Roko Nikolic's temper flicked on and off like the gas torch he had wielded since he was a teenager at Croatia's oldest and largest iron and steel foundry.
One moment he was calm, praising Sisak Ironworks as the pride of the metals industry in what was once Yugoslavia. The next he was in a rage, fuming over mass layoffs at the foundering plant that threaten to cripple an entire city in the heart of Croatia.
"Nobody gives a damn about the working class anymore," the stocky welder grumbled.
Nikolic's sense of helplessness captures the tough transition facing Croatia's once-proud heavy industries.
About a half-million Croats used to work in shipbuilding, textiles and mining before the country slid into war with rebel Serbs, who opposed Croatia's independence from the old Yugoslav federation in 1991. The metals industry alone used to provide a living for nearly 200,000 workers.
Now, nationwide, only about 290,000 workers have jobs on the sooty assembly lines. Of the 65,000 employed in metals, nearly half receive irregular wages.
"War and errant politics collaborated to ruin the metal industry," said Ivo Marjanovic, a trade union leader. He accused the government of abandoning workers instead of devising a retraining program or creating other safety nets.
"We drew the short end of the stick in the state's development strategy as it turned toward tourism and other sectors," Marjanovic said, demanding intervention and equal assistance.
The head of the industrial wing of the Croatian Chamber of Commerce, Miljenko Babic, said there were no easy answers.
"The time has come to adapt to the harsh realities of the world economy and the stresses globalization brings," Babic said. He said there was a lack of investment during the war and that production methods have become outdated, too costly and basically in poor shape for international competition.
Michael Glazer, the head of Auctor, a finance and investment adviser and broker based in the capital, Zagreb, said impoverished or former socialist countries were not the only ones facing the problem.
"The post-industrial era is a global affliction, and no matter how much governments would like to rescue crumbling industries, sometimes it's wiser if they don't," he said.
Analysts liken the Croatian government's experience in trying to bail out companies to throwing money down a bottomless well. In most cases, several thousand disgruntled workers were temporarily satisfied with payoffs, while only a few firms were restructured sufficiently to survive in a liberalized arena.
"Workers are suddenly awakening to find their jobs obsolete or transformed beyond recognition by technology exploding completely outside their field of vision," Glazer said. "It's not always a question of money and resources. In transition countries, it can often entail rewiring the whole mentality of workers."
Glazer was referring to remnants of almost a half-century of planned economies lingering in the minds of workers in ex-Communist countries.
Communism made a point of securing each individual a job and free health care as an inalienable right. Like their counterparts in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and other transition countries, Croatian workers often spent their lives in one town, plying their trade for the same company.
"It's an enormous psychological shock crossing from a planned economy to a market economy, particularly for blue-collar workers," said Goran Saravanja, a senior economist at CAIB, an international investment bank.
"You can just imagine the additional trauma if the concept of changing your job or losing your job was a virtually nonexistent phenomenon," he added.
While studies show that younger workers find it easier to accept change and often embrace it enthusiastically, those in their middle age, like the average worker at Sisak Ironworks, often try to ward it off. In December, police clashed with irate workers who tried to block a main bridge leading from the town of Sisak to the capital, about 40 miles to the northwest, demanding that the government step in to save their jobs.
Sisak Ironworks was bought last year by an Austro-Russian consortium that promised massive restructuring without layoffs. But the enterprise went bust after 10 months and investors pulled out after losing about $10 million. Almost 2,000 jobs were eliminated.
Union leaders have described offers from four potential buyers as unacceptable. More talks are to be held in the coming week.
Although union leaders have threatened mass protests if the government agrees to any deals that do not protect the labor force, Deputy Prime Minister Slavko Linic has vowed that the government will not cave in to pressure from the street, saying "Sisak Ironworks is not the only Croatian firm in dire straits."