Women entered the workforce in large numbers in East-Central Europe after World War II. One reason was necessity. The countries had been devastated by war, and many able-bodied men had died as soldiers and forced laborers. Another reason was ideology. Communism emphasized full employment. Women in the region would eventually participate in the labor market in rates higher than any other developed part of the world.
“To ensure that women would seek out paid work, the wage structure was altered; wage setting was centralized and state-controlled, and the family wage was abolished,” according to a report by the UN agency UNIFEM. “In the early years of this transformation, women were expected to do the same jobs as men, receive the same training and wages, and take on the same leadership responsibilities.”
To facilitate the large-scale entrance of women into the workforce, the Communist governments created an entirely new social network that included day care centers for working women, cafeterias at the workplace, and holiday centers. Membership in the official trade union was obligatory.
Zsuzsa Kadar grew up in this system and confesses that it was easier to balance work and family back then. The daughter of a mechanical engineer, she became a chemical engineer and worked in a rubber factory. She rose in the ranks of the Chemical Workers Federation and eventually became an international secretary, communicating with trade unions across Europe. After the changes in 1989-90, the official trade union confederation fractured into several pieces, and Kadar went on to work for the Autonom confederation where she became a regional secretary.
I met her in 1993, when it was not an easy time to be working at a trade union. Unemployment had risen sharply. The social network of daycare and other services had disappeared. Union membership had plummeted.
“Because of unemployment, we lost a lot of members,” she told when we met up again last May in her apartment in a building overlooking the Parliament in Budapest. “We tried to convince the unemployed to remain trade union members, but they said, ‘Zsuzsa, we need all this money. We can’t pay the affiliate fees from the unemployment payment. It’s too small. We have to feed our families. If we find another job, we’ll again be members of the trade union.’”
It was a particularly difficult time for women. In 1993, she told me about a job-retraining seminar that the union offered to 20 women threatened with dismissal. But when the seminar began, only one of the women attended. They were afraid to change their occupations, and were convinced that at their age, over 40, they didn’t have a future in another profession.
Today, a wage gap still exists between men and women. “If you look at the salaries of men and women, women are working 59 days for free at their jobs,” she reports. “And this difference in salary between men and women is getting bigger.”
Kadar was tasked with introducing the union to foreign owners who had taken over Hungarian enterprises. Often these male owners did not expect a woman as the union representative and asked to speak with her boss. But she held her ground and did what she could to maintain a union presence at the factories.
She had to combat both male and female stereotypes about how a woman should act in a position of leadership. “I was the first woman who became a regional secretary at the European level. It was a big fight. A lot of women said, ‘We don’t want a woman. We like Zsuzsa, but we want a man.’ In the end, they said, “Zsuzsa, you are an imitation of a woman because you are working like a man.’ Slowly they accepted me as a regional secretary, not as a woman. I had to change their mentality so that they could see that equal opportunity is very important in the workplace as well.”
It was a fight, but she was successful. “Last year, Ted X Women asked me to speak about my experience,” she concluded with a smile. “I am on YouTube also talking about my life and how I influenced male mentality.”
We talked about her memories of the 1956 uprising, why she led the fight against the women’s committee at the European trade union confederation, and her feelings about the current government in Hungary
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
At that time, I was the international secretary of the Chemical Workers Federation in Hungary. I remember that this event was like a fire for us all, but a good fire. Everybody was so excited before the Wall fell. We prepared a bicycle excursion from Hungary to Austria. We opened the border, and I don’t know how many but thousands and thousands of East German families went to Austria by bicycle and by car, and we were so enthusiastic. Many East German families had been living on the streets here and at Balaton. We gave them food and talked to them. They didn’t want to go back to East Germany. It was really a happy event for us and for me.
I wanted to ask you first about your memories of 1956. You must have been very young.
Yes, but I remember. The first events started here in front of the parliament building, and I was nine years old. I couldn’t understand why people were singing and dancing on the street. I asked my parents, “What’s the matter?” And they told me that this would change things. A few days later, I wanted to go out, to go to school, and the soldier at the gate told me to go home because there was a counter-revolution. We could see the tank coming and shooting at the flat on the top of our building. The people participating in the revolution had gone to the roof of the building, and the tank tried to shoot them. Some people came down and rang at our door. I opened the door and the people were covered in blood. I fainted. So did my mom. Later, we had to leave the flat because a lot of injured people came here and my mom didn’t want to participate in this.
What did your parents do for a living?
Originally, before the war, my parents had property — not in Budapest but in the eastern part of Hungary. After the revolution, they “voluntarily” gave everything back to the state. My mom stayed with us at home. My dad became a technician in the factory. Later, he started to study at the university after work, and he became a mechanical engineer at a big factory. He was also a teacher in high school. My mom was always at home. She made shawls and ribbons.
What did you study when you went to school?
After gymnasium, I went to university and became a chemical engineer. I worked at a big rubber factory, but later they invited me to be an international secretary of the Chemical Workers Federation because I could speak French well. We were members of the European Chemical Federation but in Communist countries. Our common language was French.
When was that?
I started to work in 1979 as international secretary after I was a chemical engineer, and I held that position until 2004. I was also president of the Women in Chemical, Mining, and Energy Federation. In 2004, I was elected regional secretary for East-Central Europe. My office was here in Budapest and my boss was in Brussels. It was the best time for me. My boss was German. For him, it was important that when he called me I was in the office. Otherwise, I traveled a lot, visiting all the countries to prepare them for joining the EU. We organized several seminars and conferences for East-Central European affiliates. That was my job until 2007. Then I decided it was enough. I decided to retire. But I didn’t finish my work. The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung decided that I should be a teacher in Hungary. For three years, I traveled all over the country to teach our affiliates, and the employees of chemical, mining, and electricity companies, different topics such as mainstreaming, equal opportunity, social relationships, the labor code, generational problems, work problems, and coping with stress.
Then I became president of the Music Salon Foundation. We organize concerts for children with musicians who play Chopin. Before the concert, there’s a discussion of the music and the life of Chopin. The second part of the concert is the music. I finished that last year. Now I am volunteering with a doctor as an assistant, dealing with shoulder, back, and leg problems.
So you’re still busy.
And I also do gymnastics two times a week and swimming two times a week. On the weekend, I’m with my grandchildren on Saturday and my mother on Sunday.
You must have good contacts with Poland for the foundation.
Thanks to the Music Salon Foundation, there is a Liszt statue in Warsaw and a Chopin statue here in Budapest. I have very good contacts with Polish cultural institution here in Hungary. We organize several common concerts here in Budapest and in Warsaw.
Tell me about how your work changed in the 1980s, first with the changes here in Hungary and then in the region.
We left the so-called Communist European federation and moved to the so-called West European federation. But it was not easy. My boss Lajos Focze and I visited all the countries, starting in Germany, France, Italy, and Belgium. We tried to explain why we should change our position. Everywhere Lajos explained the situation in Hungary and why we wanted to be member of the European federation.
At the beginning, we could see that people were very distant toward us. But my boss was such an open person. He answered all the questions. So, in the end, they said, “We understand you and we will support your request.” Shortly, we became a member of the European federation and we started to support the other countries to be members also. We invited them from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, and so on, and explained why it was so important to join us and work together. It was a beautiful task but very difficult.
What year was that?
That was in 1990.
There were a number of different unions here in Hungary.
Until 1989 there was only one. Then there was a big congress. At the congress, some federations decided to leave the old confederation. They set up five other confederations. My boss was one of the ones who created the Autonom federation. But the former Communist union survived.
They survived because they changed everything: the strategy, the structure, the leaders. The new generation became leaders in the old federation and in the new federations. After 1990, you couldn’t find any old leaders in the trade unions. And that was good. Until then, we were close to the Party. But after there was a big change, and we tried to separate from any kind of party politics. Of course, we had to do politics, and we had to try to exert influence. But we tried to be independent. It wasn’t easy. When there’s the election, the different parties come to you and say, “We need your help and we will help you, and once we’re in power the lives of employees will change 100 percent.”
After 1990, there was a lot of closing of factories.
In the former society, the affiliate membership was 98 percent. You can imagine! After the closure of the factories, it fell. Now, it’s between 10 and 20 percent. A lot of people left the trade union. First of all, it was not obligatory. Before it was obligatory. When you entered the factory, you had to sign that you would be a member of the trade union and sometimes also that you would be a member of the Communist Party, though the latter was not obligatory.
Because of unemployment, we lost a lot of members. The people started to say, “Why do I have to pay the fees? For nothing. Better if I buy two bottles of beer.” That’s a simplification of the mentality of the people. But at the beginning the trade unions couldn’t explain why employees should be members of the union. Later the union changed its strategy and talked about good collective bargaining agreements in the factories, and the employees realized that okay, maybe they could be members of the trade union. Fortunately or unfortunately, if a trade union signed an agreement at a company, it covers all the workers there whether they are trade union members or not. The same rules and the same advantages belong to you whether you’re a member of the union or not.
That makes the job of attracting members very difficult.
We had to travel to the countryside a lot to discuss with employees why they should be members of the trade union. Sometimes I couldn’t enter the factory so I had to invite them to a pub after work. You can imagine a woman in a pub with these men! It was a good time, really, very tiring and a good experience for us.
How did your job change in other ways?
My boss couldn’t speak any languages. So I traveled with him to Brussels to participate in European meetings, and during the breaks I could speak to the members. They realized that I understood something about Hungary. I could participate in various committees. And my boss encouraged me to do that. At first I was involved in women’s issues. When I spoke about women in East-Central Europe, my colleagues from England or Italy were shocked. They didn’t know anything about that. There was really a wall between the two parts of Europe. They asked me to be the president of the women’s section because they needed experience from our side as well. It was very difficult at that time because there was no translation from Hungarian into other languages. So I had to speak all French or all English at these meetings. Everyone else had interpretation. So, I had to be very well prepared for the meetings.
After a few years, I realized that the women’s committee liked meetings. We could talk about everything. We could prepare all sorts of documents. But it had no effect. I realized that it would be better if the women participated in the different committees. We prepared a document for the presidium saying that we didn’t want the women’s committee any longer but wanted to be members of all the committees. At the beginning, it was a big scandal.
“You want to be a member of the collective bargaining committee, of the miners committee?!” they said.
“Yes!” we said. “Because we all have the same problems.”
It was a fight that lasted more than two years. But by the next congress, we put on the table our proposal with our names in the different committees. Some women said to me, “You killed the Women’s Committee!”
“Yes, I did,” I said. “We could meet once a year and talk about all issues. But it’s better if we talk about these problems with our colleagues in the different committees.”
You said that your colleagues from Western Europe were shocked. What were they shocked by?
I told them that each company in Hungary had a daycare for babies and a kindergarten. That means that every morning we could drop off our children and pick them up after work. So, if a woman wanted to work, she could put the children in the kindergarten at the factory (or the factory has a contract with the municipality kindergarten). In the factory, there was a small food shop, and you could eat at a restaurant where the food was very cheap. Every year we could go on holiday to a factory holiday house or the trade union holiday house. The social network was very strong until 1990. We didn’t know about unemployment. There was unemployment but it was inside the factory — not outside. When I spoke about these things, our colleagues were shocked. They didn’t know that the social network was so strong in Hungary. Now we are at the same level, east and west.
What do you mean “unemployment inside the factory”?
For every post there were at least two persons. To clean the factory there were 100 people when only two were needed. But because we were all obligated to work, the factory used extra people. Sometimes they were sitting and chatting in the workplace, because they didn’t have anything to do.
After 1990, they cut many people.
Unemployment went from zero to 300,000, which is a huge step.
Did the government or did the union do anything to help the unemployed workers to find a new job?
No. First of all, we were shocked. We had no experience. We started to learn from the German and French affiliates about what they did. But we couldn’t do it. There were no new job possibilities. We started to create a job office and organize different job seminars for the unemployed. But the problem was that the unemployed had no real skills. We had to teach them new skills. It was very difficult. Before, the government paid three years unemployment benefits, and this dropped to three months.
Your membership must have declined.
Yes, a lot. We tried to convince the unemployed to remain trade union members, but they said, “Zsuzsa, we need all this money. We can’t pay the affiliate fees from the unemployment payment. It’s too small. We have to feed our families. If we find another job, we’ll again be members of the trade union.”
Do you know what happened to most of those workers? Did they find new jobs?
If they had good skills, they found new jobs Or they went to Germany or Austria,.
Your budget must have dropped a lot too.
Yes. A lot of trade unions sold their headquarters. They couldn’t pay electricity, heating, staff.
Was there any attempt to prevent the closure of factories?
Yes. We didn’t know what a strike was. We had to learn this. We organized a few strikes, and sometimes our friends from Italy and France came to help us. At the beginning, we had a lot of success in saving factories. But a few months later, they were closed.
Can you give an example?
There was a fertilizer factory and an aluminum factory and a metal factory at Ozd. We had to close all the glass and textile factories. We tried to keep them. The employees gave money to become owners. But because there was no demand for their production, so in the end they had to close too.
Did you work with any new foreign owners?
A South Korean firm bought one of the Hungarian chemical factories located in the southern part of Budapest. We wanted to make contact with the employer to tell them that the trade union confederation was present at this factory. My boss sent me to talk with the South Korean owner. When I arrived, he looked at me, behind me, and then finally asked, “Where is the boss?”
I said, “Yes, I’m a woman and I’m the international secretary.”
He said, “I’m sorry but I can’ t speak with a woman.”
I said, “I’m sorry, but only I speak English and I am now the representative of the chemical federation. I am here because my boss sent me. And he is occupied. Give me 10 minutes.” But I could see that he had a bad feeling about speaking with a woman.
Was he angry?
Yes, he was angry! He couldn’t think of how to speak to a woman about these issues. I started to speak about our federation and how we work with foreign companies. In the end, we spoke for an hour. After the discussion, he said that there would be the official opening of the company that afternoon and he would like to invite me to participate. I was laughing, but I didn’t tell him why. That was one of the big successes.
Does that factory still operate today with South Korean ownership?
Yes. Of course with fewer employees. The factory is smaller.
I also had a big discussion with a French leader of a company. He too wanted to speak with my boss but in the end accepted me. You have to show that you are not just a woman but also a trade unionist, the same as any other.
Have there been any new factories built?
The Hankook rubber factory. I’ve talked with the leader of the chemical federation. It has been a very difficult discussion with the owner because they don’t want to have a trade union there. They want to keep their culture, we want to keep our culture, and the two cultures are not always at the same level. If there’s no compromise, it can be a difficult fight. Also, in pharmaceuticals, Teva has set up several new factories.
With Hankook and Teva, are the employees now unionized?
In Hankook, it started. With Teva, it’s no problem, we have good contact with the owner. They don’t make any obstacles to organizing a trade union.
With Hankook, they put up obstacles?
Yes, first of all, when they learned that someone was a trade union member, they fired them. Now, after we arrived, they allow people to be union members but establish other obstacles. Union members don’t receive the same salary increases. Or there is some obstacle to have a meeting at the workplace. I’m not so involved in this process, so I can’t provide so many examples. But they didn’t follow the Hungarian labor code properly at the factory.
In terms of men and women at the workplace, before 1990 and after 1990, what was the percentage of men and women? Was it 50/50?
In the factories, there were always fewer women than men. The national average for women was 48 percent. I don’t know the percentage now, but it’s less.
You mentioned that there used to be kindergartens and day care for babies –
Now, nothing, zero.
If I’m a working woman and I have a small baby and I want to work at the factory, what do I do?
You apply to the municipality kindergarten. But it’s difficult because there’s a list. Now there’s a rule: if your child is three years old, it’s obligatory to be a member of the kindergarten. But if there are not enough places, that’s just too bad. Too pay someone as a babysitter is really expensive. You have to decide whether to go back to work and pay a babysitter or stay at home. I am happy that I’m not an active worker now. My life was easier.
Should the Hungarian government have done something different with economic reforms like privatization? Do you think the government made any mistakes?
Yes, a lot of mistakes. My husband always said, “If I’d been closer to be the soup, I’d be a rich man!” The friends of the government are always in a good position.
Can you give me some examples of mistakes the government made?
For example, the government sold some textile factories for nothing. Their friends bought it: not for the factory but for the land. They closed it. This happened several times.
Today, are there many empty factories in Hungary?
Yes, the buildings are empty. If you travel into the countryside, you can find many empty buildings.
What do you think the future is for Hungarian industry?
It depends on the government. If we keep this government, there’s no future. International companies don’t want to come here. If the rules change all the time, where is the security? If I invest a lot of money, I need to know that the rules will be the same for several years. If it changes the next day…
Do you mean rules about FDI or rules in general?
All rules. The government says: If the economic situation in Hungary is very bad, it’s because of the TNCs. They take too much profit out of Hungary. This is not true.
The second problem is that they change the rules in favor of their friends. You’ve heard about the trafik — the businesses where you buy cigarettes and other items. A lot of handicapped people set up little places to sell cigarettes. The government decided that there were too many of these stores and that there should be only 1,000 cigarette shops in Hungary. The problem is that it won’t be the former trafik owners who receive the permits, but new ones: the son of a new deputy or the mother-in-law of one of the government ministers. You understand? This is such big corruption. The rules change every day in favor of the government.
Was there a government that was different in the past?
No. There were just other friends, and other advantages.
If there was a different government in Hungary, what should its economic policy be?
First of all, let the multinational corporations come here and invest. Second, give credit to small entrepreneurs to create their own businesses. There are a lot of small businesses in Hungary, but because of high taxes they can’t survive. So, let them survive and create new business. Also provide credits to small farmers. The friends of the government bought large plots of land, and the small farmers in the countryside can’t survive.
Should the government have a different policy toward unions?
Absolutely. Now it’s good that the three big unions have decided to merge. They will have more than 300,000 members. The government has played very well with the six confederations. It speaks to only one and neglects the other five.
Who do they speak with?
Why do they speak with Liga?
Because Liga and Fidesz have a very good connection.
What do you think about Liga?
I don’t know very well their work from the inside. I can only tell you one story. Some years ago Liga bought the headquarters of the Swedish embassy. This is a beautiful building with beautiful decorations and big rooms. The head of Liga said, “It’s not a good idea if workers come here because it’s too rich. It’s better if we speak with our members outside.”
Let me ask you about the Hungarian government in general. There’s a lot of international interest in the current government. A lot of it is negative.
Most of it is negative.
How do you feel about that?
I m sorry I am Hungarian. The government closes its eyes and ears. They say things are bad because of transnational corporations, Jews, Left parties, Communists. “It’s not our problem,” they say. “We are the best in Europe and Europe has to learn from us. Everyone is an enemy, and only we are the best.” I hate that we have to fight everybody. If I am abroad and someone asks me where I’m from…
You say you’re from Poland and you love Chopin.
Do you think it will change in the next election?
No. The Socialist Party is not strong enough. There is no new party. I was thinking that the students from university could set up a new party and I could vote for them.
A new Fidesz.
Yes. I think the opposition is not strong enough. They have to find new leaders, new people. The people haven’t forgotten what happened during the eight years of the Socialist government. They haven’t forgotten what’s happened over the last four years. But where is the new party that we can believe in? I am afraid that Fidesz will win again, and we will hit bottom.
Why do you think people still support Fidesz?
Only 21 or 24 percent of the population have good opinions about Fidesz. There’s a larger number — 40-50 percent — who are not sure what they want and don’t know what party to vote for. This 40-50 percent may not vote, and if they don’t, Fidesz will win. The Socialist Party has 11 percent. Together 2014 has maybe 6 or 7 percent. The Democratic Coalition has 1 or 2 percent. Jobbik has 6 or 7 percent. I’m afraid that Fidesz will make a coalition with the far right to keep power.
Why do you think Jobbik has so much support?
They speak very simply. Unemployment is so high, for example in the eastern part of Hungary where there is a problem with Gypsies. Jobbik is very nationalist and says that the situation is bad because of Gypsies or that people can’t find work because of Jews. “If we are in power,” they say, “you will have a job.” The person who has no job, who has no house, whose family is hungry, they understand better this nationalist speech than the reality. And the government influences the media: on TV, you can hear only their positions or Jobbik positions but not those of the opposition party. In the countryside, you can watch only the government channels.
As a woman, you’ve been in important positions. How do you think the status of women has changed in Hungary?
A lot of women have their own businesses, and they are very successful in various careers. Women have more possibility to show their creativity and their power. On the one hand, that’s great. On the other hand, there aren’t enough jobs. A lot of women are obliged to stay at home. Sometimes you have to choose between career and family, which is the same situation all over Europe. But those women who have careers have good careers.
And do you think there’s equality in Hungarian society between men and women?
No. If you look at the salaries of men and women, women are working 59 days for free at their jobs. And this difference in salary between men and women is getting bigger.
Have you had any second thoughts about the way you look at the world compared to when you were younger?
Yes, of course. I was the first woman who became a regional secretary at the European level. It was a big fight. A lot of women said, “We don’t want a woman. We like Zsuzsa, but we want a man.” In the end, they said, “Zsuzsa, you are an imitation of a woman because you are working like a man.” Slowly they accepted me as a regional secretary, not as a woman. I had to change their mentality so that they could see that equal opportunity is very important in the workplace as well. Slowly they accepted me as a teacher also, as a colleague also. It was a very difficult fight. And now you can’t imagine how many times they call me or email to ask for help. I was in the Netherlands last year talking about how the culture has changed in East-Central European countries. Last year, Ted X Women asked me to speak about my experience. I am on YouTube also talking about my life and how I influenced male mentality.
You jumped over many barriers.
Like a hurdler.
The last three questions are quantitative. When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed in Hungary from then until now, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Some things are 1 and some things are 10. It’s 10 because we’re free. You can leave everything here and move abroad. If I want to go on holiday to Hawaii, I can do it. Concerning jobs, it’s 1 or 2. Concerning the social network, it’s 1 or 2. Concerning security, it’s 2. When I was young, I could walk everywhere at midnight. Now I am afraid to be outside at night.
Same period, same scale: your own personal life?
From 0 to 100. I had a great career. When I think back on my life, it was wonderful. I wish everyone could have such a life.
So you get a 10. If you look at the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Hungary, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Budapest, May 9, 2013