The war and socio-economic transformation from self-managed socialism to a market economy in the 1990s and early 2000s radically altered how trade unions operated in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This turbulent period faced the unions with an array of complex challenges, such as the fall in membership numbers, growth of unemployment, shady privatization schemes, and deindustrialization of the economy. The ultimate result of these changes was a deterioration of workers’ rights but also new forms of organizing and resistance from below. Although the “transition” left significant traces on the trade unions and labor, there are still very few written records of how the country’s changed economic, political, and social context affected the trade unions and how its membership dealt with those challenges. Oral history can help us revive these experiences and see how they are understood today. It is essential to preserve the memories, transmit the learned lessons and strengthen the position of the trade unions in the future by documenting their past. The project “Witnesses of the era: Trade unions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1990-2015” is a contribution of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation BIH to that process.
This page presents excerpts from the interviews. The full-length video recordings of the interview sessions and interview transcripts are archived in the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung offices in Sarajevo (BiH) and the Archive of Social Democracy in Bonn. The archive is available upon request to all interested researchers and trade unionists.
The project has also produced a publication in the Serbo-Croatian language, which categorizes some of the main topics and analyzes the content of the interviews. The publication serves as a guide and orientation to other potential archive users. It can be downloaded here.
Emilio Gabaglio (1937) graduated Economic Sciences at the Catholic University of Milan. After working as a high school teacher and a city counsellor in Cuomo, he became active in the Christian Associations of Italian Workers (ACLI) in 1964 and served as its President between 1969 and 1972. After the mandate as the head of ACLI he joined Italy’s second largest trade union confederation, the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Trade Unions (CISL), where he served as the Director of International Affairs. In 1983, he was elected as a member of CISL National Secretariat responsible for regional politics and the labour market. He was elected as the General Secretary of European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) in 1991 and stayed in this position for three mandates until 2003. Between 2006 and 2008 he was a European Affairs Counsellor for the Italian Ministry of Labour.
Peter Seideneck (1941) started his trade union career in 1974 as an International Officer in the German Trade Union Confederation Youth organization (DGB-Jugend), after working as a journalist and a director of an opinion poll research company. In 1977, he joined the DGB National Executive Board where he was responsible for relations with European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), as well as the trade unions in France and Eastern and Central Europe. In 1987, he became the press spokesperson of the Foundation of the German Trade Unions (Hans Böckler Foundation). In 1989 he was appointed the Director of the Liaison Office of the DGB in East Berlin. In 1993, he was employed as the Head of the Office of the General Secretary of the ETUC Emilio Gabaglio. He is retired since 2005 but still acts as an Adviser for the ETUC and DGB for Balkan and Arab countries.
Sulejman Hrle was born in Stolac in 1941. Prior to becoming active in a trade union, he worked as a teacher and dean of the College of Administration in Sarajevo. He jointed the trade union in 1986 as a member of the Presidency of the Confederation of Trade Unions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1990 he was appointed President of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bosnia and Herzegovina and remained in office until 2001. After that, he worked as an advisor to the president of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of BiH. He is now retired and lives in Sarajevo.
Edhem Biber (1952) was born in Sarajevo. He began his working life as a qualified mechanic at Energoinvest and finished the Faculty of Organisational Sciences as a part-time student. He continued his career at the Sarajevo Waterworks and Sewage Company, where he was active in various social and political organisations. He joined the trade union in 1988 after graduating from the Higher Trade Union School. Just before the war, he became politically active in the Reformist Party headed by Ante Marković, and later on the Social Democratic Party of BiH. In 2002 he was appointed President of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since 2010 he has been the President of the Economic and Social Council of the Federation of BiH.
Fatima Fazlić started working in the Confederation of Trade Unions of BiH right after finishing her studies in 1977. As a Bachelor of Laws, she worked on the reform of the socialist self-management system, in the Committee on Petitions and Complaints and on regulating income distribution. In 1990, she was appointed Head of Office of the President of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of BiH. In the following years, she was Head of the Confederation’s extension service and a legal expert in charge of negotiations and drafting of laws and regulations related to labour and employment issues. She retired in 2015, but still occasionally helps the union as a legal expert.
Velka Odžaković was born in the village of Drinić in the vicinity of Bosanski Petrovac. She began her trade union career in 1992 as a Bachelor of Laws in the Confederation of Trade Unions of the Republika Srpska. After that, she became the Secretary General of the RS Confederation of Trade Unions and remained in office until she retired in 2017.
Danko Ružičić started his social and political engagement in the SFRY as a cadre in the Alliance of Socialist Youth. He joined the unions in 1984, when getting employment in the Proleter leather processing factory in Kotor Varoš. Couple of years later, he assumed the position of the President of the factory union and became a member of the Presidency of the Municipal Union Council in Kotor Varoš. In 1990, he was elected President of the Kotor Varoš Municipal Trade Union Council. After the outbreak of the war in 1992, he participated in the founding of the Republika Srpska Alliance of Unions. He is currently President of the Textile, Leather and Footwear Industry Union of the RS Alliance of Unions.
Emina Busuladžić was born in 1956 in Tuzla, where she graduated from the Chemical High School. In 1977, she found a job at the newly-established detergent factory “Dita”. She entered labour activism in 2011, following the privatisation, production shutdown, bankruptcy procedure and a strike of workers of “Dita” factory, as the chair of the strike committee. Under her leadership, self-organised workers managed to regain control over the factory, and to reinstate the production successfully, which brought her into the spotlight in Bosnia and Herzegovina and turned her into a symbol of resistance among activists for workers’ rights in the former Yugoslavia. She retired in 2017, but she still carefully follows and comments on developments in the workers’ movement of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Hasan Užičanin (1962) got a job at the shoe factory “Aida” in Tuzla in 1982, where he operated a machine as a qualified worker. In May 1992, when the war broke out in Tuzla, he joined the RBiH Army as a volunteer. In the post-war years, when “Aida” was facing difficulties, he became active as the vice-president of the factory trade union. He led strikes and protests of “Aida” during the wave of mobilisation of workers of bankrupt companies in Tuzla, which culminated in the protests in front of the Tuzla Canton government building in February 2014. He is currently unemployed.
Ljubinka Knežević (1953) was born in Rudo and completed Administrative School in Goražde. In 1975, she began working for the Alhos textile industry in Višegrad. She was an active member in social-political organisations of the enterprise and the Višegrad Municipality. Among other things, she was president of the Alhos trade union organisation and secretary of the municipal organisation of the League of Communists. After the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, she became active in the Confederation of Trade Unions of Republika Srpska as president of the municipal trade union and member of the RS Confederation of Trade Unions presidency. Today, she is a pensioner living in Višegrad, though she still actively follows the work of local trade unions and advises them.
Obrad Belenzada was born in 1955 in the village of Vrba near Glamoč where he trained as a metal cutter. In 1977, he started working for Energoinvest-Armature in Sarajevo. He became socially and politically active in the League of Socialist Youth of his OOUR [Basic Organisation of Associated Labour]. In 1982, he became active in the trade union of the enterprise and because a member of the presidency of the Novo Sarajevo municipal trade union. In 1990, he was elected president of the branch trade union of metal workers of BiH. After the outbreak of war in 1992, he settled in Banja Luka where he participated in the founding of the RS Confederation of Trade Unions. After a decade serving in the highest offices of this organisation, he founded the RS Independent Confederation of Trade Unions and remained its president until 2018.
Jasmina Đonlagić (1954) was born in Travnik. She completed secondary vocational school in Donji Vakuf and found employment as a saleswoman at a local company called “Radnik”. In 1978, she moved to Livno and found employment at the trading company “Opskrba”. She worked there until 2000, when the company was privatised and she lost her job. After realising that her labour rights were violated through malfeasance during the bankruptcy proceedings, in 2009 she initiated a court dispute with her old company and its new private owner. She continued fighting through the courts all the way until 2020 when she received a final judgement in her favour.
Zulka Baljak (1957) was born in the Livno area where she completed primary and secondary school. She graduated from the Economics Faculty in Zagreb and then moved to Zenica where in 1981 she found employment in the foreign trade service of the Mining and Metallurgy Corporation. After the war, she started working at the Centre for Civic Cooperation, a non-governmental organisation in Livno and became active in providing legal aid to workers who had lost their jobs during the war. Through these activities, she developed close contacts and cooperation with workers and trade unions in Livno and the surrounding area.