From: Kastriot Çipi
The Sad History of Artists’ Unionization in Albania

The freedom to strike and unionize was one of the freedoms denied by communism. At the time the working relation began, all employees were automatically entered into the Albanian Trade Unions (BPSh), the only existing “trade union,” and proceeded to promptly forget about it the next day. The relation between BPSh and each employee was limited to mandatory monthly fee payments and a selective reward known as a “camp slips,” which consisted of “distinguished” employees being granted the right to vacation at holiday camps, at a price lower than usual. Nothing else could be expected from an organization that proudly called itself a “transmission-belt” of the party-state.

With the fall of the dictatorship, trade union operation resumed in Albania, after being forgotten since World War II. But politicians weren’t about to lose control over trade unions. Politicians knew better than the employees how important and powerful the latter were. And so, trade unions were put under political control: the Union of the Independent Trade Unions of Albania (BSPSh) under the Democratic Party’s control, the Confederation of Trade Unions of Albania, controlled by the Socialist Party. In time, trade union leaders divided among them former BSPSh real estate and reaped the profits from leasing and/or privatization. The “leaders” of the proletariat became wealthy without owning businesses; unbothered by regulatory bodies, and even less by electoral pressure or the judgement of the members. The membership gradually renounced its right to elect trade union leaders, legitimizing, thus, the latter’s power abuses.

The first four years of the Rama Government were the years of the unions’ clinical death. For four straight years wages weren’t increased by a penny, but no trade union gave even a single statement protesting this, not to speak of striking and organizing protests. Rama’s statement to the media, following his meeting with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, declaring that Italian investors must come to Albania, because there are no trade unions here, hammered the last nail on the coffin of Albanian unionization.

Unlike the rest of the population, artists inherited from communism an all-encompassing union: the Albanian League of Writers and Artists (LShA). Like BPSh, LShA also served as a “party transmission-belt” and would have to undergo a reformation process in order to adjust to a pluralist society and a free market economy. Fortunately for artists, politicians weren’t as interested in LShA to the same extent as the trade unions. For an entire decade, LShA remained a privileged organization, receiving yearly subsidies by the state, and never constrained to share its assets, its headquarters or its weekly paper “Drita,” that even held shares, though not many, in the printing house “Demokracia,” a gift from the American people.

Instead of becoming an artists’ trade union, committed to protecting labour rights and copyrights of nearly two thousand artists and employees of the art and culture sector, as well as offering expertise and lobbying for the legal framework and state policy regarding culture, LShA underwent an unstoppable and self-destructive process of fragmentation. Theater artists created the Nationwide Association of Theater Artists (ShMAT). Filmmakers also went on to create their own association. Visual artists and musicians followed suit.

Within a year LShA had become LSh: the League of Writers. All other artists had been expelled or had left. On the other hand, other artist’s associations, similar to LSh, refused to act as trade unions, allowing, thus, trade union confederates free range to claim numbers of artists as their own.

The four wins of artists’ unionization

Artist associations and trade unions would soon be put to the test with the arrival of Edi Rama at the helm of the Ministry of Culture, in late April 1998. In July of that year, Rama had the main stage of the National Theater closed, on pretext of fire hazard. ShMAT, headed by the incorruptible idealist Vangjush Furxhi, reacted harshly. A mere month after the tragic events of 12-14 September 1998, the newly elected prime minister Majko repealed his underling’s order and vowed to fully reconstruct the National Theater. The artists counted their first victory.

After the National Theater, it was the LSh headquarters’ turn. The shrunk organization, now missing six out of the seven arts, had, nonetheless, managed to resist even a separatist fraction self-styled as “The League of Anti-communist Writers”. Within it, one could still find honest men and capable artists, that had elected as their leader poet Xhevahir Spahiu, another incorruptible idealist. Once again, the apple of discord was a building and the threat was the same: Edi Rama. The only difference lied in the alibi that was used. This time, the Minister of Culture claimed that the building must be returned to the state in order to be converted to a French cultural center. This time, as well, the artists fought hard and they won. The court sided with LSh and Rama was repelled for a second time.

In September 1999, the artists of the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet (TOB) learned that Rama was drafting a bill regarding the theater, the effects of which would touch TOB as well. The bill’s purpose was to break off the relationship between the theater’s artists and its stage. After his first defeat against the National Theater, Rama had realized that he couldn’t appropriate the buildings without first kicking the artists out. So began the long battle against this bill, that culminated in the first days of February 2000, with 6 artists going on hunger strike (the first and only artists’ hunger strike in the world, to date) and protest-concerts going on in Skënderbeg Square. The protests caused the party in power to go into crisis and threatened to topple the third socialist government in three years. This time around, the crisis was resolved by the Socialist parliamentary group, which revised the bill and finally defeated Rama’s aspirations. With little commotion, the artists celebrated their third victory over state arrogance, personified in Edi Rama.

Six months later, Rama announced his candidacy for Tirana mayor. Aware of his less than stellar reputation after his three losses against the artists, he was in need of a truce with this community. In September 2000, the wages of all national theater artists doubled. No trade union or association had asked for this raise. It was the carrot Rama had temporarily opted for, before going, again, for the stick.

The fourth battle took place in spring 2002. Xhevdet Ferri, Rama’s pawn who drafted the infamous theater bill, once again on Rama’s orders proposed tearing down the National Theater and replacing it with a business center. The artists’ outrage was immediate. They signed a petition demanding the full reconstruction of the building and the dismissal of its director. Once again, the Socialist majority was threatened by crisis, and, once again, Rama lost. Prime Minister Majko, now in his second term, dismissed the director and announced the cancellation of the business center project.

Three defeats of the artists as alarm bells for upcoming ones

The last 20 years of artists’ unionization in Albania are a part of history made up of battles started over and over again by the same person: Edi Rama, be it as Minister of Culture, or Tirana mayor. During this long war, the artists didn’t see only victories; they also suffered three losses, different from each other, yet still similar in ways. It seems, unfortunately, that artists have yet to learn their lesson following these defeats.

The first was the loss of the Variety Theater hall, now owned by a private university. What he couldn’t achieve with the National Theater, Edi Rama tested with the Variety Theater, and was successful. As soon as he became mayor he interrupted the financing for the restoration began by his predecessor, Brojka. The Variety Theater artists did not resist, opting, instead, to follow their individual careers in independent projects, artistic or not. A year later, Rama relieved them all of duty and began to “lose” to owners in court, in full contradiction with the law. For years on end, no one heard anything about the Variety Theater. PD representative, Astrit Veliaj, bought the hall from its owners, while the Metropol Theater, a municipality-funded Tirana Cultural Center project, was created in what remained of the Variety Theater.

The second, though not necessarily a victory for Rama, yet still a loss for the artists, was losing the LSh headquarters. Following a ten-year long conflict between “communist” and “anti-communist” writers, the refusal of former Socialist deputy, composer Limoz Dizdari to accept the end of his term as LSh president, and the call for new elections, the “anti-communists,” lead by Zyhdi Morava, had convinced the court that the elections they organized were legitimate. After losing most of its non-writer membership, LSh also lost those writers who did not wish to be involved in politics.

What was left of LSh was ultimately abused by its “anti-communist” leader, leading to a scandal involving the Italian justice system. Lacking a yearly subsidy, a paper, and income from renting out its premises, LSh became a gathering of miserables, that no one took seriously anymore. The shameful epilogue was the peaceful seizure of its headquarters by the first Berisha government, that transformed it into the Ministry of Culture. Similarly to the Variety Theater case, no one came to the defense of LSh.

The third defeat took place last summer. The Circus of Tirana, declared a national institution under the Ministry of Culture in the Law for Art and Culture (2010), lost its headquarters, ring and auxiliary premises, located very close to the Metropol Theater. This time, as well, the state “lost” its suit against the owners of the land. Once again, the artists remembered, too late, to protest and be disappointed by the trade union to which they belonged, part of BSPSh. This third loss of the artists can be considered Rama’s second victory.

The National Theater, the next victory or defeat?

It has been nearly 20 years from the time when Rama closed the National Theater down and 4 years and a half from the time Rama became Prime Minister. For nearly 3 years, now, the Tirana municipality is also controlled by Rama, via his protégé, Erion Veliaj. However, even in the second half of his first term, Rama was neutral on the National Theater being torn down. As if convinced he would win a second term, Rama took his time.

First, the National Theater artists’ yearly bonuses, provided in the Law for Art and Culture, were discontinued. They were silent. Their wages were frozen, along with those of the entire public sector. The artists went along with this as well. The actors’ contracts of indefinite duration were replaced with yearly contracts, in contradiction to the Labor Code. The actors were, once again, silent. In Spring 2014 the majority coalition PS-LSI amended the Law for Art and Culture, eliminating the National Art Center, an institution independent from the Ministry of Culture, that had just begun financing private projects. Few dissented. A few other were even supportive. The majority was silent, once more. The boiling frog experiment was already in process and the artists’ silence was encouraging for Rama.

In the second half of his term Rama declared that the new National Theater would be built in the same place, but, before that, another, temporary theater would be built, in order to not hinder National Theater activities during the time of the construction. A hydrotechnical laboratory was declared the perfect solution. No artists were consulted about the design or the project that came with a 3.5 million euro price tag. And the artists were silent, again.

At the beginning of this year, the Ministry of Culture published an amendment bill for the Law for Art and Culture, that intends to erase any sort of institutional autonomy and creative freedom, and announced the move of the National Theatre to the hydrotechnical laboratory, baptised Turbina, the same name as Cërrik’s football team. It was also announced that, for the next two years, the National Theater stage would be home for the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet.

This time around, the artists reacted. They rejected both the National Theater’s move, and the amendment bill. The government was truly concerned, no matter how much they tried to dismiss the protests. The Ministry of Culture avoided the National Theater discussion, passing the ball to the Tirana municipality, while it stated it was open to consultations regarding the bill.

A month after the start of the protests, the Ministry of Culture has yet to make any changes to its bill, while the Tirana municipality has begun talking of a public-private partnership regarding the construction of the new National Theater in 3000 square meters of land, a departure from its current 6000, claiming that it lacks the proper funds. First Veliaj, and now Rama, have begun inviting selected artists in closed meetings where they are presented with a project rumored to be designed by a famous Danish architect.

This entire thing resembles a script prepared beforehand, down to its last detail. In January 2017, in the dinner party the Tirana municipality threw in honor of Ndriçim Xhepa’s 60th birthday, Veliaj and Minister of Culture Mirela Kumbaro spoke to the gathered artists of a Danish architect’s idea and mentioned skyscrapers built not on but next to the Theater. None of the dinner guests publicly mentioned this for one straight year.

In the fall, the newly-formed Stage and Screen Actors Guild (SASE) barely managed to gather 60 artist signatures for a petition demanding the budget for culture be doubled. The majority of artists refused to sign. The budget for culture remained: 16 million euros in total (four times lower than that of Macedonia), of which not a penny would go to the new National Theater.

After five years of subjugation of the majority of artists, the state (both the government and the municipality) is preparing for a big step: acceptance of a smaller theater, built on half of the current land, financed privately (from a company that will earn 4500 square meters for free use, in the heart of Tirana), a theater that deforms the history of the National Theater and erases the Experimental Theater from the map entirely.

Will the National Theater artists accept this deal? Will they cosign this corrupted affair with their silence? If yes, then this will be the inglorious end of the unionization of Albanian artists, the shameful failure of this generation, that does not deserve, after all, to live and be paid in the name of the National Theater’s tradition, founded and raised up by other generations that, as it seems, were worthier citizens, as well. The government seems to have thought of this, too. Per the amendments to the Law for Art and Culture, private companies may, tomorrow, devour public funds intended for the theater, as is happening, today, with universities. And when that time comes, artists shouldn’t hope that society will rise in protest to protect their jobs and wages. Society will be as indifferent to the theater, as it was to LSh.