Eastern Europe

The Sad Tale of Slovakia's Bata Shoes


Julius Michnik speaks of two great loves in his life. One is his wife, Frantiska, with whom he's spent the past 55 years. The other is the Bata shoe company, with whom he's spent the last 66.

As a 15-year-old apprentice, Michnik recalls, he marveled at the rigorous quality control Czech shoe baron Tomas Bata's disciples imposed in the Slovak town that bloomed around the company. This standard propelled "unbeatable, eternal Bata" upward in Czechoslovakia both before and during the communist period. At its peak the Partizanske plant employed nearly 16,000 people and turned out more than 30 million pairs of shoes a year, according to a history of the town published in 2000.

Today, that's a distant memory. Most of the mile-long complex is a rusting hulk, with only a few signs of life on its vast grounds.

"I was very proud, and I'm still very proud, to have worked there," says Michnik, president of the Bata "School of Work" Alumni Association. "But this would never have happened if Bata himself were here today. Or he would have shot himself." (Ed. note: The founder's son emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Canada in 1940 and rebuilt today's Bata after World War II from assets outside of Eastern Europe that were not nationalized by the communists.)

Twenty years after the collapse of communism, Partizanske is a microcosm of how classic one-company towns in Slovakia, and Eastern Europe itself, were devastated by the free-market transition. Blasted by Asian competitors, the city labors to recover and compete.

"Here was 'Strong Bata' and 'Strong Socialism.' Families didn't have to struggle for anything, because the boss provided for all their needs," Mayor Jan Podmanicky says "How do you teach people to be independent and take responsibility for themselves? People from the outside can give you advice, but you have to change yourself."

AN OASIS FOR WORKERS

Batovany, as the town was originally named, sprouted like an oasis from a barren spot in the Danubian hills, as the shoe company branched out in 1938 and 1939 from its Czech base of Zlin. Wooden shacks were built for the first workers.

Julius Michnik landed in Batovany in 1943, a country boy fending for himself during wartime. Jobs were scarce and precious, and anyone who claimed one got a shot of prestige. Michnik enrolled in the four-year apprentice program. He rose early for mandatory exercise in the town square, donned his uniform and cap, and was taught each phase of the shoe-making process.

"The teaching discipline, the upbringing at work – I can't describe it," he says. "If you worked hard, you made enough money. Even enough to save some."

He was rewarded with a bed in Batovany's first brick dormitory. This was no ordinary workers' housing. As some in the West bemoaned the toll industrialization had taken on labor, a clutch of left-leaning urban planners designed the "ideal industrial city" that would "underpin undisturbed rest after work," according to BataStory.net. Inspired by Zlin, Batovany – and other "Batavilles" built around company plants as far away as India – became a prime example of architectural social engineering.

The Bata factory and rail lines sat on the northern edge of town. A buffer of green space separated them from a belt of communal buildings – town hall, cultural center, cinema, department store, church. Then came the housing, with central heating and indoor plumbing, then a rarity for Slovaks.

The Michniks – who met and fell in love at the factory – recall those days fondly.

"Man was made to work for eight hours, to have recreation for eight hours, and to sleep for eight hours," says Frantiska, echoing a popular communist-era refrain.

Many of the red-brick buildings, especially the charming family homes, still stand today. Yet it's the town's unique spatial arrangement that has become the subject of significant scholarship, a remnant of a unique chapter in architectural history.

"The purpose of this 'utopian' project was to better prepare living conditions for the working class in a modern industrial city – and it functioned quite well," says Henrieta Moravcikova, a senior researcher with the Institute of Construction and Architecture in Bratislava. "On the other hand, people realized that their lives were organized a little too much. Only a small part of their private life was left to themselves."

The history of Batovany as such was short-lived. In 1949, the newly installed communist regime commemorated the legions of company men who had joined the Slovak partisans to fight the Nazis and their Slovak collaborators. They renamed the town Partizanske; the factory was reinvented as the 29 August Works (known by the Slovak acronym ZDA), denoting the day the anti-Nazi uprising began in 1944.

Under the communists, Michnik says he brushed aside railings against the capitalist "enslaver" Bata, remaining loyal to the chief who'd instilled a work ethic. At the same time, Michnik was ambitious. To climb the ladder, he allied himself with new rulers.

"If you want to move up, they told me, you have to join the party," he says. "I was a communist. You can write that. To be a director, you had to be. Every technical worker was...But I'm not ashamed. I never did anything bad to anybody."

By the time he retired from ZDA in 1990, Michnik had 1,500 employees working under him. His departure coincided with the decline of the Partizanske works. Robbed of the command economy's protectionist wall, the plant couldn't compete with cheaper labor in Asia.

LABOR PAINS

Post-Velvet Revolution privatization saw ZDA broken into several smaller pieces, including Rialto, a moderately large Italian-owned shoe manufacturer that exports primarily to Western Europe, North America, and Japan, and several smaller Slovak companies. Whereas ZDA once employed 10,000 people in Partizanske, only about 3,000 people work in the town's shoe trade now, according to the mayor's office. One building at the works that once buzzed with 1,000 employees is now used by only 100; several others on the campus are dormant.

Foreign investment is scant, and unemployment in the Partizanske district, which has a population of about 47,000, reached 22 percent 10 years ago. Today it's down to 12 percent, according to Podmanicky, eased by the departure of some 2,000 local youth who have headed West in search of work.

One Partizanske 18-year-old, Peter Zavodny, says his parents both worked at the shoe factory, and he likely would have done the same. Instead he works as a car mechanic, but only part-time – they call him when they need him.

"Back 20 years ago, there were fewer things to buy, but at least I would have had a job," says Zavodny, walking with his girlfriend. "It's pretty frustrating to be able to work only when they tell you."

Partizanske is but one Slovak example of a "town or region that, due to its structure of economy, has suffered – or still is suffering – a more difficult transition," says Lubos Vagac, chairman of the Center for Economic Development in Bratislava. "This refers not only to the one-company makeup, but also to the insufficient adaptation of other sectors, including the local education system; poor cooperation between social partners and schools; failure to identify the future labor and skills demands; and the insufficient capacity of the local or regional administration."

While Podmanicky and his staff try to lure foreign investors to Partizanske, he says they also encourage local entrepreneurs to take a risk. Andrej Svoboda, a native son, left at 18 in search of work – going first to Bratislava, then to England. He returned two years ago with a business partner from the Slovak capital to set up their own company, Art in Games, which produces visuals for computer games.

Simply coming home was a big part of the decision, says Svoboda, now 27, but he also found conditions in the town ripe for a start-up.

"If you are thinking a bit further, it is a place with good potential," he says in an e-mail interview. "As everything here is cheaper [than] in Bratislava you can offer more bonuses to your employees." As Art in Games grows, he adds, the firm has provided amenities like an exercise room, swimming pool, billiards table, and even a small cinema for staff, "as thanks because they work for us. We wouldn't be able to do that anywhere else."

While Art in Games carries on the Bata tradition of tending to employees' non-work needs, entrepreneurs in Bata's own field have had a harder time. One businessman started a small-scale shoe operation with a crew of 50 in the town, Podmanicky says; it thrived early on but was upended by the recent economic crisis.

"This is the hardest thing to learn about the new system. Things rise, things vanish," says the mayor, who, like Michnik, unabashedly admits his past party membership. "This town was built on security. But today there is no Bata, there is no socialism. But we're still here, so we have to try hard every day."

Still, the laid-off workers populating Partizanske's pubs are a daily reminder of what was lost.

"Work, it's the most important thing," Michnik says. "I see all the unemployed here, spending their last cents in the bar around the corner. When there's no work, no money, there's no happy life."
Michael J. Jordan is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor in Bratislava.

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