In Romania, Slot Machines Profit From Ex-Miners’ Misery

During Romania’s transition to capitalism, the Jiu Valley miners violently resisted the destruction of their industry. But today, their jobs are mostly gone — and the plague of slot machines has taken over long-proud mining communities.

View from a tower of Livezeni mine on a snowy day, on December 7, 2021 in Petrosani, Romania. (Andreea Campeanu / Getty Images)

In Romania’s Jiu Valley, once-mighty industrial complexes are today reduced to ruins. If some buildings were demolished with the closing of the mines, other structures were left to the elements — and to destitute human beings scavenging for scrap metal. Not only are job opportunities scarce, but the streets themselves are almost deserted. Yet not so long ago this was a bastion of workers’ resistance, the hotbed of the miners who toppled a government, clashed with peaceful protesters — and even took policemen hostage.

The history of the Jiu Valley miners is indicative of the role that trade unions played in the postcommunist Romanian transition, acting as a de facto opposition to the mass privatizations and tearing-up of the social model that became known as “shock therapy.” This was, in short, a similar rite of passage to free-market capitalism that other Eastern Europe nations fell prey to in this era. Here, unions perhaps showed greater industrial muscle. But amid Romania’s turbulent 1990s they couldn’t stop the other trend of the time — workers becoming slaves to the slot machines.

With the closing of the mines and rising mass joblessness, the gambling industry crept in, aiming to profit off the workers’ desperation. This industry’s influence has indeed grown exponentially in recent years — sponsoring sports leagues, aggressively lobbying the government, and stifling dissent by all means available. Late last year, journalists from prominent newspaper Libertatea even got fired after they refused to hand in article drafts about the gambling industry prior to publication.

But if the gambling industry captured these workers’ imagination, how did it happen? Above all, as the miners’ old working life became more precarious, this rising industry promised easy returns in exchange for their “play time.”

Violent Conflict

On December 25, 1989, Romanians watched on live TV as Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were executed. The dictator and his wife were sentenced to death by an impromptu court after clashes between the army and civilians that killed over a thousand people. The Romania that followed lacked any clearly defined ideal, beyond the desire for alignment with a Western, free-market paradigm. Thousands died, the two Ceaușescus were killed — but the old ruling class, with a few changes, remained in charge after the regime change.

The transition to free-market capitalism was not immediate. Workers who had previously silenced by Ceaușescu’s rule now took matters into their own hands. They quickly organized, forming independent unions that would, for the first decade of postcommunist Romania, represent bastions of political militancy. Unlike Poland or the former Czechoslovakia, where trade unions cooperated with the government in facilitating the shock doctrine of mass privatizations, in Romania they were opposed — and engaged in direct, violent conflict.

By the end of 1990, workers were staging strikes against company management, policy proposals by Romania’s ostensibly left-wing “national unity” governments, and denouncing deteriorating living standards. Strikes followed over the next years, and often the workers became violent, ignoring even union demands to sit down for negotiations with the employers. In 1999, the workers at the tractor factory in Brașov (in the 1950s known as Stalin City) stormed the city hall, threw Molotov cocktails at the building, and demanded that promised wage increases be paid.

One of the major groups that was not afraid of engaging in direct violence was the coal miners from the Jiu Valley, once an economic and industrial powerhouse. The transition from communism came packaged with various reforms imposed by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other international organizations, aimed at lessening the state’s grip on economy and opening the market up to private enterprise.

The coal mines in the region, given their high pollution rate and the lower calorific quality of the bituminous material, were a clear target of the government’s. Fueled by the need to make the air more breathable and reduce Romania’s reliance on coal — but also the doctrine of cutting government spending — mines had to be closed and workers laid off.

If in 1990, over fifty thousand workers were toiling in the mines, today less than 1,700 people are still working with coal in the area. The trend The trend is nationwide; the National Statistics Institute tallies roughly ten thousand people employed in the Romanian coal industry, compared to over two hundred thousand in 1990.

Laid Off

Layoffs and state-owned factory closures were common during the transition period and were cast as a necessity in moving toward a new free-market paradigm. The annual unemployment rate in the Jiu Valley skyrocketed to 30 to 40 percent between 1998 and 2000, leading to an increase in the miners’ violence. They launched hunger strikes, marched to Bucharest along the train tracks, and even threatened to set themselves on fire.

Not only did the closing of the mines mean job losses, but the workers affected had nowhere else to go. The Jiu Valley had, after all, been a mono-industrial area. There were, of course, occasional grocery shops, bakeries, and some small manufacturing activities — but far from enough to take on the majority of miners who were laid off.

As researchers Jan Barbu, Delia Ionescu, and Byeongju Jeong note in a study comparing the postcommunist transition in the Jiu Valley and the Czech mining region of Ostrava, the layoffs in the Romanian pits started seven years later in 1997 and were completed in a shorter period, with overnight mine closures and layoffs. Workers resisted with their fists, descending in their thousands to Bucharest to fight for the preservation of their jobs.

Still, that wasn’t all they fought for. In 1990, anti-communist activists and students became disillusioned by the dominant parties’ promise of a transition to a new regime. The old ruling class was still in power, albeit under different political colors, and with more freedom of political speech. Anti-government protests started to get violent. Interim president Ion Iliescu asked Jiu Valley miners to come to Bucharest and “restore order.” The miners came in, armed with pipes and clubs and “cleared up” the square, hurting hundreds of innocent people and killing six people in the process. This “mineriade” — the name attributed to the bloody events that so stained the miners’ image — would be part of the collective imagination that led to a dissolution of class-based solidarity.

Still, these miners could surely be combative: in 1991, led by their union, they fought their way to Bucharest, occupied the MPs’ meeting room, and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Petre Roman. He had come from a family with a strong communist tradition; his father had volunteered in the Spanish Civil War. But Roman was also responsible for privatizing the land, handing it back to the previous owners, and preparing the transition toward free-market capitalism.

When miners took over Victory Square in Bucharest, violence erupted in the streets. They assaulted the government building and insisted that they wouldn’t leave until all their demands were met. Initially, they had wanted better bread and to get a meat salami, instead of the soy alternative. But the initial demands were soon forgotten. Faced with the site of government power, they demanded a change of prime minister and a worker-centered transition. They got the first — but the broader transition proved bitter for the working class.

Combative Spirit

The violence used by the miners in their protests was not simply a matter of thuggery. Miners were afraid that the transition and the shock therapy that was already being discussed in the early 1990s would hurt them gravely. Over the years they developed a strong collective identity. As anthropologist David Kideckel argues:

the mystique and conditions of mine work — the stark boundary between the underground and earth’s surface the mine creates, the hard conditions of mine labor, the expectation of sudden death — encourage a natural solidarity and common identity.

Miners were toiling under harsh conditions and perceived their job as sacrificial, ensuring the functioning of society on their coal-dust-covered backs. In fact, already long prior to the final collapse of Ceaușescu’s rule, they held a massive strike in 1977 after authorities threatened to increase the retirement age and lower their pension. An occupation of the workplaces erupted that lasted for a week before Ceaușescu came in person to discuss with the miners. The workers won, their pensions were kept intact, the workday was reduced, and hot meals were to be provided.

The combative spirit had emerged already before World War II, when in 1929 the miners staged one of their most dramatic strikes. The government brought in the army and killed thirty people on the spot — some two hundred were later declared dead. The working conditions were terrible, and the coal dust they inhaled led to shorter lives and crueler deaths. To fight for better working conditions and to defend jobs demanded that they fight violence with violence. The miners saw no other alternative. In 1991, when they overthrew the government, they not only fought police but took some of them hostage and used them as human shields. The same happened during the miners’ strike of 1999.

Lost Legacy

The miners’ legacy is now carried by the small minority of them who still work in the area. What is clear is that the militancy of the 1990s has long-since been lost. Various unions have been active in the region, but despite a couple of protests over the years regarding workers’ safety and adequate salaries, the old bastion of militancy has become a distant memory for most.

The industrial and extractive areas, just like many others in Romania, suffered from closures that exposed the working poor to harsh living conditions. Jobless and facing inflation in the hundreds of percentage points, no benefit payments from the defunct state firms could have put enough bread on the table.

Since the 1990s, overall conditions for Romanians surely have improved. Indeed, real earnings for an average worker are now 2.2 times higher than right before the transition. Yet inequalities are highly visible — a massive 32 percent of Romanians are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. And while the mean salary rounds up to about $1,000 a month net, the reality for the median-earning worker is closer to the minimum wage, at around half this level.

(Radu Stochita)

Those who were able to leave the area did — part of the four million Romanians who have emigrated since the collapse of communism (though figures may be incomplete, not accounting for those who left irregularly). Others sought a different job, while for many, gambling and risky investment schemes seemed to be the only path. A famous gambling industry lobbyist has repeatedly claimed that he got into the business by placing slot machines in the Jiu Valley. Unemployment, cash in the form of benefit payments, and desperation  proved to be his recipe for success.

Today, driving through the towns of the Jiu Valley, one cannot stop but notice the vast amount of gambling venues, often passing in quick succession — and each promising great returns. The symbols of gambling firms are everywhere — on billboards, in TV adverts, even sponsoring newspapers or buying ambulances for hospitals.

An aggressive industry that puts pressure on journalists and has its hand deep in politicians’ pockets, gambling profited from workers’ desperation. While the miners, carried by the fervor of the 1990s, were doing politics in the streets, the slot-machine owners had already begun cashing in their checks.