Florentin Iancu, President of the Romanian IT Workers' Union (SITT), reflects on the history of his union, how it differs from other unions and how its members' attitudes to labour have changed over the years.
The interview was conducted by Vladimir Mitev, journalist at Bulgarian National Radio and co-founder of the Cross-Border Talks (a partner organisation of transform! europe).
Vladimir Mitev: Mr. Iancu, you are the president of the Romanian IT workers’ labour union SITT, which started in Timisoara in 2009. What is the story behind your labor union and what are its greatest successes so far?
Florentin Iancu: As you’ve said, I am the president of the Romanian IT workers’ labour union SITT. Originally, it started back in 2009 as a company labour union in Alcatel-Lucent, and over the years it has developed into a national union covering around 8000 members in all of the biggest IT multinationals that we all know and that are present in Romania. If I were to name a few of them, those would be companies like Atos, Nokia or Accenture, HP, Infosys, Tech, Mahindra, and others.
The union originally started, as I said, in 2009, from a need to better represent ourselves as workers in relationship with the company in front of some decisions that had a great impact on us. And because we were not organised at that moment, we weren’t necessarily part of the decisions that were taken and that were highly impacting us as workers. So we said more or less, enough is enough. We have to step out of this comfort zone of, let’s say, a dream or naivety that someone else is going to take care of us. And we had to do something about it, even if we are in a very, let’s say, good working place or like the IT sector. It doesn’t really matter. We wanted to be part of the decisions that are affecting us.
So the best way to do this was to form a union, which we’ve done in 2009. And obviously. It wasn’t necessarily easy because, as I said, people tend to be in a comfort zone. People tend to believe that nothing can happen to them. People tend to believe that they can always solve their issues alone. Unfortunately, it’s completely the opposite. And we’ve learned that along the years, and it’s something that we promote now. And because we formed our union, we were able to be part of all of the decisions that were impacting us.
We immediately started collective negotiations with the company. Very successful negotiations because we weren’t afraid even to go on strike in 2009 for our rights. And we managed to make in such a way that the decision that was impacting us, which meant us being sold to another company, has never affected us in terms of our terms and conditions that were negotiated with the company. So it was a great success.
People saw that even if you work in IT, you’re still a worker and you still have some point. Even if you have a good salary, maybe at some point you have issues. At some point you have problems that need to be solved. And without a collective voice, you don’t get the necessary influence over the employers to make sure that some decisions or any decision will not impact you.
After 2009 and after the success, which you can imagine, it was present all over the press and everywhere. An IT company going on strike, an IT company forming a labour union, an IT company having a collective agreement. It was a bit unusual. We were happy to see that other workers in other companies saw and realised that it’s not so bad, actually, and it’s something that they would want as well. So in 2010, we organised another company under the same union. We are now present in around 11-12 companies.
We’ve negotiated more than 20 agreements, collective agreements covering around 16-17 000 workers in the sector. All of the agreements have regulations that cover salaries, that cover bonuses, that cover, you know, how extra time is being compensated. That covers social package in case, you know, we have layoffs, cover all of the situation of how many number of holidays, how many number of extra days off, so on and so forth. Everything you can imagine.
Contracts have around 60, 70 pages and we have rights like automatic indexation with the inflation rate, salary raises, so on and so forth that are really important for everyone, not just for the for the IT workers. It’s important to underline that it’s been a great effort but it also has been an awareness campaign.
People nowadays tend, as I said, to believe that either nothing can happen to them or if one tries to do something that it’s impossible. And it’s not at all impossible. Companies will always try to block it and will always try to say whatever they want to say. But I think what’s important to underline from our story is that all of these agreements have been their first ever agreements since they were present in Romania. They are still in Romania 15 years later. Even if we negotiated these kind of terms and conditions, they have not left. Foreign companies have the money to pay for these kinds of conditions, better conditions, even in Romania or Bulgaria or anywhere else in the east. Corporations have the money to pay for conditions similar to the west. They have the money to do lots of things.
We just have to ask or if we just have to be strong enough to make sure that they understand that they need to do these kinds of things. They haven’t left Romania, so they won’t necessarily leave. We’re still competitive in terms of cost and all of this debate, all of this speech that negotiating better terms and conditions for workers would make us less competitive is completely bogus.
Of course, you don’t want to bankrupt anyone, but still, from our work, we can make sure that we can get back the terms and conditions that we all want, and that would also be satisfactory for ourselves. So my conclusion is that, one, we can. Second, they can. So there’s money, there is potential. But thirdly, we have to get organised and we have to stand up, not necessarily fight, but stand up for our rights and for what we want.
VM: You like to say that your labor union is one of a new type which avoids some negative sides of labor unions, which might have existed in traditional labor unions. What is the difference? What do you do in a better way?
It’s not necessarily that we do better, we do different things. And it’s also not necessarily that we want to avoid anything. I’m not judging any other union,I want to be clear from the beginning. But our labour union is composed of mainly young people. Average age is about 30. There are really lots of young people. So clearly it’s a different union.
But the main difference is that we try to make our union as participatory and as democratic and transparent as possible. So if there is one thing that people want nowadays, especially young people, is to trust the leadership of the union and to be part of the way the union behaves. In our case, if we are in a collective negotiation and a final offer from the company comes, nothing is decided by an in-group. Decisions are taken by the workers themselves.
All of the big decisions are taken by the workers themselves. So they are the ruling if you want, body of how the union behaves, all the union decisions. And that’s really important because people then feel that they have control. So it’s not a really bureaucratic centralised organisation which is a rather decentralised, completely open organisation in which members have the biggest power and not, for example, me as a president. I don’t have any veto rights. I can’t decide upon anything myself. So workers thake all of these decisions that impact them. And that’s a major difference in my opinion. So they are the owners of this process of what happens. And that’s something that helped us make sure that lots of young people will join.
Secondly, of course, we try to be in line with technology. We have an online joining system. We have online payment fees, for example. A lot of activities take place to make sure that the union is attractive and visible, especially for the young people in our sector. And there is a lot of communication, a lot of information and transparency for the union’s activity with our members.
It’s an approach that we saw, you know, helped us to get the confidence, especially from young people and to avoid them saying, yeah, you’re just like the whatever old unions or I don’t know what people are saying nowadays about unions but it is something that we don’t see in with us.There’s really everything that is quite out in the open and there’s really very much attention to how much we can involve members into our activity. And I think this is the main difference.
VM: Romania has changed a lot over the last 33 years. Capitalism changed Romania. It also changed a lot, the attitude of Romanians towards labour issues, including the day of labour. So how has this attitude towards labour and culture of being a labour unionist or worker changed in the last 30 years?
Look, I don’t know how attitudes have changed in the last 30 years. I can tell you how it changed for us – in the Romanian IT workers’ labour union SITT. Since we started doing this. We felt we actually saw that people are more aware of. Of their status as workers and the labor relation with the employers more attentive to contracts. More attentive to what they sign, more attentive to what’s being offered to them. And also we’ve seen that we started a tradition in employee representation with unions. So people will ask now when they move to another company, where we don’t have a union? We have a collective labor agreement, don’t we?
People are much more educated now in terms of their position, in relations with the employer. They know what should exist in a normal labor environment: collective agreements, efficient and correct employer representation, etc. I think we’ve managed to change the mentality of lots of young people. We have advanced a mentality in which they are much more aware of their rights’ protection and their interests’ protection. All of these things which are really, really important for a worker. They’re very much aware now of this and. I believe that we’ve managed to build an increased tradition of trade unionism. And that’s really important for us.
Originally published on the Cross-Border Talks website.