Romania: Capital in Power, Workers Under Assault

Rares Constantinescu

On May 13th, over 2000 workers took to the streets in Romania’s capital city, Bucharest, protesting against fiscal policies.

On May 9th, the National Trade Union Bloc announced it would organize a protest rally, along with its 29 affiliated federations, in front of the Romanian Government building. The slogan for the protest was “Respect for work and those who work! Workers in Romania no longer want to be the guinea pigs for fiscal experiments!” The rally was followed by a march to the Ministry of Economy, Entrepreneurship and Tourism, the Ministry of Labour and Social Solidarity, and the Ministry of Finance.

Context

Romania’s GDP growth has remained in the top five in Europe for over two years. Despite being one of the countries with the highest economic growth in the EU, Romania has the highest in-work poverty risk rate—almost double the EU average. This situation persists even as the employment rate has increased.

“In 2023, the share of tax revenue in GDP was only 27.1%, well below the EU average of 40.4% in the same period. This situation is due to a deficient tax system and chronic tax evasion.

Today, Romania has one of the lowest wealth and capital taxation rates in Europe! Romania collects only 4.7% of GDP in tax revenue from income tax and corporation tax, while the European average is almost three times higher—13.3%!” say the trade unionists.

Demands

Some of the workers’ demands were a direct challenge to capital, calling for higher taxes on “personal incomes based on sources other than work” (i.e., capital). While the EU collects an average of 2.3% of GDP from capital taxation, Romania collects only 0.9%.

Other demands included shifting the responsibility for labor force taxation from workers to employers. This would not significantly change the current situation since most Romanian employers already pay taxes on behalf of their employees. However, it would impact the cost of health insurance for the unemployed. Currently, optional healthcare insurance costs 10% of six gross minimum wages. Shifting this cost to employers would lower the amount unemployed people pay to maintain their health insurance.

The protesters summed it up vividly: “[…] employees in Romania bear the burden of financing the public budget at a level similar to the European average in relation to GDP. However, for employers and other categories of people earning income other than from work (i.e., capital), the situation is akin to a tax haven.”

Of course, no change in the form of taxation can fundamentally alter the relationship between labor and capital. Yet still, in non-revolutionary periods, this aspect of the class struggle can produce changes in the field of distribution which are favourable to workers.

The Protest

Some members of GAS joined the protest in solidarity with the workers that day. At the protest, there were speeches by trade union officials, with notable points including:

– “We have voted for the reds (the Social Democratic Party, PSD), the oranges (PMP, a liberal conservative party), the yellows (PNL, the liberal party), and the blues (USR, former anti-corruption party, centre-right liberals).”

– “We are disappointed to be in such low numbers—2000 people. In the early 2000s, we would’ve had 20,000–30,000 protesters here. The problem is ignorance. There will be elections, and this is why we have to put pressure on politicians to win our vote. We will protest until the elections.”

– “We want to tax capital.”

After the speeches ended and not long after the march started, one trade unionist saw our comrades sharing fliers and talking to workers (the trade unionist probably thought we were from a political party). He intervened to stop them, asking the police guarding the march to kick them out because they were not part of the trade unions (even though there was a public invitation to the protest on the trade union’s confederation social media). Given the opportunism of the political parties in Romania, this is understandable. Workers, especially organized workers, are skeptical of political parties, and this reaction has a positive element. It shows that there is disappointment in the current system: whether this is due to a lack of a notable left-wing party or any other reason is not the point.

However, this anti-party mood can also be exploited by capitalists and their allies in the government. The nihilistic sentiment installed in the working class by the disappointment in all existing parties and their consensus on most policies can lead to less engagement in political action by the working class, which can result into even more austerity imposed on the working class, with losses of its historical gains. While it is correct to say that all bourgeois parties share the same interests, revolutionary left-wing parties cannot be identified with this. Indifference of workers towards politics only means the continuation of bourgeois rule without interference, which signifies the capitulation of the working class. This means losing even more in the class war constantly enacted by capitalism.

Conclusions

Although the speeches by union leaders were eloquent and determined, it seemed that the participants were not fully convinced of the subject’s importance. Additionally, the speeches about “being lied to by the elected leadership” were vague enough to lead some trade unionists to consider electing those who haven’t been in government yet, such as the far-right party AUR. AUR, being the largest “anti-corruption” party in opposition with a populist discourse, might see a surge in elections. This pattern has occurred before with USR, which had similar domestic economic proposals but a more europhilic stance, whereas AUR’s rhetoric is virulently nationalistic. However, USR’s popularity dropped significantly after a brief period in government, falling from 16% in 2020 to 8% in current polls.

Even though many trade unionists have avoided association with the far-right party and actively opposed them, this is not always the case. Some union leaders, including top officials from the STB trade union (Bucharest public transport), have either tolerated or welcomed the far-right party’s presence at their protests. This tolerance is dangerous as it risks leading organized workers into the hands of those who present themselves as “friends of workers” while actually working against them in favor of capitalists. To prevent this, trade unions should collaborate to create demands representing workers’ interests. Otherwise, tolerating the far-right and presenting them as an option for workers could result in losing the gains the working class has achieved over the past century, which are already being eroded by the dominant class.

Anti-corruption is a propaganda tool used by both USR and AUR to gain political traction. However, this wave might be deflating as anti-corruption parties have proven to be easily assimilated by the system and have transformed into outright anti-communist entities. This anti-corruption phenomenon, along with terms like “neomarxism” and “sexomarxism,” mystifies the real antagonisms produced by capital. It is an imperialistic tool used effectively against people in semi-peripheral countries in Latin America and Eastern Europe and to advance the domination of foreign capital over national capital. This is significant not because national capital is preferable to foreign capital for workers, but because, in Eastern Europe, anti-corruption rhetoric often disguises strong anti-communist elements, equating bureaucratic capitalism with socialism and the corruption of the 80s austerity period with socialism itself.

Parties like PiS in Poland and others such as PP in Bulgaria, the SPN alliance in Serbia, and USR and AUR in Romania use this rhetoric. While most trade unions do not engage in anti-corruption discourse, it would be beneficial for unions to educate members on addressing the roots of corruption and how anti-corruption rhetoric masks rather than solves these problems.

Going Back to the Protest

After marching from Piata Victoriei to the Ministry of Economy, Entrepreneurship and Tourism, the Ministry of Labour and Social Solidarity, and the Ministry of Finance, the protest concluded with a delegation representing the trade unionists being received for consultations by a team from the Ministry of Finance. The delegation was composed of three leaders: the leader of the IndustriALL Federation, the leader of the Ford Trade Unions Federation, and the National Railway Federation of Wagon Trade Movement, led by the leader of the confederation (BNS).

During the meeting, the NBS delegation asked the Ministry of Finance team to take measures to reduce taxes on labor and to initiate urgent tax reform, involving and consulting trade unions and employers. They also conveyed concerns about the increasing public debt and possible future changes to income tax rates or the introduction of progressive taxation. Additionally, the BNS delegation requested an informational report from the government on the level of royalties levied by the Executive.

However, meetings with the government alone will not bring about significant changes. The government can only be compelled to act through pressure. A well-organized plan of action by trade unions, with concrete demands that can mobilize the working class, supported by a well-organized campaign in workplaces, could create the necessary dynamic for mass participation in the struggle. Class struggle is the only way workers have ever won anything, after all.

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