Organizing Labor. New Forms of Solidarity of the Trade Union of Croatian Journalists
by Petra Ivšić
Who are We?
The Union of Croatian Journalists is an organization that protects the labor, social and professional status of all employees in the media, through social dialogue, improvement of media regulation and collective agreements. The union was founded in 1990 and since has created a unique platform around which employees in the media organize. Currently, the union has around 2000 members, their majority working for the Croatian public radio and television. The public broadcaster is overrepresented in the union because there employees still have a collective agreement in place. Other members are from smaller media houses, but in most of the private media there are no collective agreements and that means, (in most cases), no unionized workers. The main goal of our union is to negotiate long term collective agreements. In the Croatian media sector, we have only three such agreements, while just a decade ago there were eleven. Before going into a wider analysis on what led to the decline in the number of collective agreements, to a decrease of unionized workers and a decrease in labor rights, we have to the first look at the past.
For the past three decades, in the countries of former Yugoslavia, unions have been subjected to negative campaigns from employers and politicians, portraying them as relics of the communist regime. However, workers’ rights in that past were at superior levels than they are today. Many public institutions like the educational system, the media, and the executive branches of the government had a role to play in this process.
We can say that there are several major events that led to a collapse in the labour rights of media workers in Croatia. First, the privatization of media in the 1990s, then the 2007/2009 economic crises, and finally, changes in the Croatian Labour Law in 2014. More recently, the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic affected labour demand in the media sector and as a result journalism jobs dropped significantly.
The impact of labor law deregulation in 2014 was significant as it led to the to an easier dismissal of workers, making the sector more precarious and reducing the cost of labor. As a result of this deregulation, we saw in the media and cultural sector and increase in insecure and atypical forms of work. As young workers are employed on fixed-term contracts and various forms of part-time contracts we inevitably saw a decrease in the number of unionized workers since 2014. A decrease in labor organizing was especially painful for media workers and the rights won a hundred years ago, for example the 8–8–8 rule, (eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work, eight hours of rest) are no longer valid. This lead to fewer fees for unions, but also made organizing workers more difficult and more expensive. The time has come to turn this trend around and to ensure the longevity of the unions for at least another one hundred years.
After Maja Sever, a long-time public-service media (Croatian Radiotelevision — HRT) journalist, and as of recent the first female president of the European Federation of Journalists, took over the leadership of the Croatian Journalists’ Union in 2019, the number of union activities grew. We are working on signing a new collective agreement for HRT employees and we are restarting negotiations on a branch collective agreement in the media. In cooperation with the Croatian Journalist Association, we are working intensively on the creation of public media policies, we frequently visit newsrooms at the local level and we work on educating journalists about the importance of collective agreements in the media. Freelancers have begun to join the union and funds for the work of the trade union are for the first time being secured through project financing.
Through this additional funding — as precarious and unsustainable it may be — more activities and collaborations have been initiated by our union with other members of the Croatian civil society. Approximately 12 years ago, unions gathered in an initiative of adopting and signing the branch collective agreement in the media, but all the negotiations with the employers failed. Before our union enters the next step negations with employers and other social partners, we are working on bringing together all trade unions in the media sector, as well as media and law experts, and media workers in order to increase the pressure on the regulators. We gathered a working team of representatives of the Trade Union of Croatian Journalists, the Trade Union of Education and Media, and the Trade Union of Graphic and Media Workers and we agreed on further steps and actions. Also, in this important process we included the Croatian Journalist Association, so the fight for better working conditions would be stronger.
What is very important is that we are working on strengthening the capacity for collective bargaining in local media. We are approaching newsrooms in local community through existing union representatives using a bottom-up approach and the aim of this phase will be to build newsroom capacities for social dialogue, educate newsroom union commissioners and active union members so that they can directly implement the acquired knowledge and skills and initiate collective bargaining procedures within their newsrooms.
New Members — New Recruitment Methods
For branch collective bargaining in media, it is very important to include freelance workers in the process. What is problematic about freelancers is that most of them work from home and are employed on atypical contracts, which makes it difficult to organize them. In many European countries, self-employed workers are not included in collective agreements, and there is a certain trend of growth of this form of work. In several countries of Central and Eastern Europe, freelance journalism has become the main form of journalistic work.
Research and data collection is one way to learn about our members and fellow journalists, but also to engage them in an early dialogue. Currently, we are conducting a survey and collecting data about atypical workers in the media, and we will use the collected data to develop recommendations for media policies and legislation, but also to support our negotiations for the branch collective agreement.
In the past we have also used research to reach out to members and to lobby for their rights. At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the union surveyed fellow freelancers about their labor rights and the impact of the pandemic on them. The research showed that 28.7% of freelance journalists, freelancers and part-time associates were left without jobs during the pandemic. 26.2% of them lost most of their previous engagements, and for 15.9% of our respondents the workload halved. Once our union collected this data, together with the Croatian Journalist Society, we lobbied the competent ministry and secured a one-time financial support for freelance journalists in order to compensate for part of their lost revenue.
Another way we approach the membership, but also spread awareness of the importance of trade union organizing is through “newer” media formats such as video and audio podcasts, agitation videos on social networks, etc. Recently, we started recording a video Podcast “Trade Union Kitchen”, in which we cook food and have conversations with members of the trade union or with journalists about the importance of trade unions and notably the specific need to agree upon and sign the first branch collective agreement.
Cooperation and Solidarity with other Media Organizations in the Region
The journalists’ union works in close cooperation with other journalistic organizations, and the common name for the initiative is Lareg+. One of the projects “Local media for a better society”, was carried out by the joint activities of the Croatian Journalists’ Union, the Slovenian Journalists’ Association, the Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina Journalists and the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia. The project aims to strengthen the independence and freedom of local media as a basic source of information for citizens in local areas. If media workers in the region protest, strike or demand any form of support, when we can, we support them. This was the case with of the Slovenian public television, where through a strike media workers demanded higher wages, autonomy in work and changes at the top. Colleagues from Croatia also supported colleagues in Slovenia and held speeches of support in their protest in Ljubljana. Additionally, our union cooperates very closely with the Organization for Workers’ Initiative and Democratization, young activists, sociologists, scientists whose field work with unions and research and scientific work is recognized throughout the region.
Another activity of the Union of Journalists is also dedicated to young people. At the 34th regular Assembly of the Trade-union of Croatian Journalists, changes to the Statute were accepted and for the first time in the history of the union opened the possibility to include representatives of students and atypical media workers — freelancers, in the working bodies of the union. Protection of the rights of young journalists and media workers who are just entering the labor market, as well as colleagues in atypical work engagements, is an important aspect of trade union activities.
One of the plans for the fall of 2022 is to gather those still non-unionized media workers and organizing workshops about the importance of unions and about the importance of fighting for better working conditions. A lot of work awaits us in the next period. We know that the road is long, but it is not without a goal. Only with solidarity and the fight for better working conditions for all workers can we achieve a better and fairer society. And, as journalists, we take the task of building a better society very seriously.