’re living in shacks next to these massive hotels, or they’re service workers who are supposed to cater to American or other tourists, but they can’t afford to live and eat there as well. And this is happening all over the globe. I have such a different perspective on it now. Thinking about the creep of malls and Coke and Pepsi and McDonald’s and everything else that has crawled its way into the formerly socialist states over time is very, very weird to think about.
Ana Jakopič: Yeah, true, true. And it is, yeah. It is an empire in a sense that it really has a big impact on everybody. And for example, when we were growing up, we had this constant thinking like, okay, America is good for this, but there are things which are much better here. And we always wanted, especially in the ’90s, our parents – Not us, because we were kids – But wanted us to get things that were better. But in the end, if you look at it, we were taken away from things that were much better before, and we got a lot of McDonald’s [laughs].
Maximillian Alvarez: And you got fucking McDonald’s instead [laughs].
Ana Jakopič: And as you said, the working class people really, really suffered a lot during this time. And their rights have been really, really, really lowered. And as you said, this is something which is still a shock to Slovenian society when trade unionists, especially the activists, as we are called, some of us try to bring the stories of workers, especially in tourism, but also in other… Like the food industry, out in the media. And people are shocked at how workers are treated. And mostly these are workers from other countries, migrant workers who don’t even speak the language and are really treated very badly. So we took that model from America, or how to say, and we applied it very uncritically, and it’s very hard for a trade union movement to stop these practices. We do try [laughs].
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. God bless you for trying.
Ana Jakopič: Yeah. Yeah. Because sometimes if there are not more people doing it, you would think I’m crazy. This is just the machine is going to eat you up and spit you out. There is no way that you can stop things. But yeah, there are more people who try to stop these practices, so that helps.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I want to talk about that in a second. I want to ask you about your path to the labor movement and the work that you do. But I wanted to ask one more question about that period when you were growing up. Because I have to imagine that if you’re in a country that is breaking apart from the former Yugoslavia that is fighting a war for independence, and there are wars going on around you in neighboring countries, too, do you feel like there was a… Were you raised to have a sense of Slovenian identity? Was there a big sense of nationalism in that time of saying like, this is what makes us Slovenian and not Yugoslavian, or not anything else? Does that stick out in your memory as well?
Ana Jakopič: Yeah, yeah. I come from a mixed marriage, which was before, of course, a Yugoslavian marriage. So when the Yugoslavia broke apart, of course, my mother is Croatian, so she was able to get the papers, no problem. But a lot of people were actually, we say canceled or… I don’t know which is the right English expression, but they lost their ID cards and permits to stay. So there is a big problem in Slovenia still that a lot of people from ex-Yugoslavia didn’t get citizenship, although they should have. And so a lot of families had big problems because of it.
And of course, being from a marriage, being half Croatian, that had a big impact on me. I was treated… But not very much, not very intensely, but still sometimes less, something less. Like you said, I would draw a parallel with treatment of Mexican people in the United States of America, so that would be like some second grade people. So that would be. And sometimes I would try to get education so nobody could do anything to me. My parents would always say to me, when you have education then you have a better bargaining position. But it’s not okay if a child grows up thinking like, I have to get this, this, this so I could possibly be treated the same.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, that really does resonate, because my parents told me the exact same thing. And they told me that you got… They talked to me and my siblings, they said, you guys have to work twice as hard in school. But if you work hard, then you can achieve that American dream, but you’re starting farther behind than everyone else was the message. So you gotta work twice as hard. So that definitely resonates.
You’ve already talked a little bit about this in the first half of this conversation. And I want to be clear, I don’t want to put you on the spot and ask you to give me an entire PhD dissertation on the economy of Slovenia in the past 30 years [Jakopič laughs]. So don’t feel pressured there. But you mentioned things like when you guys were going to school and your country is literally making this historic shift from socialism to capitalism, and those Western influences and capital are coming into the country and changing the face of the country. So it’s unclear in the ’90s and even maybe the early 2000s what the future of Slovenia and for working people in Slovenia is going to be. So I wanted to ask if you could say a little bit about, in the 21st century, what has the labor market looked like for a lot of folks in Slovenia, and how did you find your way into the world of organized labor?
Ana Jakopič: So yeah, first of all, during the ’90s, like I said in the beginning, a lot of markets crashed. So that was a big crisis which was used very intensely by the Western economists, especially the Chicago Boys that came many times to Slovenia trying to push the narrative of privatization and of letting people go en masse so that the shock can be made to change the structure of the society economically, but also to cut the ties between people and this empathy which still existed at that time. For example, if I just say it in a way like it was a mantra that even for richer people, it’s much better to live in a society when you don’t have people who are starving, you don’t have people who are barely making it. That a society where everybody lives a good life, or good enough life, is something which we all want to have, since it’s much better to live in such a world, which is true.
But later on, this mantra came that there is a price to be paid if somebody wants to get richer. And of course we have to pay people more if they are more productive. So this mantra of productivity came in. And of course, people who were being paid more and more were not the ones who were actually contributing more, but were those who were privatizing companies which were built during socialism. So quite a funny thing is when you look at the Slovenian market, you still have only companies which were built actually in socialism.
I don’t find… I was just thinking when preparing mentally to talk to you, which company was built anew after capitalism came to Slovenia? and I couldn’t find any, to be honest. Maybe some little companies, but this would happen in socialism as well. Whereas privatization, like buying of our big companies from the Western companies or the States even, like airports, the biggest airport was bought by the German country. So, Germany itself. So they were built in socialism. And it was a paradox that they were saying socialism was not creating any good companies, but in the end, when you look at it, they’re just reselling all the time these companies that were actually built during that period.
So that had a big impact on people when these companies were sold, because usually they would be sold in pieces or parts that were very lucrative, were sold, and the other parts would stay, and people’s paychecks would lower, their rights would lower.
And of course, trade unions had a big crisis at that time. Trade unions in socialism were actually organized in a way that there was only one trade union confederation in Slovenia. And so at that time, they were quite intensely connected to the government. That’s true. And they would not do a lot of bargaining, but they would do like… They would make workers’ lives more stable and take care of extra things.
For example, I don’t know, they would build summer houses where workers could go for very cheap money. Even today, a lot of companies still own these apartments at the seaside where you can go and pay a fifth of the normal price that you would pay if you go somewhere private. Then they would take care of financial lending. You would put a little bit of your money aside in a… It was called [Slovenian word]. I don’t know how to translate it. But you would put in a little bit of money. Every worker would put a little bit of money in this place. And then when you had problems, nobody would ask you why, but you could take this money for one year. For example, now I would have a problem, like my children, I don’t know, would need some extra money. I would take $2,000, and then I would give it back in one year, and it would be… You wouldn’t pay any fee on it, and otherwise I would put $5 each month to this place, so then I could take the money when I needed it. So that would be something which was very positive.
Then trade unions also helped the building of apartments, so that the people would get flats. Or if they wanted, they could get money to build their own houses. So a lot of people did not want to live in flats, but decided to get money to buy material to build a house themselves. So a lot of people actually built houses themselves. This was usually helped by the neighbors. So we still have a lot of houses that were built like that in Slovenia.
So the labor union movement changed in the ’90s to go to defense, offense to start negotiating and strike actions and so on, and to protect the rights of the working people, which were under attack en masse. So then, like I said, in the beginning, in the ’90s, we had this general strike action in Slovenia, but also later we had big gatherings of workers, and that would always push this lowering of the rights a little bit back.
Also we had a very big… It wasn’t a strike. It was actually like a gathering of workers in 2011 that we stopped… That the pension system would collapse, and that we stopped the possibility that a mini work would be possible. I don’t know if you know this mini work system that they have in Germany where the employers can decide they take you for a few hours a week, and they pay you only for this few hours a week. They don’t have to take you for 40 hours a week, or what is full-time in Slovenia. It’s 40 hours a week at the moment, Although we have this possibility of 35 hours, which is not very used, but still the possibility is there, maybe about this a little bit later.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Well, I was just going to say, we got a whole lot of that in the United States where we’ve got full-time employees, we have part-time employees who usually work on an hourly basis, maybe anywhere between five and 20. Or even people who work 40 hours a week but are still categorized as part-time employees. We have contractors, people who can be working at a company but are not employed by the company. They’re employed by a cleaning service that the company hires to clean its offices, or IT people who they hire to fix their computers. They’re the gig workers. There are so many different layers now in the United States for people to not be full-time employees. It’s ridiculous.
Ana Jakopič: So in Slovenia, this situation is also flooding the market. Although we still, in theory, at least, we have this, a must that a worker has to have a permanent job for 40 hours a week, that there are no possibilities for them to be laid off without reason, and the reason has to be legal. So you have to do something wrong or the company is crashing, and that has to be shown, otherwise you cannot be let go just because like in America. And we still have this notion that people have to be workers if they actually fulfill the criteria. So you cannot employ people hourly. So zero-hour contracts are not allowed, are illegal. And also these contracts that you said are also illegal in Slovenia, but still happening. So a lot of people still do work civil contracts, although they are actually workers. But then this worker would have to go to legal procedures, so to court, and ask for a contract, and they would get it. But it takes two, three years, sometimes four years. So that’s a big problem then for workers.
So what I wanted to say is that you asked me also how I came to the trade union movement. That was actually definitely through my mother. She took us to many of these protests and strikes. So that would be something that I grew up with. But then also much more, because I actually worked as a volunteer for an organization that protected refugee rights, refugees, and tried to help them integrate because the government is many times making it very hard for refugees to integrate.
So then I came across also the problems that they had on the working market. A lot of them worked illegally, and we were trying to make that legal so that they could be treated humanely and have all the workers’ rights. So then I initiated the idea that we have a project with trade unions and try to help migrant workers and refugees who were working in Slovenia. So this is how I came in contact with the trade union movement. That was the time when in Slovenia, because of the crisis of 2008, the construction sector collapsed. So a lot of migrant workers from ex-Yugoslavia who worked for big construction companies in Slovenia were treated really, really badly. And that was the first group of workers next to refugees who I tried to organize and help them protect their rights and, of course, make their rights better.
And so during this project, we started this… We gave legal advice, but then started organizing people, started organizing to change the laws in favor of migrant workers since a lot of the laws were very, very problematic. And this is how I started working in the labor union. But at that time I finished my law faculty, I actually was a volunteer, or activist. I actually worked for a university – I was a young researcher – And in a lawyer’s office. But then, in 2014, they offered me the first contract. So I started working full-time for the Trade Union Confederation, the biggest one in Slovenia at that time.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow. That’s quite an introduction to the movement, doing that work. And for folks in North America who are listening to this, I just wanted to ask where a lot of those migrant workers and refugees were coming from?
Ana Jakopič: So at that point, most of the migrant workers were from ex-Yugoslavia. So Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia. Some of them who came to us were also from Kosovo, and also from Romania, Bulgaria, but less of them. So mostly ex-Yugoslavia countries. And refugees at that point were mainly from Afghanistan and also from Africa. But the situations were very different between them, so the problems, the struggles that they had were different. So I mostly worked with people from Afghanistan and Syria. Some of them came from Syria. So yeah, that would be most of them.
Maximillian Alvarez: And what kind of work would they find themselves doing, if they could find work?
Ana Jakopič: So we then found this possibility that if they started schooling, and schooling is free in Slovenia, they would be able to work. Although this is not work which would give you all the rights of a worker. So especially pension funds are not respected the same, and sick days leave is not respected the same. So in Slovenia, these pension funds, state pension funds are still very strong. So the pensions, we always say are very low, but still they are around 68% of the salary that you would get before. And so after 40 years of work, and when you’re 60 years old, you get a pension, which is, as I said, around 68% of your former salary. And the minimum pension is also required.
So for them, they don’t get these rights. But other rights they do get. And so most of them went to school. Most of them went, actually, to primary school because they did not have primary schools. So they had to learn language, which was very hard for them, and of course all the other subjects. And in the afternoon, they were then able to work. So student work at that time was catering or working in news printing. News printing? Yeah, newspaper printing of this big… How do you call it? Where they print the newspapers? So that many of them still work there. And nowadays, it’s [inaudible] and this kind of… I don’t know. You have [inaudible] in America? I think it’s an American corporation now.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah.
Ana Jakopič: Yeah. So we now have actually [inaudible] and global workers organizing and striking in Slovenia because they don’t have normal contracts. So they’re under the civil law. And most of them actually work like student work, although in reality it’s not student work. So for refugees, these were the jobs that they would get. And of course restaurant business, like cleaning the dishes, cleaning the fish, things like that were not very popular among workers who have citizenship and are able to get better paid and better working condition jobs.
For migrant workers, the construction is very heavily hit. I mean, a lot of people in construction are actually migrant workers, then truck drivers. So we also organized the truck drivers, which were treated horribly. We had cases where they would be beaten, so we would go to the media and sensibilise the general public about it. So some steps were made about it. So truck drivers that drive across the whole of Europe. So these two sectors were the ones where we helped migrant workers the most.
Later on when I became an organizer, a proper organizer, part of the system of Trade Union Confederation, I covered more sectors. And for example, one of the sectors where a lot of migrant workers work in poor conditions is tourism. So it is very similar to what you described before. For example, people are brought from Bulgaria, Romania, they don’t even speak the language, and then they work on oil pumps and they live in containers. Or they work in hotels, but live in containers, or they live in rooms which are not meant for people to live in. So a lot of workers in tourism, especially these big hotel chains, are being treated very badly, are being outsourced to this agency type work. So I also did a lot of organizing of maids in hotels, which were also many of them migrant workers.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, you’re a badass, Ana. That’s incredible to hear. And I wanted to keep asking more about that, for people here in North America and beyond. If you could just talk more about… Now that you’re, like you said, a full-time organizer with the labor federation, what does that organizing look like on a week-to-week basis? What are you doing? What are you talking to workers about? What are you hearing from them? And yeah, just give us more of a sense of that important, vital work that you are doing.
Ana Jakopič: So at the moment, later on then, I actually headed to a public sector trade unionism in Slovenia. And even today, I actually organize and cover workers in kindergartens, and still workers also in sectors of the food industry. So it’s a little bit of a mix of the two worlds, public and private sector. But after I had two kids, I also had problems with my former employer trade union since my view of organizing was a little bit too aggressive, I would say, for some [both laugh]. And a lot of times I would hear, we agree with you, but it’ll never work. And then when it did work, that became a big problem for some. So I tried to continue to work the way I feel is the only way to protect workers and also to work with more people who see the working class struggle the same way as I do, and trade unionism and trade union movement as I would like to be seen.
So I joined Confederation of Trade Unions 90, so it was established in the year 1990. So I work in a group of people who are really great and try to be activists. So for example, at the moment, next to having these big negotiations in the public sector, we also tried to organize a group of workers in our port. We have one port in Slovenia, and there are a lot of workers which are agency workers or workers for which the port pretends that they have given this work to other companies and just pays the companies to do what they want to do, whereas the workers don’t have anything to do with them. So now we are forcing the port to recognize that these are actually their workers, they work for the port, and then they have to be treated as such. Their paychecks have to be at least doubled, and also all the rights have to be given to them.
So we actually, in December of last year, managed to get a Supreme Court decision that these workers are actually port workers. So tomorrow we have media coverage again, and we will try to push the port again to acknowledge what the Supreme Court said. Because the Supreme Court now gave it to lower courts to enforce this decision, but of course that means that each of the workers has to wait until the courts enforce the decision, which can take two to three years. So we’re trying to push and put pressure on the port, which is actually state-owned. So it’s quite a funny situation.
So at the moment, this is something that we are doing in the activism part. And of course this classical or trade unionism, which I do at the moment, we have, really having negotiations in the public sector where we are trying to negotiate a new model of paying the workers, and the pushes are very big from the state to lower some rights of the workers. So we have daily negotiations. It’s quite exhausting.
Next to that, we negotiate with the state and the business organizations for the new change, not new, but change to this workers’ law. So this basic law that we have, because we want to change. One thing is that companies are not allowed to take agency work in cases when work is permanent or is so dangerous that it is not okay for an agency to do it. So that is something which is very important for us to change. And the second thing is to protect the trade unionists in the companies and in the public sector. So that would mean the shop stewards, that they would be protected in a way that if they are fired, that their employer would have to pay them full until the court decides that the letting go was legal. So these are two things that we are negotiating on Friday. Hopefully we get it. We will see.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh yeah, give them hell, baby. Give them hell [laugh].
Ana Jakopič: Yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: It’s funny, because what you said about bargaining with employers when we’re talking about the public sector, it made me think of what you said earlier about the role of trade unions under socialism. Because I feel like socialism gets a bad rap in that regard, because obviously there’s going to be a tension there. We see this in socialist countries in the past, and even the few existing ones like Cuba today, where there’s a tension there when unions or workers in general are going on strike or making demands against their employer. Because if you live, supposedly, in a workers’ state, then when workers are going on strike, what does that mean?
Ana Jakopič: Exactly, exactly.
Maximillian Alvarez: So there’s an issue there which… And hell, I don’t care if you’re a socialist country. I’m all for that. But I still am always for the workers. And so we can’t kid ourselves and pretend as if class conflict and exploitation and mistreatment on the job suddenly just disappears under socialism. These things are eternal struggles that need to be eternally fought.
But it made me realize when you were talking that, in a lot of ways, we see that same dynamic in the public sector. Here in the United States, federal workers cannot go on strike. We just saw last year, the railroad workers, they’re not technically federal employees, but because labor relations on the railroads are governed by a separate set of laws that the government put in place to essentially prevent them from striking, the government can step in and say, no, you’re not allowed to strike, because the supply chain’s too important to the economy, or whatever. But also, that’s the same argument that Ronald Reagan used when he fired all of the air traffic controllers in 1981. Because they were technically federal employees and they weren’t allowed to strike, so that’s why Reagan was able to fire all of them.
And so you have that similar tension here where it’s like, okay, you’re in a union, but you’re also part of the state, and the state is supposed to, I don’t know, represent the interests of working people. So if you’re going on strike, there’s a problem there. I don’t know. It just feels like… I guess what I’m trying to say is that issue does not exist only for socialist states. It also very much exists in what we call the public sector across the board, it seems.
Ana Jakopič: True. So you opened two very, very interesting topics for me, which I try to think about many times. So first is striking during socialism. So what was interesting to me is when I came to the trade union movement, I always ask older people, older trade unionists, how did things happen before? Because I see a lot of things being lost, some on purpose, and I find it to be a big problem for the labor union that a lot of things, a lot of memories and historical battles that trade unions did were actually lost in memory, in records and so on.
So to be direct, and to answer your question, there were strikes during socialism, and as you mentioned, it was a big no-no. So it was considered to be like a slap in the face to the government, which was supposed to be a worker-protecting government. So what does it say about the system? So then people would be pressured not to do it because, of course, that would show a bad image of the country, of the working class, people working for themselves, and so on.
And so usually what happened at that time, Belgrade, so now in Serbia, was the center, like now Brussels, or Washington in your country. So the trade unionists would say to me when a strike started. And, for example, in the part that I worked in called Gorenjska, where they have a big steel industry, a lot of strikes happened. And this was a very strong industry, so they had very big bargaining power also. So they would stop work and they would strike, and people would drive in big black cars from Belgrade the same day and come and give them pay raises just to shut it down. So that would usually happen.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow.
Ana Jakopič: So during socialism, there were strikes, but I don’t know even how many people today realize that. But when you started the topic, then they say, ah, yes, yes, my grandfather told me about it, how they stopped work that and that year. So there were strikes, but of course not as many as would be today.
And the second topic that you said about public sector negotiations and striking. So yeah, the problem would be, for many public sector workers, they would feel like they’re in a position of advantage. And a lot of workers, their family members who are not part of the public sector would pressure them that, your rights are more protected, your paychecks are more safe, and so on. Why are you striking? You don’t do anything. You just…
For example, I was organizing or covering tax office workers for a few years. And for them, a lot of the general public would say, we don’t like them anyway. Why would they be striking for better pay? So because I had this life and these stories to tell, how I see trade unionism and a fight for working class people, then when I represented public sector workers, I did not have problems with media coverage. They knew that if I was talking about people being underpaid, people being not treated right, they would believe me, because I would have some credibility. So then it was easier.
But this is a big problem for trade unions in the public sector. And of course, in theory, strike is much harder, especially, for example, in health, in medical circles because we have a big… Hospitals are still part of the public sector in Slovenia. And so when they strike, people are not very happy, and they’re striking against themselves, as you pointed out.
But funny enough, in Slovenia, public sector workers actually strike more than private sector workers, because the pushes against the private sector workers are much more aggressive. So in the public sector, we tend to have a strike a year or two. So people are used to it. Oh, again, we’re striking again. Okay. But in the public sector, in some companies there were no strikes for 20 years. And people just think of it like, oh my God, that’s something that happens somewhere else. It does not happen in Slovenia. When you look at the Western countries of the European Union, they have strikes all the time. So that helps. See, they have to strike. We have to strike [both laugh].
Maximillian Alvarez: Right.
Ana Jakopič: And that’s why I also want to see what is happening in America, because when you talk to people, it always helps. We’re not the odd ones. We are not strange that we want to have better positions, better paychecks, better rights. So striking is something which is not totally alien.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I mean that’s really interesting to hear, because I think it tells all of us why it’s important that we look beyond our own borders and the role that we can all play in building an international working class consciousness. And like you said, the more that we can look to other countries and other strikes and strike waves or massive worker demonstrations, like the farmer strike in India, the more that we can see that. Like you said, it’s not like we’re the weird ones for demanding better. This is something that working people everywhere need to fight for.
Ana Jakopič: Exactly.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I wanted to round things out on that note, because I could really talk to you for five more hours, but I know you’ve got a long week of bargaining ahead of you. So I’ll let you go soon.
But on that note, we’re talking… Right now, it’s the end of May 2023, and there’s a lot going on around you guys. Like I said earlier, there are strikes happening, or worker protests, even if they’re not formal strikes. Like teachers in Hungary and students in Hungary protesting new government laws there, or air traffic controllers and airport workers in Germany and Spain, general strikes in France and Istanbul. Workers across the United Kingdom are seeing more strikes now than they’ve seen in basically our lifetime.
And all the while, the war in Ukraine is going on, and people can’t afford their gas and electric bills, and can’t even afford to put a roof over their heads. A lot is happening. And I just wanted to ask if you could say a little bit about how this is all impacting working people in Slovenia, and what you’re seeing from workers in Slovenia in response to things like the cost of living crisis, the strikes across Europe, and the war in Ukraine?
Ana Jakopič: Yes. So striking as a tool of the trade union movement is the most important tool that we have. And what has been known in our circles in Slovenia is that when you have a big strike – And I’m talking about general strike or a general strike in public sector, so on – Then this push works very strongly for five years, and it still has resonance for around 10 years. So in Slovenia, we have a big problem that we had this big push from the trade unions with strikes and other marches against pensions. And like I said, this mini job reform in 2011. And from then, we had only a public sector general strike, but not the whole population going on strike or in protests. So that’s a big problem in Slovenia at the moment, that the employers and the state as the employer don’t feel this push enough.
So these pushes that are happening around us. So we are actually neighbors to Hungary. These things do matter a lot. But more than even this push from Hungary, this French [inaudible] revolution really helps our case because our pension fund has to be changed again, and all the changes and still now were always for the worst. So one thing that is very important in our pushes, the argument, like, look at what happened in France, and they only hired the nurse for two years. Sorry, I will have to stop. Just a second. I’ll get my husband.
Maximillian Alvarez: No worries.
Ana Jakopič: My child came in. [Speaking Slovenian]. Sorry.
Maximillian Alvarez: No, no worries.
Ana Jakopič: So going back. So this situation in France really helps Slovenian trade unions with the argument that what is happening in France where the changes to the pension fund were pushed aggressively against the will and agreement with the trade unions had this big impact on the population and strikes. So this is something which is still a little bit alive from the 2011 big strike and protest in Slovenia. So that then together works as a pushback for the pension system to be worsened again for the workers in Slovenia.
Of course, the war in Ukraine had a big impact on the EU. Of course, the most impact it had on people in Ukraine which were forced to leave their home. And in many respects, because we were living in ex-Yugoslavia and went through the impact of that war, a lot of people really feel empathetic to the people of Ukraine. So this is one thing.
And of course, in the EU, Ukrainians have this permanent status until the war is over. So that helps a little bit more for them to get the refugee status and get work permits and so on. There are some Ukrainians who came to Slovenia and stayed, but we don’t have a lot of refugees from Ukraine, to be honest. In the beginning, many came, but I think many also went to other countries where they had family members, probably in the west of Europe. Or they found it easier to find a job because they spoke English, and here you have to speak Slovenian and so on. So there are some problems regarding the language barrier, definitely.
Of course, our markets were hit very intensely by the rise of the gas. We lived off Russian gas. So yeah, that was a big hit. And of course electricity also went through the roof. But we had a change of government last year, so now they’re one year in the government. Before, we had a Trump-like government and president of the government. Now we have a classical liberal government, but also one party which is similar to Syriza in Greece. So left-wing party, which then stabilizes a little bit our government. So they went very aggressively with the packages to help people with lowering the gas prices and electricity prices. So we had, I think that they said one of the lowest or the lowest prices in the EU. So it was heavily subsidized by the government.
Still, the prices of the food went through the roof. So I think the food prices rose around almost 30%. So that was a big shock for people. In the ’90s, a lot of people had gardens where they would make their own vegetables and grow their own products, whereas today almost nobody has the ability to grow their own food. So we are very hit by the market prices of the food. So that’s a big problem.
And the pushes to the wages were very big. So the inflation hit Slovenia very high. It was 10%. And the wages did rise, but not to the same level as the inflation, whereas the prices actually went much higher. But the both sectors got approximately a rise of 8% to 9% of the salaries, so paychecks. So something was done, but of course real inflation was much higher. So people were hit.
And thankfully a lot of people, younger people who have loans for their apartments and houses, do have a fixed rate which is quite low. But for those of us, for example me, who don’t have fixed rates, the market loans for the apartments went very high. So that’s also a pressure that some people have, but not many.
But the people who don’t have apartments, for those who are actually just renting, the prices of the rents went through the roof. So that’s also a big problem. The difference between people, those who can afford to buy with loans and those who can live with their parents in big houses and those who can’t, who have to just rent on the market are becoming bigger and bigger.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man. And again, you can hear so many echoes of what we’re hearing from workers here in the United States, the folks that we’ve talked to and covered across Europe and even in Latin America and beyond at The Real News Network. I hope that it’s coming through to folks listening to this that, of course, we all have so many unique circumstances that we’re dealing with depending on what country we live in, what generation we’re a part of, who our president is, what our labor laws look like. But in many ways, so many of our struggles are the same. And there’s so much that we can learn from each other about how to struggle better and about what victory can look like and about how we can all, as a global working class, stand in solidarity with one another and help one another win those essential struggles for dignity, for a life that can be lived well, and with good healthcare, a roof over your head, not worrying about how you’re going to feed your kids, and all of that stuff.
Ana, I just wanted to, first of all, thank you so much for sitting down and talking with me for this long in your third language. I’m just blown away by how good your English is. But also I know I got to let you go. I just wanted to ask if you had any final thoughts on that note for working people who are listening to this in North America and beyond. If you had any final thoughts you wanted to share about how connected our struggles are and how important it is for us to show and build international worker solidarity.
Ana Jakopič: Thank you so much for inviting me. It was a really, really big pleasure. And as you pointed out, yes, we have to work together, we have to hear stories of each other, and then we can also find that a lot of stories align. That, like you said, working people around the whole globe have very similar problems and struggles. And also the pushes and how the labor movement is being cut or their hopes from the employers to stop us are very similar. And that we still have things that we can do, and I think then we are unstoppable and a lot can be changed in the lives of everyday working people. Where people work together, so much can be done.
And for me, like organizing cleaners and workers in hotels made me so much a better trade unionist when I saw what it actually meant, working solidarity between workers and how much power that brings, how much actually us working together can stop the pushes of the owners and those who try to actually lower the rights and the status of people, especially working people.
And I think that stories of victory bring us together and give us hope and power to go to another and another battle, because unfortunately it is a battle. I was told so many times you cannot see it that way, but I do. I think it is a battle. And we don’t have the same equipment as the other side, but we do have each other, and we have something which is much more positive and much better to live with. When we have worker solidarity, a better world, then everything is possible.