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There Will Always Be Power In A Union! -Organizing Transformation Through the First Union For NGO Workers in The Balkans

by Sandra Kasunić

Photo credit: SKUPA

“The Union forever defending our rights
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite
With our brothers and our sisters
Together we will stand
There is power in a Union.”

These are the lyrics to Billy Bragg’s powerful song “There Is Power In A Union.” But they furthermore adequately match the motto of the recently established trade union SKUPA (Croatian acronym for “Sindikalni kolektiv udruženih prekarnih radnica i aktivista”, Engl. Trade Union Collective of United Precarious Workers and Activists).

The establishment of SKUPA was carefully planned and discussed for two years. Then, at the beginning of December 2021, we finally took the last step and successfully founded this long overdue trade union with 40 members, primarily NGO workers. Despite the establishment of SKUPA going relatively smoothly, we planned for quite a long time because the NGO sector as a so-called third sector, in contrast to the public and private sector, has not yet been organised. Therefore, we discussed whether to join an existing union during the planning period. Our main goal was to organise NGO workers and tackle the disregarded precarious working conditions in our sector, not to found a union per se. We concluded to establish SKUPA due to the perceived lack of interest of other unions in us as NGO workers and understanding of our working conditions and way of functioning. Furthermore, by establishing SKUPA, we wanted to change Croatia’s stagnant and non-progressive trade union movement. And we wanted to be members of a democratic, inclusive and participatory trade union that *knows* that the members are those holding the ownership.

Photo Credit: SKUPA

Moreover, the lines between employers and NGO workers are often blurred, and the roles are conflated, which brings us close to the self-employed. Some NGOs are organised similarly to the principles of worker’s self-management, whereas there are also those where one can clearly distinguish between the boss and the worker. Thus, careful planning of our approach to our sector was an essential prerequisite as our understanding as the NGO sector union is that we have “direct” and “indirect” employers. By direct employers, we mean those signing our working contracts — the NGOs themselves. However, as the NGO sector is predominantly financed through project funds, we think that public and private donors who make the (financing) rules can be considered “indirect” employers as the financing and functioning of NGOs are heavily influenced by the donor’s rules. This means that most donors, besides wages of project staff, do not allow the financing of any other sorts of compensation for staff, e.g., bonuses, settlements, paid overtime, sick leave, holiday allowances, training, and development, or any other material or immaterial expenses for workers.

Thus, in the end, the only logical thing for us was to establish SKUPA. By doing so, we wanted to gather broader support from its beginning as it was important to us to make a statement that this union is no chimaera but a collective need to fight for better and decent working conditions.

Photo credit: SKUPA

This also brings us to our principles, as SKUPA is rooted, among other things, in the principles of democracy, participation, inclusiveness, and progressiveness. SKUPA is a trade union of all its members and one that lives and grows through massive membership and members’ active contribution to not only the struggle for enhanced working conditions in the NGO sector but a more socially and economically just society as a whole. To achieve its goals, SKUPA relies on a steadily growing membership, so one of our first tasks was to develop an organising strategy that fits our principles, goals, and visions. Thanks to our comrades from the Slovenian organisation CEDRA, we arranged a webinar to educate ourselves on how to organise for power. During this webinar, we decided to focus our organising strategy on fostering ownership among members. Moreover, our structure foresees a focal role for membership participation in our union. This is because we believe that only a union in which its membership takes ownership over the union and actively contributes to its struggles and successes will be a sustainable union.

As already mentioned, SKUPA’s self-concept is to grow into a trade union that understands and uses its position as a political actor in society. By choosing such an approach to trade unionism, adopting a concept rooted in the theory of deep and transformative organising seemed to be another logical step in our development. In short, transformative organising seeks to enhance the labour conditions of a specified group of workers and transform the power structures and policies of capitalism by building sustainable social movements. This approach to organising is deeply rooted in class consciousness, political action, and social and economic justice for all. By equipping all actively engaged members with skills to organise according to the principles of transformative organising, we want to ensure a peer-to-peer learning effect that contributes to the politicisation of those organising and those being organised. Such an effect is crucial in our sector (and society as a whole) as workers in the NGO sector usually do not identify themselves as working-class members. Contributing to a class consciousness within our organising strategy is thus of utmost importance if we want to grow as a union. Also, by adopting a transformative way of communicating with workers — and members — we aim to generate an understanding that only through collective action we will be able to win our battles.

Photo credit: SKUPA

Despite slogans such as “united we stand, divided we fall” being common among many contemporary trade unions, we see declining numbers of members in almost all of them. This is because slogans such as the one above have become — slogans. One of the reasons for this phenomenon is as trade union leaderships have alienated themselves from their membership bases. Indeed, large trade unions cannot properly function through direct-democratic procedures and without organisational discipline. However, as contemporary trade unionists, we must acknowledge that we must rethink and reflect on our ways of operating to prepare and readjust for the many struggles in our future. In a world so alienated and individualistic, in which too many people are left behind, we as trade unions must remember our history and transform into organisations for the many of us. To do so, we must recalibrate how we approach new members and engage existing members. We must make room for the needs and fears of our members — through organisational structure and places in which members can meet, exchange, plan and discuss. We must open up our organisations for active engagement and involvement of the members, but also fun and joy. We must adjust our structures to actively and decisively eliminate discrimination, marginalisation, and inequalities. We must evolve into organisations that embrace diversity, class struggle and consciousness, and social justice. And we must find the strength to make ourselves and our demands heard.

While these words may seem utopistic, we at SKUPA believe that only by doing away with pessimism and cynicism we can achieve our goals. Because, to paraphrase Bragg’s lyrics at the beginning, only when we all stand together will there be power in a union.

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Center for Media, Data and Society

Center for Media, Data and Society

Research center for the study of media, communication, and information policy and its impact on society and practice. https://cmds.ceu.edu/