The first step in Romania’s modern industrialisation was made almost 150 years ago, when the first railroad of the country was built between Bucharest and the port of Giurgiu, on the Danube. In the years that followed this event, the continuous development of the railroad network became the main driver and the cornerstone of the effort to modernise the country. Gradually, the mass of railway workers turned into an elite body, renowned for its professionalism, discipline, devotion and solidarity. This explains the fact that the strongest and best organised trade union protests in the first half of the 20th Century were those of railway workers. It is the same tradition that allowed Romania to build, in Craiova, Arad and other industrial centers, a large number of state-of-the-art diesel-electric locomotives, passenger and freight carriages, along with rail lines for fast trains.
Similarly, the new railway bridges got integrated into the prestigious tradition inaugurated by the construction of the bridge on the Danube, between Fetesti and Cernavoda, shortly after Romania conquered its independence as a state. For many years, this prestigious bridge, designed and built by Romanian engineer Anghel Saligny was the largest of its kind in Europe.
The continuous evolution of Romanian railways abruptly came to a stop in 1998, when authorities bowed to the ultimatum of international financial institutions and split the Romanian Railways (CFR) into several companies – a prerequisite for receiving a foreign loan. Deprived of their complementary character, the new companies got indebted to the state, but also to private companies that provided services that another structure resulting from the split-up of CFR could have provided better and cheaper. The result was organisational and financial chaos – the real reason for the degradation of railway transport in Romania, rather than the progress of road transport evoked by officials. First to suffer were railway workers. More than 15,000 of them were laid off during the last two years, and 5,000 more have been warned that they are about to get sacked. Train traffic is increasingly sporadic and unsafe, as demonstrated by the recent theft of missile detonators from a military train guarded by gendarmes that were watching TV when the engineer illegally stopped the train to sell diesel stolen from the engine’s fuel tank.
The irresponsibility of this train engineer is no exception. Many railway employees, especially trade union leaders, are in hand with the traffickers of fuel and scrap iron and copper ripped from the railway infrastructure – rails, cables, various parts. Many of them transformed the railway infrastructure into the source of their illicit incomes. Hundreds of kilometers of railroad were devastated by this chaos, while unprotected bridges were damaged – sometimes beyond repair – by landslides and floods. Buildings and objectives belonging to the railway patrimony, stations and junctions, warehouses, yards, workshops and other utilities were decommissioned and robbed after fraudulent privatisations that brought nothing good to railway companies. The only people that won from this chaos were the trade union leaders, who turned to their own profit the legitimate interests of railway employees. Their personal wealth kept increasing, also from economic contracts between their companies and the state. Sometimes, these contracts were used to blackmail the state, in view of attenuating or quelling the unrest of trade union members. Recently, a whole underworld of this kind got exposed on TV, showing immensely wealthy union leaders capable even of aggression in order to prevent any attempt to evaluate their countless properties.
This conflict of interests with the state led to a situation in which trade union leaders became part of well-organised criminal networks, while the authority of trade unions collapsed. Those who lost – or will lose – their jobs have no confidence in the success of a spontaneous protest, let alone a general strike. This collapse of authority is caused by the fact that the so-called union leaders changed their condition from managers to owners of trade unions’ assets.
Following the example of their railway colleagues, trade union leaders from other activity sectors turned a blind eye to the provoked bankruptcy and fraudulent privatisations of big state-run companies. In certain situations, it was precisely union leaders that stimulated this process which brought them financial benefits, under the umbrella of the illegal activities conducted by the State Ownership Fund. The close collaboration between trade union leaders and Romanian authorities was also demonstrated during the drafting of the law that regulates the National Integrity Agency. The lawmaker came with an amendment that exempts trade union leaders from the controls of the agency that checks the wealth accumulated by dignitaries. Instead of defending the rights of the employees whose interests they should represent, the leaders of Romanian trade unions only want to be allowed to keep their wealth secret. This is an example of how illicit group interests can turn a trade union structure into an antisocial clan.
Precisely because of this degradation, authorities are not very inclined to accept a social dialogue. When they are confronted by a strong protest movement, rulers resort to “the wisdom of trade union leaders” and do nothing to tackle the complaints of protesters. This “wisdom” results from the presence of many trade union leaders in the top of wealthiest Romanians.
This is the main reason why our trade union movement is getting weaker, at the very moment when crisis becomes stronger.