Nis, Yugoslavia, 23 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - At a Zajedno (Together) opposition coalition demonstration in the industrial Serbian city of Nis, most of the crowd are workers, their faces aged prematurely by their hard lives.
One says he goes to work every day, but hasn't been paid since January -- and then his monthly paycheck came to only 130 dinars, ($26). A textile worker says his monthly pay is $33 and 50 kilos of potatoes. He explains his participation in the Zajedno protests this way: "I am angry because I worked a lot and received nothing."
It's become commonplace for Western correspondents who are covering the month-long daily Zajedno protests in Serbia to observe that they will not achieve their aims until they get the support of organized labor. But visits to demonstrations in the Serbian capital Belgrade, in the southern city of Nis, and in the economic wasteland of Kragujevac --120 kilometers south of Belgrade-- clearly show that many workers are supporting the demonstrations. They're just not marching in an organized way under union banners.
"It's not so black and white. Workers support the protests, not under the union flag, but as citizens," says Prvoslav Radosavljevic, regional steward for the Independence trade union in Kragujevac.
Zoran Djindjic, one of the two main Zajedno leaders, added in an interview with RFE/RL: "The majority of the people who come are in some sense workers. Maybe not industrial workers, but the majority work until two p.m. and then come to the demonstrations." Or, as Milan Bozic, political adviser to the other main opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic, puts it: "People work from seven a.m to three p.m. for their salary, and from three to five for their democratic rights."
However, Serbia's economic disaster makes it difficult for opposition leaders to organize workers to strike or come out in a united front. Organized labor is divided more or less equally between independent unions and government-organized unions backing President Slobodan Milosevic.
But a vast number of workers are employed only in a technical sense. They receive a small salary to stay at home because their factories are idle. Union leaders say it would be difficult to call them all out, since they are dispersed in their homes.
"There is a problem with workers because 70 percent of Serbian workers are not in factories, but on paid vacations. They are here, but they come individually and with their families," says Slobodan Vuksanovic, spokesman for the Democratic Party headed by Djindjic.
But independent union leaders and opposition organizers also admit that many workers are afraid of losing even their paltry salaries if they protest against Milosevic.
"90 percent of workers support these demonstrations, but they are afraid to come out because of security guards working in the factories, and the official unions which will try to have them arrested," Petar Petrovic, a 55-year-old retired worker in Nis.
Radosavljevic, the Independence steward in Kragujevac, says he was fired from his job in the giant Zastava auto and arms complex because of his union activities. He also says that six months ago his union had 400 members out of the 500-worker shop where he worked. But now, he says, there are only 30 members left because the rest were called into the factory director's office and forced to renounce their membership in Independence. "These people still consider themselves members, but they need to keep their jobs," Radosavljevic says.
Another powerful brake on wider support is Milosevic's nearly complete domination of powerful Serbian television and radio. Few people outside the capital have access to independent media. The vast majority of the Serbian population relies on state-controlled Serbian television for information. It has consistently downplayed the extent of popular support for the demonstrations, and now is portraying the protesters as tools of the U.S. and Germany -- a ploy to arrouse nationalist sentiments that Milosevic feels he can use to rally support.
Milanilo Jevtic is a worker from Sabac, 80 kilometers west of Belgrade, who traveled to the Serbian capital last week to participate in the demonstrations and hear for himself what student and opposition leaders are saying.
Jevtic admits that his fellow workers have been slow to join the protests. But he adds: "You have to understand, 80 percent of the people in my town don't know what's going on."