A Day In A Strike

Those of you who follow The Firm™ on Facebook (hint hint!) probably already saw this, but nevertheless: Some 100,000 public sector employees went on strike today. Schools, kindergartens, libraries and some faculties were shut, policemen, firemen and customs officials were down to skeleton crews and performed only basic duties. Ditto for nurses and several other public services. As every branch of every union had to vote on whether to jon the strike, there were exceptions: journos for state TV and radio did not join the strike, altough they supported it. Some faculties voted against the strike, some didn’t even have a union branch organised. But after all was said and done, this was still the largest strike in the history of this country.

Most of the people were on strike at their place of work. Some, however, joined protests in cities all around the country, the largest of them being held in Ljubljana, where it is estimated that some ten thousand people poured in front of the governmetn and the parliament building. Pengovsky was there for your viewing pleasure.

More on austerity measures planned by the government of Janez Janša and what they lead to here and here, gallery below.

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Language of Austerity (Ben Tre)

“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”


The deconstruction of the welfare state is looming with a breathtaking but completely predictable tempo. Speed is everyting. The left had not yet reeled from the post-electoral fuck-up (Janković) and the electoral rout (everyone else on the left), while the civil society is still bemoaning the defeat on the Family Code referendum. Thus the labout unions, what little authority they have left after stabbing Pahor‘s government in the back, are in fact the only ones left (sic!) standing. But for how long? The right wing (correctly) sensed a window of opportunity to reshape this country way beyond anything we’ve ever imagined possible.

Urgency and instability

As pengovsky has shown, “austerity measures” are nothing short of a raid on this country’s assests as well as a showdown between the government of Janez Janša and the labour unions. The PM said as much earlier tonight during a TV interview when he said that his government will not kneel before the unions. He was also – as per usual with him – quick to introduce two key elements: urgency and instability. Janša said that time is of the essence and that cuts in public spending must be made this year, while revenue side of the budget (new and/or higher taxes, mostly) can only come into effect next year. Additionally, rumours are being floated by key SDS people that the government is likely to step down should austerity measures be nixed. With this Janša is threatning a full-blown political crisis only four months into his term. Remember, speed is everything.

Additionally, the minister for ideological apparatus of the state Žiga Turk is telling teachers’ unions that austerity is the only was to go, that they will have to “do more with less” and basically suck it up, regardless of the consequences. Speaking of consequences – only yesterday the minister issued a memo instucting schools and kindergartens to take care of any children which might show up on the day of the strike. Effectively, the minister instructed teachers to work (albeit in a reduced capacity) during the strike. Which isn’t exactly a placating move, if you catch my meaning. Policemen, for example, are required by law to perform their duties even while on strike. Not teachers, policemen. And speaking of cops, the minister for the repressive apparatus of the state (part of it, anyway) Vinko Gorenak just issued a revised set of instructions for police to follow if a state of emergency is declared.

Ben Tre

Do you see the pattern? The PM says we’re out of time and that it’s “my way or the highway”, threatning political crisis. One of his ministers then dictates the terms of the strike to the unions, while the other one slips the phrase “state of emergency” into the media stream. Add to that the fact that the right wing astroturf movements already took aim at abortion and prescription contraceptives while the Catholic Church decried vilefication of private eductaion by the unions, because “private schools are already cheaper for the state from the financial point of view“. You need further proof that this is about privatisation and deconstruction of the welfare state? How’s this for proof: The PM said that “auserity measures are necessary in order to save the welfare state“.

In other words, we have to destory the welfare state in order to save it. Sort of like in ‘Nam

May whatever god they believe in have mercy on their souls…

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Moves Like Maggie

Slovenian public sector workers are about to go on strike on 18 April, protesting the planned austerity measures by the government of Janez Janša. The gist of it is the fact that the government is looking for ways to cut some EUR 800 million from the budget, mostly by cutting the number of public sector employees as well as their wages. This will be the first general strike in Slovenia since the onset of the crisis and as such represents a turning point in the dynamics of the whole thing. As is usual in the continuous news cycle, the whole issue boiled down to a single question: who will pay for the strike. But the bigger picture reveals a much more dramatic setting. What we are witnessing these days in Slovenia is not just a reshuffle of public finances, but a Thatcherite head-on with the labour organisations and attempted deconstruction of the welfare state as we know it. Allow me to elucidate with references to specifics…

The Iron Lady (source)

First, the unions. Truth be told, they are about as much to blame for the situation we find ourselves in as anyone else. Exactly a year ago, when Slovenia had a bit more wiggle room, the unions helped shoot down reform attempts of the previous government. When that failed, the government of Borut Pahor wanted at least to save some 300 million (save, mind you, not cut) by freezing public sector wages (freeze, mind you, not cut). With that they hoped to placate foreign lenders and keep the cost of borrowing on a sustainable level, thus keeping public finances in some sort of an order. The unions went apeshit and made what pengovsky called “an unholy alliance” with some special-interest organisations and the right wing opposition led by Janez Janša (who is of course now in power), thwarting any and all reform attempts, no matter how feeble, soft or justified they may have been.

You get what you give

As a direct result, those same unions today have to face their former allies-of-opportunity are looking to not only freeze but decrease their wages, lay people off and make across the board cuts. So in a sense it should serve the unions right. Much of their immediate problems are of their own doing and if they’re not too busy putting their foot where their mouth is, they may want to think about that.

By that same token, it should also serve the government of Janez Janša right to have to deal with those pesky labour unions. Janša was busy ridiculing, undermining and thwarting Pahor’s government in every way, shape or form for three years running, often executing text-book Republican manoeuvres, case in point being decrying high gasoline prices (just look at what Speaker John Boehner is tweeting about these days). He could have taken over a country where at least initial reforms would have been passed and Janša would just cross the t’s and dot the i’s and that would be it. But no. Having gone in cahoots with the unions, Janša had this whole pile of financial and economic shit (to which he contributed greatly in his 2004-2008 term) waiting for him to clear up.

To be completely fair: after the initial outcry, the government did draft other measures, aimed at raising additional tax and non-tax revenues. This happened after Positive Slovenia of Zoran Janković made headway in championing raising the VAT by a couple of percentage points. Finance minister Janez Šušteršič half-rejected the measure saying it is a weapon of last resort, but a list of measures was published earlier today by the SDS which includes a tax on financial transactions, additional levels of personal income tax, a tax on luxury automobiles and real estate, property tax, et cetera.

The only problem is that in about half of these measures are worded as “the government will look into the possibility of…”. Interestingly enough, this extremely vague wording applies mostly to those measures which are most sought by the unions. I’m not holding my breath.

So in a sense, Janša and the unions deserve each other. But hey, maybe that was the plan. You see, if basic reforms were already passed, then Janša would be stuck with a) a general path to take and b) probably bitter but already broadly outlined social dialogue with the unions (we’ll leave the businesses out of the equation as they supported both Pahor’s as well as Janša’s platforms). But having to have to start from Square One, Janša can set pace, breadth and direction of the reforms, picking his fights as he goes along. Which is why all of a sudden the pension reform is on the back burner and the public sector finds itself vilified, described as the source of most of not all problems and urged to “share the burden of the crisis”.

While the public sector does indeed have its share of problems, especially in terms of bloatedness and ineffectiveness, it is by no means the parasite being portrayed by some of the more government faithful. Public sector means health and education professionals, cops, judges, civil servants, public hygiene services, vets, even journos for the state radio and television. These people provide critical support systems of any modern society and – contrary to a widely held belief – they are not being paid ludicrous amounts of money. Yes, the average wage in public sector is about 25% higher than in the private sector (links in Slovenian), but average net personal income in Slovene public sector still is only around EUR 940 which isn’t exactly something to write home about. Point being that public sector employees have it just about as hard as everyone else.

A triple whammy: Janša giveth, Janša taketh away

But as things stand now, they are being portrayed as the prime obstacle on the road to the recovery, are being subject to cuts in employees as well as cuts in wages. A triple whammy which, when put together, amounts to nothing short of a deconstruction of several key public subsystems, first in line being the education and child care.

A provision of the “second child in kindergarten is free” is being withdrawn, which will put additional financial strain on young families who are struggling to make ends meet as it is. It will also do wonders for birth rate (note the cynicism). Ironically, this was implemented by the first Janša administration, so in fact Janša giveth, Janša taketh away. Furthermore, the standards for number of children per classroom are to be lowered (more kids per class) which will reportedly make about 1500 teachers, well, redundant. And remember that those, who will remain are to be paid less. Not the best of prospects for a quality education system, no?

So, what’s going on? Aren’t higher birth rate and better education the keys to long-term recovery (the whole thing is expected to last at least a decade anyhow). You know: more kids, more young people to support the pensioners, more highly skilled work-force, more value added, more GDP… stuff like that… Well, remember that these are public services. Everyone’s got more or less equal access to them. What if someone wants to dismantle the education system to the point of screwing it up completely and then all of a sudden and seemingly out of the blue privately owned schools start popping up, enforcing standards previously held by public schools but charging a substantial amount of money for it? What if the same thing is to be applied to the kindergarten level as well?

In fact, if this whole thing is not just a series of gravely unfortunate events, this is exactly what’s going on. Higher education has already been screwed up in a similar manner. Ditto for dental medicine and the same is bound to happen to the rest of health services and other public subsystems. Good stuff for the rich-get-richer, low-standard-low-paid shit for the rest of the sorry lot. Which will increase in numbers as the crisis is wiping out the middle class as it is, while the cuts will only aid the process.

Moves like Maggie

This, ladies and gentlemen, is not just about austerity. It is about Thatcherite state capture. Yes, I know this is counter-intuitive since the classic neoliberal Hayek/Milton discourse preaches less state. But that does not really preclude state capture. Because the leaner (smaller) the state, the harder it can fight off special interest raids on its assets. When politics applies this theory to any given society, it does so predominantly to increase its own power base and shift the paradigm towards the concept of the trickle-down economy.

You see, when Maggie T. went head-to-head with the unions and won, the result were indeed all sorts of liberalisations. Even the disastrous ones (like the British railway system). Sure, The City expanded and the financial sector entered its Golden Age. And look what happened. A three-decades long party, where the state got ever more leaner and the fat cats got ever fatter. All the way to the tipping point.

And just to add some local colour: recently, as a money-saving measure, the government decreed that no part-time contracts and contracts for copyrighted works are to be signed or extended unless the government OKs it. Again, a sensible thing on the outside. But the effect was that a number of people who work for state TV and radio (journos, techies, moderators, authors) as well as artists who work for state- and local-level cultural institutions could not have their contracts renewed which effectively put an immediate stop to whatever projects, programmes and shows they were involved with. Thus a number of radio and television shows were cancelled or are at least severely impeded, some of them openly critical of this government. Now, I’m not saying this was a muzzling measure, but given how effective it was, someone could put two and two together. As pengovsky showed a week ago, you don’t need to cancel stuff. You just need to cut the financing.

And so the unions are not just fighting the labour fight. They are in fact fighting to survive. Because employees struggling to make ends meet are less likely to care about anything else… Until the levee breaks…

P.S.: procedures to enshrine the fiscal rule into the constitution have been formally initiated yesterday. Welcome to the lost century decade indeed…

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The Return of the Jay-Z

Zoran Janković is to be sworn as mayor tomorrow and I still owe you a run-down on his victory on mayoral by-elections on 25 March, so here it goes: While the result was a virtual no-brainer, the whole episode is slightly more interesting than it may seem at first glance. As you very well now, the sole reason for these by-elections was the fact that Janković was elected MP on 4 December parliamentary elections and had to relinquish his position as the Big Kahuna of the coty. After being outmanoeuvred by Janez Janša and had the premiership snatched from under the nose, Janković was faced with quite a dilemma: whether he should continue as MP and a nominal leader of the opposition, or whether he should leave the parliament and try to – as schizophrenic as this may sound – succeed himself as the mayor of Ljubljana.

Just to make sure everybody’s on the same page, pengovsky would like to remind both readers again that these were mayoral by-elections which had no effect on the composition of the city council itself with Zoran Janković List having an absolute majority of 25 out of 45 councilmen, so there was a theoretical possibility of a cohabitation. But in all honesty, the result was never in doubt. Ljubljana is Zoki’s turf and with the political right being continuously unable to mount a serious challenge to win since 1994 municipal administration reform which established Ljubljana as a single entity, the question du jour was not if Jay-Z will win, but by rather by how much. In the end the metre stopped at 61%, which is a) a repetition of his election results in 2006 and 2010 and b) still pretty awesome.

Having said that, additional and equally important issues were raised by these elections: a) why can’t the political right put up a decent fight in the capital and why it tried in vain to do so, b) what’s with the left side of the spectrum and c) what will Janković’s move from National Assembly to the City Hall mean for him and for the parliamentary opposition.

The Empire

As you know, right wing parties put forward two challengers to Zoran Janković. Mojca Kucler Dolinar, a joint SDS/NSi candidate and Matjaž Glavan, who stood for SLS. While Glavan scored a neglible 1% which is in line with that SLS got in municipal elections in 2010, Kucler Dolinar scored marginally better than she and Zofija Mazej Kuković did year and a half ago when they ran solo for NSi and SDS respectively.

But the real question is why did Kucler Dolinar run for mayor the second time knowing she’d lose. Pengovsky tried to answer this in his post running up to the elections (hoping for a reward down the road), but there are other factors to consider as well. Most of all the fact that for all intents and purposes Mojca Kucler Dolinar is now a spent force. She lost to Janković twice in a row and although one could claim that she did pretty well, she came nowhere near forcing Janković into a second round, let alone endangering him directly. This does not exactly do wonders for her political career as she has little to show for in terms of achievements. Also, word has it the joint SDS/NSi ticket was her idea but that the SDS had to formally extend the invitation since Kucler Dolinar’s NSi was strongly opposed to what they probably saw as a lost cause.

Bottom line: whatever political ambitions Kucler Dolinar might have had before 25 March are now probably up in smoke. She was probably hoping to re-enter national politics (she served as a higher education minister in the first Janša administration) but given lack of success on her part and the minute role NSi is playing the current Janša set-up, her chances are virtually nil. Ditto for any master plan she might have had to take over the party.

SDS came out of this mess virtually unhurt. From their point of view it doesn’t really matter who made the initial offer, fact of the matter is that by having Kucler Dolinar as a joint candidate they made at least a pro-forma challenge to Janković while not throwing away a name and a face they’ll have to send into battle in two-and-a-half-year’s time.

But even then they will still be faced with the same dilemma: Why can’t they win in Ljubljana? Well, the marginally younger, more urban and slightly more left-wing orientation of the population helps, but the reality is that the political right has been re-active. In other words, they always campaigned on »not doing stuff like the previous administration did it«. And had Zoki not burst on the scene in 2006, that might have just been enough. But he did and it wasn’t. As a result, they (as well as most of the other political parties) are hopelessly aping his platform which is broad enough to have encompassed most of the challenges this city will be facing in the next decade or so, as well as trying to beat him at his own game of setting goals and achieving them (or at least coming close enough). And when that doesn’t work, they fall back again to »promising not to do it like the previous guys did it«. It’s a vicious circle, which will only be broken if and when Janković (again) decides to quit the mayorship. Be it to return to the national lever, be it for good.

The Rebels

On the other hand, things are not exactly dull on the left, either. The suprise of the day was a relatively strong showing by Vito Rožej of Zares, who scored slightly above four percent of the vote, which was quite a feat for a party which barely registered with voters across the country only months ago in parliamentary elections and did only marginally better in 2010 local elections.

But before people start opening bottles of Dom Perignon ’58, we should make a few things clear. To an extent Rožej did get his four percent on account of being a relatively fresh but recognisable face on the scene (he did serve as councilman in city of Kranj and as MP in the previous parliament). Then again he was also active in the campaign for the Family Code, which must have helped. But most importantly, he had the good luck of SD, DeSUS and LDS opting not to enter the race with their respective candidates, so it is safe so say that Rožej got a fair amount of their votes as well. Just so we’re clear on that. No champagne yet, I’m afraid.

And while we’re on it: some of those votes must have gone to the lone ranger on Ljubljana politics Miha Jazbinšek, who scored a record 6 percent of the vote.

The return of the Jay-Z

So, the one last thing that remains to be answered is what will the return of the Jay-Z mean for the situation on the parliament? In the short term, nothing good, really. Sure, Janković didn’t exactly loiter in the parliament and his people had to do without him on occasion. But the fact that he will be physically gone will have its repercussions. If one is to judge by the situation in his city council group upon his leaving, Janković will have to make damn sure that MPs for Positive Slovenia don’t lose focus, motivation and go for each other’s throats. Because once the Big Kahuna is gone, a lot of small and mid-sized Kahunas will try to impose themselves unto their colleagues, despite the fact that the parliamentary group is headed by Janković’s former vicemayor and still-serving Ljubljana councilman Jani Möderndorfer. He will have his work cut out for him once Zoki is gone.

As for the left wing in general, things will become much more interesting. It is no secret that litlle love is lost between Janković and leader of SD Borut Pahor. That much became plainly obvious after the SD gave a cold shoulder to Zoki when he tried to rally all left wing parties some days ago and everyone save the Social Democrats and SMS-Green Party attended. The SD implicitly accused the re-minted mayor of trying to take over the left and impose himself unto others and they might have even been correct to an extent. But fact of the matter is that the SD finally started settling in-party scores and is locked in a bitter power struggle between Borut Pahor and Igor Lukšič, with the latter pulling no punches (and having no reason to, sice Pahor sidelined him early in his premiership for no apparent reason).

If Janković really wanted to unite the left under a common banner, he should have waited a couple of weeks, two months at best, for the shit to hit the fan witihn SD and for the defeat on the Family Code referendum to really sink in and he’d have almost all of the left eating out of his hand. But as things stand, he jumped the gun again (just as he did immediately after his election victory) and came out more or less empty handed.

But be that as it may, with Zoki in the City Hall as of tomorrow, a new centre of political power on national level is starting to emerge and it could very well be that the end result will be a situation not unlike in Austria, where nothing happens on the political left unless the all-powerful Vienna mayor Michael Häupl OKs it. And – funnily enough – Janković always said how he considers Häupl to be his role model. I guess he meant it…

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The (Family) Shock Doctrine

Remeber how pengovsky wrote that the backlash by the political right and the Catholic Church will be fast and furious on account of having succeeded in defeating the Family Code? Well, turns out I was wrong. The backlast was neither fast nor furious. It was moving at fukcing warp 9 and despite the fact that the move comes from a conservative pressure group and not the government itself, it closely resembles what Naomi Klein dubbed the Shock Doctrine.

The road to the holy grail outlined (source)

With Slovenia (together with the rest of the Eurozone) seeing no end to the economic crisis, the government of Janez Janša is trying to enact an austerity programme which makes the reform attempts of the previous government look like a walk in the park. Finance minsiter Janez Šušteršič is looking to cut EUR 800 million in budget spendind and as a result a downgrade in all sorts of downgrades in welfare state goodies (the official euphemism being “the thinning of the public sector”) including many family-related benefits. Enter the pressure groups which just succeeded in defeating the new Family Code on a referendum. While opposing the cuts in family benefits they sensed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grab the holy grail of the hardcore chauvinistic and medieval agenda which is mistakenly called pro-life.

Under the guise of being co-operative and understanding towards the government austerity attempts (“we realise we can spend only as much as we earn” and “we know that as a society we are living beyond our means“), they offer an alternative, which they call “cuts in the super-standard and non-disease conditions“. Specifically: freezing payments to the Public sector> pension fund, removal of funding for hormonal contraception and removal of funding for artifical abortions.

Yes. They want to kick the pill and abortions from the list of publicly available treatments. The right to family planning is enshrined in the constitution and even back then the Roman Catholic Church raised hell over it. It ended with a compromise wording of Article 55:

“Everyone shall be free to decide whether to bear children. The state shall guarantee the opportunities for exercising this freedom and shall create such conditions as will enable parents to decide to bear children.”

The proposal, should it be enacted, effectively removes the provisions of Article 55 and succeeds in what the Church was after all these years. The manner, however, is most perfidious and – again – in line with what the Republican party has been doing for all these years in the US, on a variety of issues, from gun control to abortion and health-care. With a keep-the-right-but-cut-the-finances approach they get what they want but without all the legal and constitutional hassle. After all, it’s just a line in the budget.

This episode proves that – contrary to what the pressure groups opposing the Family Code were claiming – they were not trying to maintain the status quo, but rather roll back the whole family-related legislation. Never mind the spike in teenage pregnancies, unwanted children and back alley abortion which are bound to be the result of this.

In fact, let’s take it up a notch. If the pill and abortion funding are cut and teenagers (who are not all that careful about having sex to begin with) start giving birth to children they don’t want or can’t afford to bring up, these hard-line conservatives will have increased the possibility of child trafficking, the very thing they falsely claimed the Family Code would make possible.

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