From another age

    LABOUR / Under Tito's watchful eye, a post-Socialist dream of workers' ownership is put to the capitalist test.

    More than 40 years after Tito’s death and decades since the dream of a socialist Yugoslavia finally died, everything and nothing has changed at the ITAS machine tool factory in the provincial Croatian town of Ivanec. A framed portrait of the old communist party boss and Yugoslav president, wearing his trademark spectacles, stares benevolently down over a grey hall full of green-painted lathes and heavy machinery, scuffed benches and workstations, with only pages torn from calendars or girlie mags to compete for his attention.

    Factory to the Workers, a film by Srdjan Kovacevic
    Factory to the Workers, a film by Srdjan Kovacevic

    Anachronisms within anachronisms

    The ITAS factory is a scene from another age; a post-war vision of functional workplaces for sturdy workers producing the machinery of proletarian progress. It is an anachronism within an anachronism: when Croatia’s post Yugoslav civil war drive to modernise pushed dodgy schemes for privatisation of state factories in the early ‘noughties’, the workers rebelled and literally kicked out the new management in 2005. Following a major standoff, demonstrations, a court cases, and hunger strike, they won control of the factory in 2007 and set up a workers’ council, management board, and elected managing director. It was, and remains, the only successful example of a workers’ takeover of a factory in post-Socialist Europe.

    ITAS, established in the 1960s, was always an exemplar of Yugoslav socialism; once employing 900 workers, the factory was based on self-government, with a democratic system that allowed workers to decide on company policies. Srdjan Kovacevic’s film Factory to the Workers – produced by Fade In, a Croatian collective dedicated to making social issue documentaries – is character driven, allowing the workers to speak for themselves with barely any exposition or explanation, apart from the very basics of the background to how the workers took control of their destiny.

    Tightly shot with barely a glimpse beyond the factory floor or technical management offices, greys (walls and floors), greens (lathes and machines), and blues (the worker’s overalls) dominate the colour grading. For those of us who associate Croatia with summer sun and glistening seas, with bright white light and translucent waters, Kovacevic’s sombre eye already speaks volumes.

    The ITAS factory is a scene from another age

    All is not well

    By 2016 when the director arrived to make a film about the success of this post-socialist industrial experiment, all is not well in the factory. Factory foreman, Dragutin Varga, a wiry, chain-smoking veteran of the takeover who lives and breathes ITAS, has a look of permanent strain on his face as he stalks across to berate a worker who is behind on a job.

    Varga – as he is universally known – is the pivot for a film that pits him between workers disgruntled over persistent late (and often temporarily reduced) pay packets, and the elected plant boss, Bozo. More than a decade into collective ownership, with a much-reduced workforce of 250, ITAS is struggling to fill its order books and meet the increasing demands of a global economy.

    The factory may have a «strategic partnership» with a big machine tool player in Germany, but with no investment for 30 years and the newest machines already more than a decade old, dreams of producing its star products of the past – seen as a workers leafs through old glossy brochures of gleaming heavy beasts of machine engineering – are fading and TAS is struggling.

    The factory is in debt and playing catch up every month. Salaries are paid a month or two in arrears at 60% or 40% of the full rate – with the promise to pay the rest consistently kicked down the road. Managing director Bozo blamed the workers – and he seems to have a point as insouciant workers repeatedly shrug off stupid engineering mistakes.

    «OK, I get it», an exasperated Bozo shouts at one team, «you guys can explain when you fucked up, exactly how you fucked up and how you will fix it. How come you didn’t notice this on the first piece, but on the last?»

    Factory to the Workers, a film by Srdjan Kovacevic
    Factory to the Workers, a film by Srdjan Kovacevic

    Suspicions build

    For all the worker democracy and factory floor meetings at which Bozo or Varga take the microphone in front of a crowd of workers resentful at not being paid on time, no one on the shop floor seems to think that, as shareholders in ITAS, they are jointly responsible for making it a success.

    Suspicion builds that Bozo is siphoning off profits, or issuing dodgy invoices, and a workers’ council promptly sacks him. He leaves immediately, his secretary refusing even to shake his hand. The technical director quits too, and Varga takes over. But there is little he can do to turn things around, other than announce that he will go on a hunger strike as he seeks state aid to prop up the factory.

    The film ends with no explanation of what happens next, although we have been told at the start that any profits from the film will be shared with the workers. An online search revealed little in English on the factory’s fate; whether it survived the Covid pandemic remains unclear, but I hope Varga – who is the hero of this compelling film – is OK.

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    Nick Holdsworth
    Nick Holdsworth
    Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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