The following article was sent to Health Sector Workers Network by Devrim Valerian
Devrim is a teacher and member of the Autonomous Workerist Confederation (ARK), a radical workers group who have been giving ongoing support to Maya and the other militant nurses
There is anger in the hospitals across Bulgaria
It’s been there for a long time. The first open sign of this was with the national demonstration in Sofia along with protests in some smaller cities on the first of March, this year. Protests don’t just appear magically from nowhere though. They have to be organised, and coordinated, and there has to be anger there already for people to do this. So there’s been anger in the hospitals for a long time now and it’s not going away. Meanwhile the protests are continuing.
Today especially people are fed up in Bulgaria. A militant nurse in Sofia, Maya Ilieva, has been dismissed from her job. She has been one of the leading militant nurses in organising protests, and building organisation amongst nurses. The nurses union, the Bulgarian Association of Healthcare Professionals (BAHP), has typically done nothing to help her, as it has done nothing to help nurses throughout the last six months of protests.
Maya, and many others like her, are struggling to build a real organisation that will fight to defend workers in the health industry . This isn’t an easy fight. The working class is very weak internationally, and in Bulgaria particularly so. This is the country with the second lowest level of strikes in the EU. It’s a country where workers are scared to struggle. This makes the struggle of the nurses even more heroic.
The question now is what can be done to defend Maya? It’s not just about defending Maya though. If the bosses can get rid of anybody who talks about issues such as pay, conditions, and decent standards of healthcare, then it stands to reason that pay, conditions, and standards of healthcare, which are already bad enough, will get worse. For other workers, the issue of health care is of course important, but that is not all. Maya’s sacking gives a green light to bosses everywhere in this country. It says to them clearly that if you have a worker who asks questions, then you can just get rid of her. If a worker asks a question about why the boss is cheating workers out of money that is rightfully theirs, or why they aren’t allowed to have the breaks that they are entitled to, then they can be dismissed. The message that it sends out is very clear. Workers should shut up, and do what they are told. They shouldn’t complain, even when the boss is doing things that are completely illegal. That’s why this concerns every worker in this country. So if people defend people like Maya, then they are helping to defend themselves against the bosses who would silence the voices who speak out for workers.
So, what can be done? Nurses themselves are taking the initiative, they are organising protests across the country. In the major cities there will be demonstrations and in some cities nurses, along with their supporters are even planning on blocking roads. Every worker who cares about the state of the health service in Bulgaria, or workplace wages and conditions in general, should be there to support them. The nurses are fighting for everyone, but they need our help and support.
In the past there was much more solidarity between different groups of workers. When one group of workers were under attack, others workers helped them. This wasn’t just because they were nice kind people. It’s because they recognised that they had common interests, and that an attack against one group of workers was ultimately an attack on all workers. At the recent syndicalist conference in Varna, we heard an inspiring speech from a leader of local city transport workers telling us how dock workers had supported her and her colleagues during their struggles in the early 90s. In other countries, all sorts of workers, including for example in the U.K. in 1988, miners, car factory workers, and postmen, walked out on strike in support of them.
As we said earlier, workers are not strong at the moment. Here in Bulgaria, most workers don’t have the strength to fight their own battles, let alone those of other workers. Even though workers are not about to all walk out on strike in support of the nurses, there is nothing to stop them from attending their demonstrations. They are fighting for us and they need our support.
It’s not just about going to a demonstration as an individual, it’s about doing things collectively. It’s something that we need to discuss with our colleagues and workmates. Talking to colleagues about why we need to support the nurses fight for better pay and conditions can be a start to talking about our own pay and conditions. It’s important for all workers that Thursday’s protests are as big as possible, and that means bringing as many of our workmates as possible to them.
One of the ‘crimes’ that Maya has been sacked for, in addition to speaking out against the bosses and organising protests, is trying to form a new organisation to fight for nurses. Maya asks: whose interests does the BAHP serve? It’s a question that most workers in this country already know the answer to. It’s certainly not our interests. Most workers sign up to join the unions to get a few days extra holiday. That’s the deal in Bulgaria, we pay them some money and we benefit from the conditions laid down in the collective agreement. That is for the few workers in this country that are members of unions, over 80% of workers aren’t. Even for those who are members, while they may get a few more days holiday, if they ask about improvements in wages and conditions the unions do nothing. If they dare to do anything about wages and conditions themselves they find, as Maya did, that the unions are against them.
So this is what Maya’s real ‘crime’ is, trying to build an organisation that will fight for nurses interests. It’s something that nurses need, however it’s something that they are building everyday through this struggle. It’s something that is being built with every action that nurses take in this struggle. It’s not only the big actions like large protests in the capital, strikes or blocking the roads. It’s everything which goes towards building this struggle, not just the big things on TV news. It’s every nurse who attends any protest however small, any nurse who says no to her boss when she is asked to do unreasonable work and even any nurse who talks to her colleagues about why they need to say no to these things collectively.
The creation of a new type of organisation is not something that is done by merely filling in official documents and signing up new members. It’s something that exists collectively with every action that nurses take. It’s the struggle itself that creates a new type of workers’ organisation, one that will support workers in struggle, and not, as Maya unfortunately found out, stab them in the back.
We know too that this is not just what nurses need, it’s what all workers need. The nurses are a shining example to every worker. That’s why ARK (Bulgarian syndicalist organisation) is supporting Maya and the nurses in their struggle to set up a new organisation. It’s why we think that every worker who wants better pay and conditions in their own job, let alone decent healthcare, should be supporting them too.