Date: Tue, 16 Feb 1999 21:05:34 -0600 (CST)
From: Michael Eisenscher <>
Article: 55098
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Bitter Victory for Romanian Miners

By Damien Roustel, Le Monde diplomatique, February 1999

Revolt rooted in history

In the end Romania's 15,000 striking miners never reached Bucharest. A secret agreement was reached on a pay rise and the re-opening of pits closed just before Christmas 1998. In return the miners agreed to go back to their homes in the Jiu Valley. The compromise, negotiated by their charismatic and controversial leader Miron Cozma and Prime Minister Radu Vasile on 22 January, avoided a bloody showdown. But it is a fresh blow to the neo-liberal reforms President Emil Constantinescu had promised the IMF. This is not the first time that Romania's miners have made their mark on the country's politics—although they have still not managed to impose a real change of direction.

It was just a scrap of paper, a simple sheet confirming that miner Costica Stoleriu had passed his retraining course. As of 15 December 1998 he now has a qualification as a security guard. But it is of absolutely no use to him because there is no work to be had anywhere in the region. “I spent all the money I had on this re- training, which was supposed to get us jobs. I was chosen out of 200 candidates, but not one of the 20 miners who signed up has been able to find a job” he says bitterly.

Costica is 40. Married and the father of four young children, he lives in a dilapidated flat in Vulcan in the Jiu Valley. This dignified man is a far cry from the image of the brutish, alcoholic miner peddled in the Romanian press. The story of his life is that of all the miners of the Jiu Valley, a story of being endlessly swindled and put upon by the powers that be. “I’ve been conned all down the line. Twenty years ago I was working in the shipyards in Constanza. Then a man came to see me. He said they were hiring men to work in the mines in the Jiu Valley. He showed me a pay slip and the wages looked really high, so I got tempted. But I soon found out that it wasn’t really like that. My wage wasn’t anywhere near the figure that first brought me here.”

At first he just wanted to leave. But where to? Then, like most of the miners who came from outside the Jiu Valley, he married a local woman and set up home. For 20 years, first under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu and then under the regime of Ion Iliescu, Costica lived very modestly. He did not complain: many other people were far worse off. In autumn 1997 he agreed to be registered as “not suitable for work”. In Romania that is what they call miners who agreed to quit their jobs in return for redundancy pay and now find themselves without an income. Costica explains. “I was tricked. The media were all saying that the mines would soon be closed down. The unions made us think we’d be getting something between $2,500 and $3,500. The government said we’d all find work within three months. Everyone was getting very nervous. So we rushed to sign up at the unemployment office. If only I’d known…”

He was given the maximum redundancy payment of $1,400. Like many of the miners he had dreams of setting up a small company, but the bureaucracy and the need to pay bribes he could ill afford soon dissuaded him. So he decided to put his money in the bank. But his savings were rapidly being eaten up by inflation. At a loss for what to do, he invested in consumer goods, which he then slowly re-sold as a way of supporting his family. Today he gets $26 per month social security money. This means poverty. He recognises that he made a mistake. Like other miners' wives, his wife had warned him this was going to happen. But he was sick of mining. “The mine is the worst prison you can imagine. Nobody believes you when you tell them—not even your wife.”

The development of the mining industry in the Jiu Valley began 150 years ago. Until the second world war the mines were privately owned. Then they were nationalised and transformed into joint Soviet-Romanian companies (Sovroms)—Romania had allied with Germany during the war, and this was a way of making reparations to Moscow. The Sovroms lasted for about 10 years. During the rule of Ceausescu (from 1965 onwards) the mines were intensively exploited as a means of paying off the country's foreign debt.

From strikes to marches

Like all coal-producing countries, Romania has now had to face up to a crisis of over-production in the mining industry, because domestic demand has dropped and foreign markets (Russia, for instance) have been lost. According to estimates, the national demand for coal fell from 44 million tonnes in 1996 to 33.5 million in 1997, out of a potential annual capacity of 52 million tonnes. The costs of mining are becoming prohibitive.

The Jiu Valley provides 12% of the Romania's supply of coal. This is the only region of the country that is both completely urbanised and has only a single industry. For 80% of the inhabitants, their only hope of work is in mining. The valley has 16,000 unemployed out of 170,000 inhabitants, an unemployment rate of about 25% compared with the national average, which according to official statistics is 10% (1).

This region has always been in the forefront of social and political unrest. Even before the big strikes of February 1933, there had been a foretaste in the Jiu Valley during the summer of 1929: in Lupeni there were strikes on 5 August 1929, the result of which was 32 workers dead and 56 wounded (2).

Fifty years later the valley was once again the scene of a powerful workers' movement, which this time was directed against Ceausescu. On 1 August 1977, 35,000 Jiu miners gathered in the main yard of the Lupeni mine. They were protesting against a new decree which raised the age of retirement from 50 to 55 and reduced the miners' pensions.

“The 1977 strike was one of the most important protest movements against the communist regime, an explosion of discontent that had accumulated over many years”, explained Volodea Macovei, spokesman for the miners' union, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the strike. In his opinion the miners' anger had been provoked by the “deterioration of their standard of living, but more especially the political situation in the country which had become intolerable.”

Ceausescu came in person to negotiate, as the miners had demanded, and under pressure he agreed to all their demands. But as soon as the movement subsided, he ordered reprisals. Ion Toma, for instance, one of the organisers of the strike, was sentenced to five years imprisonment. Only in 1998 was he prepared to break his silence over the strike: “If the miners hadn’t been so scared, we could have got rid of Ceausescu a lot faster.”

The regime knew how to deal with the mineworkers. Four thousand of them were transferred to mines out of the region. And a fair number of the workers hired to replace them after the crisis also worked as informers for the Securitate. This was so the political police could prevent another movement like that of 1977.

It was not until the fall of Ceausescu that the Jiu miners again hit the headlines. In 1990 Miron Cozma, who had just been elected their union leader, led the miners' first bloody march on Bucharest where they were openly welcomed by Ion Iliescu, then president of Romania. For several days they engaged in real terror, sacking the offices of the democratic opposition and attacking members of the student movement. A second murderous march in September 1991 was even more openly manipulated by Iliescu. This time the miners attacked the government of Petre Roman and forced his resignation.

Roman then repeatedly denounced the duplicity of Iliescu whom he accused of having used the miners as a “popular militia” for his own political ends. Petre Brait, formerly Cozma's righthand man, is in no doubt about the manipulation. “We were infiltrated by people pretending to be miners, who told us the places to attack. We’d set off with 24 demands and we came back before the prime minister fell, but still our demands weren’t met. We were used by Iliescu.” During this period the successive governments of the Iliescu era stood firm against any notion of reform or industrial reconversion in the region, and found ways of “satisfying” Miron Cozma, with the support of the nationalist far right. Despite the losses affecting the mining industry, he got wage rises and job guarantees for “his” miners.

The new centre right coalition which took power following parliamentary and presidential elections in November 1996 decided on a change of tack. Its “mission” was to bring about a transition to the market economy and membership of NATO and the EU. To this end, it planned a radical restructuring of the economy in line with the precepts of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), implemented with its support. This explains the priority given to reducing budget and trade deficits. Its intention was to make major budget cuts, particularly in social spending, and eliminate non- profitable sectors (3).

For Prime Minister Radu Vasile, who succeeded Victor Ciorbea, the situation was urgent. The reduction of these deficits was one of the terms the IMF had imposed as a condition for a new loan. The loan was vital to enable Bucharest to repay debts of $2.8 billion in the course of 1999—of which $2 billion falls due in June. The country's debt, basically incurred since 1990, now stands at more than $10 billion, while Romania's reserves, excluding gold, amount to only $1.8 billion.

This was the context of the announcement made just before Christmas 1998 of a plan to close non-profitable mines—and hence the miners' anger. For President Constantinescu and his prime minister, it was a step towards limiting losses in the mining sector, running at $370 million. This restructuring would have been achieved by sacking an additional 6,500 miners after closing about 100 mines and getting rid of 90,000 mining jobs in the course of 1997—including 20,000 in the Jiu Valley. The plan, which the World Bank described as a “success” because up until that point it had not stirred the miners into action, turned out to be a social disaster. As was, in more general terms, the economic orientation pursued by the Christian Democrats, Democrats, Liberals, and representatives of the Hungarian minority who made up the governing coalition.

It does not take much imagination to envisage the political consequences of this ultra-liberal programme. Not least among the miners. It fed a nostalgia for the old days of Ceausescu. They missed the days of full employment and their status as social heroes. But among the general public too, 51% think they had better lives before 1989 (4). This nostalgia for Romania's idealised communist past has been actively exploited by the nationalist far right. Its leader, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, was one of Ceausescu's most fanatical supporters, just as nowadays he has a great taste for Jean-Marie Le Pen.

But Tudor's party, Romania Mare (Greater Romania Party, PRM), has gained most by being able to exploit its position within the political landscape. It is the party best placed to make political capital out of the discontent and disarray in Romanian society. Having made a series of unpopular decisions, the right is felt to have betrayed the trust which a majority of the electorate had placed in it. The social democratic forces, represented by Petre Roman, are broadly supporting those policies by being part of the governing coalition. As for former President Iliescu, now largely discredited, he is active among the far right, from where he hopes one day to make a political comeback—which explains his opposition to the lifting of Tudor's parliamentary immunity after he was accused of insulting the head of state.

In the absence of any viable alternative, the far right is pursuing a nationalist line, which strikes a particularly resonant chord in Romania (5), hoping to pull together the large numbers of people who are the everyday victims of the government's “reforms”. This xenophobic party regularly organises a popular soup kitchen in Bucharest which it calls “Christian dinners”. In less than two years the PRM has gone from 4% of the vote (6) to 20% according to the opinion polls. And if these are to be believed, Tudor would come third in the next presidential election (due in 2000) with 18% of the vote (compared with 6% in 1996), behind the Christian Democrat Constantinescu and the neo-communist Iliescu.

So this January it was not surprising to find Tudor urging the striking miners to continue their protest movement and calling for a “nationwide strike to overthrow the anti-popular and anti-national regime” of President Constantinescu. To which Prime Minster Radu Vasile responded “What is happening in the Jiu Valley is a purely political action.” He was referring to Cozma's political affiliations. The miners' leader—who had been sentenced to one and a half years in prison in 1996 for his miners' marches—recently signed up as a member of Romania Mare. He did try to cover himself by leaving the party temporarily to avoid misunderstandings over the meaning of the strikers' demands, but this fooled nobody.

The price of reconversion

If the nationalists were thinking of making use of the miners to mount a putsch, they failed. But what could the miners really have got from their strike? In the space of a few weeks they risked losing everything they had won so far, and it was quite possible that the far right would once again have profited from this latest in a long series of disappointments.

Particularly since the government did not come out of the confrontation unscathed. It may have escaped a showdown which threatened to be very bloody and which it would probably not have survived. But to the regret of the Financial Times, the compromise with the miners represents “a potentially devastating setback to the government's flagging efforts to push through market-oriented reforms—including the closure of 140 loss-making coal mines, 49 loss-making state enterprises and a five-year plan to restructure the steel industry with the loss of 70,000 jobs (7)”.

How will the IMF react? Officials were due to go to Bucharest in February to negotiate a possible new credit of some $500 million. But the recent events will inevitably have increased the IMF's distrust of a government which has not so far delivered on any of the four agreements it signed. And the government, having had such a close shave, is unlikely for the time being to appear over-keen on “shock therapy”.

The miners, for their part, only want one thing: to find themselves other jobs in some other sector of industry. As an objective it may prove difficult, but it should not be impossible. What is needed is the means. And the means provided thus far are obviously inadequate. A project under the European Phare programme in 1998 led to the creation of 13 companies—but only 383 jobs. This is a long way short of the mark. Even the national agency responsible for reconstruction programmes in the mining regions, based in Petrosani and responsible for coordinating industrial redeployment, claims to have created 4,500 jobs.

In their “valley of sorrow” the miners no longer know whom to trust. They have lost all hope. But one memory stays with them. They all remember what President Constantinescu told them on the 20th anniversary of the 1977 strike in Lupeni. “I’ll lay a wager with the inhabitants of the Jiu Valley. If the reforms don’t go through here, they won’t go through in the rest of the country either.”


(1) Statistics from the National Agency for the Development and Application of Reconstruction Programmes in the Mining Regions (ANDIPRZM).

(2) Catherine Durandin, Histoire des Roumains, Fayard, Paris, 1995, p. 287.

(3) See Jean-Yves Potel, “La réforme roumaine entre ville et campagne”, and Edith Lhomel, “De la peine, de la sueur et de l’austérité”, Le Monde diplomatique, June 1997.

(4) According to a survey carried out by the MMT Institute, financed by the Soros Institute and published on 26 November 1998.

(5) See Jacques Decornoy, “L’ultranationalisme roumain recrée le spectre d’un ‘danger hongrois'”, Le Monde diplomatique, November 1992.

(6) In the 1996 parliamentary elections, the PRM pulled in 4.5% of the vote, which gave it 19 deputies and 8 senators. It controls 58 town halls and claims about 80,000 members.

(7) Financial Times, London, 23–4 January 1999.