Albanian workers force shift toward democracy, 1991

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Timing
Time Period:  
May 16,
1991
to
June 8,
1991
Location and Goals
Country: 
Albania
Goals: 
The UITU submitted a list of seventeen demands to the government, including a full investigation of the killing of four pro-democracy activists, a 50% wage increase for all workers, better benefits, and better working conditions.

Although the UITU claimed not to have a political agenda, many individual protesters also sought the end of Communist rule in Albania.

 

During the Cold War era, Albanians endured the totalitarian rule of Enver Hoxha. When Hoxha died in 1985, Ramiz Alia took over a Communist country with a history of repression and burdened by massive debt, poverty, and widespread underdevelopment. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and facing mounting pressure from the Albanian populace, Alia instituted modest political reforms in early 1991 and on March 31 held the Albania’s first free and open elections in 60 years. The opposition Democratic Party easily triumphed in the capital of Tirana and other cities, but the Communists, newly dubbed the Albanian Party of Labor (APL), won an overwhelming majority in rural areas and ended up with over 60% of National Assembly seats. The APL’s popularity among rural villagers was due in large part to the continuing presence of state security police, many of whom overtly threatened anybody who voted against the APL.

Frustrated by the election result and desperate for economic reforms, workers and students participated in a series of scattered strikes and demonstrations in the weeks after the election. Four Democratic Party members were killed on April 2 when unidentified shots were fired into a demonstration outside of APL headquarters in Shkoder. Protesters claimed that the shots had come from inside the building. On April 9, the recently legalized Union of Independent Trade Unions (UITU) submitted a list of seventeen economic demands to the government, calling for a 50% wage increase for all workers, better working conditions, more benefits, and a full prosecution of the persons responsible for the April 2 shooting.

On May 15, the deadline UITU had set for the government to accede to its demands, the government held an open meeting for all involved parties and offered a 30% wage increase for all workers. The UITU maintained its request of a 50% increase, even as the government claimed that such an increase was economically nonviable. In total, seven of the seventeen union demands were not met by the government. The next day, May 16, the unions called for, and the Democratic Party endorsed, a general strike. Over 200,000 workers did not show up for work. Most prominently, public transportation employees did not work, making a huge impact on a country where car ownership was a rarity. The UITU’s strike committee instructed essential service workers in the water, electrical, medical and food production industries to keep working while expressing solidarity with their fellow workers. This accommodation allowed an ample supply of bread to be available throughout the strike.

Prime Minister Fatos Nano publicly implored the strikers to return to work on May 17, claiming that their actions would plunge Albania into an economic abyss. He also insinuated, contrary to other reports, that the strike was causing a food shortage. Finally, he declared the strikes to be illegal and asked that local authorities attempt to prevent workers from walking out. Despite these orders, no local police used force against strikers.

On the same day, President Alia met with representatives of the unions and repeated that their demands, though legitimate, were simply too steep for the country’s economy. The UITU rejected Nano and Alia’s request that they halt the strike, while carefully restating that its demands were strictly economic, and not in support of the Democrats or any other political party. This message may have lost impact, though, for on the following day, some workers and students chanted slogans like “Freedom and Democracy!” as they marched through the streets of Albania’s cities.

More and more workers joined the strike in the next week as the total number of strikers surpassed 300,000. The strike committee worked to ensure that enough bread was distributed to the whole country, but shortages were nonetheless reported in some areas. The government extended an offer to raise wages by 50%, but only in conjunction with a price increase. The UITU again rejected this offer, as it would not substantially help low-income workers and also failed to address some of the seventeen points. Strikers continued to march and demonstrate publicly, and their pro-democracy, anti-corruption message continued to undercut the UITU’s claims to be running a purely economic campaign. The first significant escalation of tactics occurred on May 26, when about 200 workers in the Valias coal mine began a hunger strike deep in the mine pit. In the next several days, hundreds of more workers across the country began hunger strikes in solidarity with the Valias miners.

On May 29, the National Assembly convened in Tirana to discuss the ramifications of the paralyzing strike. In response, the UITU organized a rally to protest the government’s ongoing refusal of its demands. Between 5,000 and 50,000 protesters(reports vary greatly) chanted “Down with the government” and “We will win.” For the first time, police and demonstrators became violent—some demonstrators threw rocks, while police used batons and tear gas on the crowd. Protesters also broke windows in government offices and torched three police vehicles. In response to the disturbance, the National Assembly adjourned its session early.

Faced with the unrelenting general strike, protesters in the streets, and the moral pressure of thousands of weakening hunger strikers, the National Assembly on June 1 decided to disband completely, and form a new “national salvation government.” Under this plan, Nano stepped down as Prime Minister, but Alia remained president until a new election was held in March 1992, three years before previously scheduled. The Democrats endorsed this plan, participated in the transitional government, and eventually defeated the APL in the March 1992 election. Although the hunger strikers stopped on June 3 in response to Nano’s resignation, the UITU kept up the general strike to ensure the transitional government would endorse the seventeen points. After receiving a pledge from the new Prime Minister, Ylli Bufi, that the government would honor all seventeen of the demands, the UITU suspended the strike and workers began to go back to their jobs on June 8.

Research Notes
Sources: 
"Albania: Miners Continue Hunger Strike." Inter Press Service, 28 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“Albanian General Strike Continues After Failed Negotiations.” United Press International, 20 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“Albanian Premier Asks Strikers To Go Back To Work.” Associated Press, 17 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“Albania’s Election; Free But Unfair.” The Economist, 6 Apr 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“Alia Discusses Strike With Party Leaders; Holds ‘Candid’ Talks With Unions.” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 21 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“Democratic Party Protests at Suspension of People’s Assembly Proceedings.” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 21 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“General Strike Continues, Essential Services Met – Demonstration in Fier.” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 22 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“General Strike in Albania Claimed as Major Success.” United Press International, 16 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“General Strike in Albania ‘Paralyses Many Sectors of the Economy.” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 18 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“Hunger Strikes End Throughout the Country, General Strike Reportedly Continues.” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 6 Jun 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“Police, Protesters Clash in Tirana.” United Press International, 29 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“President Ramiz Alia Appeals to People to End General Strike.” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 21 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

Prinz, Roland. “New Communist Government Sworn In; Opposition Voted Against.” Associated Press, 12 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“Reports on Strike: Valias’ Miners Hunger Strikers Vow to ‘Struggle to the Death.’” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 31 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

Scheepmaker, Marit. "Albania: General Strike Comes to an End." Inter Press Service, 7 Jun 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“Strike Continues – Government Offer of 50% Wage Increase Rejected.” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 23 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“Strike Leader Xheka Says Strikers Must Be Paid, 17 Demands Must Be Met.” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 6 Jun 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“Tirana Radio Reports How General Strike is Affecting Country on 16th May.” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 20 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

“Thousands Take Part in Tirana Demonstration in Support of General Strike.” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 21 May 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

Traynor, Ian. “Democrats Triumphant as Albania's PM Resigns: 'National Salvation' Government Will Take Over Until Elections Next Year.” The Guardian, 5 Jun 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

Traynor, Ian. “Government of Albania Collapses.” The Guardian, 3 Jun 1991. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

Additional Notes: 
Although the labor federation was careful to frame its demands as narrowly economic, the nature of the demands and, even more important, the size and steadfastness of the strike and escalation into fasting forced a shift in the Albanian political landscape away from the former Communist dictatorship. - George Lakey
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
William Lawrence, 9/2/2011