Elisa Spiropali joined MJAFT in 2006 and has since become the movement's Policy Director in the second generation of leaders after the founders left in 2007. Like other MJAFT activists she has studied and worked abroad. She completed her undergraduate degree at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts where she obtained a BA in Politics and Economics, and is now doing her Master's at the University of Sussex.
In New York, Elisa worked for a public interest law firm active in the fields of civil rights and foster care reform. She was also an analyst for a think tank in Pristina, the Kosovo Stability Initiative (IKS). In 2004 she worked for the Center for Social and Legal Studies in Buenos Aires, where she conducted interviews with survivors of the military dictatorship.
In early June 2007 protests and strikes broke out in the Bulqiza mine in Northeastern Albania. Workers in the ferrochrome mines went on strike demanding better working conditions and better pay. The situation was exacerbated when two miners, Hysni Lezi and Avni Durici lost their lives in an accident on June 11th . This was by no means an isolated incident.. On June 25th 2007 21 miners went on hunger strike. MJAFT! identified with the miners' predicament and was active in organising demonstrations in Tirana.
Elisa Spiropali in Bulqiza
Elisa describes MJAFT's involvement:
"We heard about the miners' protest, which had been decided on the first of June, and then of course we heard of the tragic death of two of the miners: they broke the protest and then they went to work, I believe on the 11th of June and two of them died inside the mine.
So that really stirred a lot of emotion in the people at Mjaft but we didn't yet know the situation that well. We were not in contact with the people there… so we decided to come to Bulqiza, and see for ourselves what the conditions for the miners were like, what the protest was about, what their requests were, and why they were not being heard. So we came here and what we found was a very, very sad situation of very poor working and living conditions. We found miners who were working on the 17th level in the mine and were being paid, what we believe is a ridiculous amount, compared to the price, the value of the chrome and of the work that they do.
So we saw their living conditions and we were not only touched but we felt that there was something really wrong with the way things were going. Something was wrong with the concession with the firm, the private firm, and also with the government institutions that were supposed to take care of working conditions as well as to negotiate wages with the workers and the syndicates that are their representatives.
Elisa Spiropali in Bulqiza
So we decided to fully support the organisation and the planning of the miners' protest in Tirana. The miners had organised here before, but their voices were really distant, unheard in Tirana. We decided to have them come closer."
And we needed to come back there, you know, twice to get the miners' trust and also to have a chance of bringing them to Tirana. But there were problems of logistics, there were problems of money. Many of the miners had to go into debt and get money, to be able to come to Tirana. We had three busses organised for free, we had managed to do that, to get the busses to come to Bulqiza, get the miners, and come to Tirana. We then had to plan with the confederation that helped them and deal with all the institutions where they were going to protest: the ministry of economy, the ministry of work, and social issues, and also the prime minister's office.
The miners slept two nights in Tirana's streets, and we organised camps for them, we organised sleeping places. It was hard having miners stay in Tirana, with no means of support, with no hotels. We stayed with them, you know, during the evening, during the night, and organised camping places. All the time we kept asking the media and the TV stations to come and to cover the event. This would make the public voice much stronger, the public voice and our opinion would be a much stronger one. The miners' protest coincided with the election of the president, the negotiations for the elections of the president, so it was hard to get the public attention that we needed.
This was a problem at first, but then, when the government, the politicians and the company saw that the miners were determined to carry their protest on to the end, and that we were determined to support them to the end, I think the public opinion just shifted, attention shifted. All of a sudden there was not only the issue of the politicians choosing their president, but also an issue that needed to be resolved, with a specific group of people, with specific needs, living under harsh conditions.
At the end, the miners were able to enter into negotiations with the company…I feel kind of lucky, having being present during the negotiations because it was an important time, an important turn, the issues came upfront. They were able to articulate their problems directly to the administration, to the owner of the company. […]
To get an answer back so quickly, to be able to resolve that issue right there and open the space for negotiations, was not the end. The workers need to have their union organised, continue with their struggle, have negotiations with the company to get to the point where they feel there is communication.
Elisa Spiropali in Bulqiza
There used to be no communication, the miners were never heard before. This broke something, you know, it increased their self-consciousness, it increased their, not only their desire, but their opportunity to change things in the future.
And that was very emotional for all of us, the Mjaft people. We went out…, people were so happy, we had a celebration at the Mjaft offices. We brought drinks and sat outside while people were filming us. There was a strong, close feeling between the miners and the Mjaft movement. Of course there were critics, there always are, but at the end I think that self-consciousness has increased and that's the most important thing."