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A Hospital in Flames Exposes Romania’s Collapsing Neoliberal Model

The death of five people in a Bucharest hospital fire is the latest illustration of how neoliberal shock therapy has run down Romania's public services. For the labor protesters who have been in the streets since January, the blaze only confirms their message: Romania has to invest in its own public services, not just rely on remittances from abroad.

People light candles in front of Matei Bals infectious disease hospital in Bucharest, where a fire broke out on January 29, 2021. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images)

On January 29, a fire ripped through a hospital in Romania’s capital, Bucharest, ending at least five people’s lives. It was the second such disaster to hit Romania’s already beleaguered health care system in just a few months, after a November 2020 blaze at a facility in Piatra Neamt. The fire led to a motion of censure against the newly appointed health minister, though it was voted down in Parliament. The population’s disgust was more obvious than ever, and trust in the health care system further diminished.

The trade unions had already been in the streets for a month before the blaze, protesting a wage freeze. Now they took the message further, criticizing the effects of neoliberalism on Romania’s public services. Already eleven years ago, the austerity measures imposed amid the global financial crisis left Romania’s health care system underfunded, cutting public employees’ wages by 25 percent and reducing funding to public institutions. With sixty-seven hospitals closing in 2011 alone, this vital service was left crippled. Today, faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, the dire results are becoming clear to see.

The specific trigger for the union protests in January was Law 226/2020, which froze public service employees’ wages — notwithstanding a previous 2017 law that had promised 25 percent annual raises. Since passing this legislation, the government has stepped up its confrontation with the country’s labor unions, proposing to cut bonuses and vacation vouchers. It has also declared a nationwide war on social welfare, marketed as a campaign of curbing a system of fraudulent and illegal payments.

Responding to the move, on January 10, the health care workers represented by the SANITAS union announced a nationwide protest in front of the prefecture of each county. On January 12, one of the trade union confederations, Cartel ALFA, announced a nationwide caravan of protests, which is still ongoing. Since then, the protests have taken place on almost a daily basis, pushing labor demands into national media.

Difficult Conditions for Unions

To people outside Romania, the situation might look dystopian. Romania is still at the bottom of the list amongst European Union countries in terms of public health funding — it allocates a mere 5 percent of GDP to this, compared to the EU average of 9 percent (2019 figures). Further, access to the system is highly unequal, and following hospital closures it has been especially limited for those from disadvantaged socioeconomic, ethnic, and regional backgrounds.Wage cuts have also fed a general state of dissatisfaction, driving mass immigration to Western Europe (17 percent of the native-born population has left — the fifth-highest level among OECD nations), as well as the proliferation of informal payments in the form of “gifts.”

The laws passed by a series of governments have also hobbled resistance. The year 2011 marked the passing of the New Labour Code and the Social Dialogue Law, which shook up employment relations, worker protections, and the way negotiations are conducted. Up until then, there had been a nationwide collective bargaining contract, covering over 98 percent of workers, but after the Social Dialogue Law was passed, this contract was immediately terminated.

The previous national collective bargaining contract had been adopted in 1993 — four years after the revolution that brought down Nicolae Ceaușescu. It allowed for the negotiation of the minimum wage on a national level, making it easier for workers all over the country, regardless of the size of their place of employment, to join and express their grievances. The nationwide contract offered protection particularly to those working in small businesses (ones with up to twenty employees), amounting to roughly 1.2 million people in 2012.

Up until 2011, it took only fifteen signatories to form a union, regardless of the company where they worked. If fifteen people at three different companies decided to come together and form a union, this was possible. The Social Dialogue Law made unionization tougher, mandating that those 15 workers must be from the same company, thus heavily reducing the possibility of unionizing small-scale enterprises.

These changes soon had dramatic effects on the numbers covered by collective bargaining. By 2013, the number of workers covered by unions decreased to 37 percent, and by 2015, this figure hit a low of 23 percent. Over the last decade or so, the number of trade unions has increased — from 8,483 in 2008 to 8,682 in 2011, and then to 9,643 in 2015. But despite the increase in the total number of unions, the number of collective contracts in 2016 (9,366) was only 80 percent of those in place before the Social Dialogue Law was passed.

This legislation, together with austerity measures and the mass emigration of Romanian workers, has dealt a severe blow to the trade union movement. On top of that, the country’s politics remains dominated by a neoliberal discourse of pushing back against the state and the unions, which are portrayed as mafia-like institutions. It condemns workers joining to fight for better salaries, even though fully 50 percent of Romanians earn less than $400 a month, barely higher than the minimum wage. Individualistic rhetoric dominates labor relations, and students are told to accumulate as many “contacts” as possible to help them get a job. Faced with workplace abuses, it becomes easier to just quit and try to find something else rather than initiate a collective action.

Fighting Back

Yet despite these difficulties, the union movement has been present in the streets since 2011. There have been numerous protests, petitions forwarded to Parliament, and wildcat strikes, such as the one at auto firm Dacia (a subsidiary of Renault) in 2013, in order to change the laws governing labor organization and collective bargaining. In 2012 the Cartel ALFA confederation mobilized eight thousand people over the course two days to challenge the Social Dialogue Law. In 2019, four hundred workers went on strike at Electrolux (a Swedish electronics manufacturer) for two months in Satu Mare, fighting for better wages and working conditions.

At a wider political level, the unions have also been an integral part in the protest movement that has swept across Romania over the past ten years. They have organized committees to protest in front of key governmental buildings, initiated petitions, and launched walkouts, demonstrations, and other performative actions. When the unions do take to the streets, a variety of people from all walks of life join their ranks, from engineers and union leaders to metalworkers and simple assembly-line workers. If some Romanian media present protests as led by middle-class hipsters, we should instead reckon with the heterogenous composition of the movements and their demands.

Politicizing Dissent

With the dissatisfactory effects of the transition making protest movements a regular feature of Romanian public life, we should resist the idea of a depoliticized society. In 2012, there were protests against the government’s austerity measures, as well as against the president. In 2013, faced with a controversial mining project in Rosia Montana, thousands of people took to the streets, protesting for the preservation of the area and the villages affected. In 2015, after a nightclub fire ended the lives of fifty-seven people, the streets were filled once again with protesters changing “corruption kills.”

This is, indeed, a key problem in Romanian public life. As Matei Bărbulescu stated in a previous article for Jacobin: “Today in Romania, bad roads are built by shady firms, doctors have such low wages that they have to ask for bribes, and rich kids can get into better schools because their parents have the money to bribe the principal, while poor children are left behind in classrooms with no heating.” The dire situation has pushed people to take action — with unions playing an integral role. Less clear is the prospect of neoliberal anti-corruption parties producing decisive change. Having taken over the government last year, such parties are not standing up for workers and the vulnerable, despite their promises to this effect.

It is thus up to the unions to show their own determination to fight — and to try and draw in wider layers behind their demands. The health care workers’ protests are now accompanied by such varied groups as prison staff (85 percent of whom are unionized), policemen, industrial workers, car-assembly workers, metalworkers, and many others. These groups are united by a fight for better living and working conditions, though they have no common political expression. There is no clear indication that the Social Democratic Party is especially favored among the unions; this party has itself repeatedly backed anti-labor measures, such as shifting the burden of social contributions from employers to employees in 2018.

But, if at the beginning of January, the unions’ message was hardly political, now it has taken on a stronger anti-government edge, with some unions even calling for the administration to resign. They are no longer fighting for Law 226/2020 to be revoked or for bonuses to not be cut. They are in the streets showing that the neoliberal project of austerity that was imposed after 2010 has hurt workers, pushing people to emigrate and putting 40 percent of the country’s population at risk of poverty. As trade unionists Petre Dandea and Claudiu Barbu put it: “We will be in the streets for as long as it is necessary. They have ignored us for far too long.”