Now I'm a union man

By Grigory Tumanov

Opposition leaders ignore it; the regime tries to suppress it. Nevertheless the Trade Union movement in Russia has been enjoying unprecedented success in the last few years. Independent unions are active in many large factories in regions across the country; they have become a real school for left-leaning civil activists who are turning into a genuine popular opposition. And, given Russia’s increasing economic problems and potential reruns of the social unrest in Pikalevo a few years ago, the trade unions could become a real threat to the regime.

Factories idle, wages unpaid

2009 was a year of economic crisis for Russia, and at this small town near St Petersburg there were massive layoffs at the Basel cement factory (owned by the billionaire oligarch Oleg Deripaska) and other major employers. Many workers had back pay owing, hot water and heating services had been cut off because Deripaska hadn’t paid his bills. People were reduced to foraging for food and desperate locals stormed the mayor’s office demanding that something be done. Then, out of the blue, appeared Vladimir Putin, who delivered a ritual humiliation of Deripaska at a public meeting, ordering him to honour his contracts with local firms (including the heat and power plant) and pay his workers the wages owed to them. Before Putin left the town, the workers were already receiving text messages from their banks telling them the money had arrived, and by nightfall all the cash machines in town were empty.

Boris Kravchenko, head of the Russian Labour Confederation, has been made a member of Presidential Council for Human Rights. Photo via Facebook.

The President was forcibly reminded of this in Decmber last year at his usual annual marathon press conference.  A journalist from the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude addressed him on the subject of another small town, Selenginsk, 50 km north of that city, whose indigenous Buryat inhabitants were freezing for want of coal to heat their houses. Over the last 11 years, since Deripaska (him again) bought it in 2002, the Selenginsk Pulp and Paper Plant has cut both its production and workforce by half. As the local people wrote in an official complaint they sent to Putin in November, local factories are standing idle, wages aren’t being paid, and 2000 people out of a population of 15,000 are directly affected. The local authorities have admitted that the problem lies in the incompetent management of Deripaska’s companies which, according to Buryat government figures, have liabilities of more than 1.7 billion roubles (over £31 million), including 800 million (over £14 million) in unpaid wages, taxes and suppliers’ bills.

Officially the problem has been caused by problems with the plant’s machinery, but local people believe that this could be fixed if the management would just spend a bit of money on repairs and maintenance. The situation is compounded by the fact that the local heat and power plant is owned by a company whose factory is standing idle, and coal stocks are down to less than a month’s winter supply. At his press conference, Putin claimed that this was the first time that he had heard about Selenginsk’s problems, but promised to get the regional authorities and governor on to it straight away, although earlier in the press conference he had talked about how ‘not everything in Russia is down to hands-on government.’  The next day goods trains arrived in Selenginsk with large supplies of coal – but the general problem remains.  

A new movement…

Russian governments have always been most alert to social unrest. They are well aware that the country is full of danger points like Selenginsk and Pikalevo and that the trade unions, which lead protests at firms and factories, are their real popular opposition; especially since the independent trade union movement has been on top form in the last few years, despite all the obstacles placed in its path.

Central to the union movement’s development has been the Russian Labour Confederation, headed by Boris Kravchenko, who has been campaigning for workers’ rights since 1989. Ironically, Kravchenko  studied history at the Moscow State Pedagogical University at the same time as the man who is known as ‘the assassin of the trade union movement’, Duma deputy Andrei Isayev. Isayev started out as an anarcho-syndicalist and convinced left radical before turning into one of the most prominent figures in ‘United Russia’, but he has never lost his interest in social issues. Or rather, his interest has become more specific: the amendments he drafted to Russia’s Labour Code have effectively deprived today’s trade unions of their key right – to withdraw their labour. ‘I remember Andrei well, we were classmates’, says Kravchenko. ‘I don’t want to talk about what he’s doing now, but what I can say is that recent legislation is designed to leave us without any legal means of fighting for our rights. This is not just a Russian problem: things aren’t much better in Europe.’ Despite his outsider status, Kravchenko has managed to become a member of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, which means he has to be more circumspect in his statements about Isayev, but he assures me that he sees the council only as an instrument for bringing labour issues to the President’s notice.

This is particularly vital for independent trade unions now, because since the early 2000s the Russian government has been keen to bring this sector under its control. In the Soviet period, trade unions were part of the government machine, working with management to promote productivity and discipline and running social and welfare services for workers and their families. As the Soviet Union collapsed, a Federation of Independent Trade Unions was set up in 1990, but it too has been absorbed into the system. It now organises election campaign meetings for official candidates and its president, Mikhail Shmakov, is to be seen at Moscow May Day celebrations, striding along at the head of the parade along with President Putin and PM Medvedev. But, as the regime gradually took control of the official organisation, a parallel, genuinely independent Trade Union movement was developing alongside it. Among its pioneers were employees of international automobile companies, who formed the Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (ITUA) which is now active in every large company from Mercedes to Ford. Its founder was Alexey Etmanov, who in 2003 started work as a welder at the Ford plant in Vsevolozhsk, near St Petersburg. Problems connected with working conditions at the plant triggered his decision to set up an independent union in 2005, and since then he has led several strikes and go-slows which have resulted in better wages and conditions. The route to registering the ITUA was not easy: Etmanov, like any serious rights campaigner in Russia, had to undergo a series of ordeals including interrogations and accusations of extremism.

Alexey Etmanov, automotive worker turned labour leader, has had to endure a series of ordeals including interrogations and accusations of extremism since becoming an activist. Photo via Facebook.

But then, as Boris Kravchenko says, this is par for the course if you head a union in Russia. ‘If you discover your rights are being infringed, your negative attitude to your employer spills over into a similar attitude to the government. The official trade unions are always on the side of management, and so you always find yourself on the front line of the barricades. Then the police start taking an interest in you; Rostrud [the federal employment agency] and the Prosecutor’s office won’t defend you from any infringement of your rights. They try to marginalise you and your position hardens in return.’ In other words, trade union activists end up as part of the left opposition: ‘You inevitably move to the left and you inevitably develop a negative attitude to the regime – you become part of the popular opposition.’

…and a new opposition force?

At the same time, the leaders of the ‘Bolotnaya Square’ protest movement have shown no interest in cooperating with the trade unions, even though strikes and go-slows are what damage the regime most. There are several reasons for this: the growth of independent trade unions is simply not visible in Moscow, although in 2011 an official congress took the decision to unite all independent unions around the Russian Labour Confederation. The Federation is also expanding into new areas, especially in the public sector. More than 20 regions now have organisations protecting the rights of medical workers, teachers and so on. As Boris Kravchenko tells me, ‘We have already some success. In Izhevsk a work-to-rule by health professionals over salaries brought results, and they also had active support from colleagues elsewhere.’ The Confederation has set up three national unions for public sector workers, people from the professions: secondary school teachers, university professors and medical workers.

The second reason for the lack of cooperation between the political opposition and the unions is that the campaigners for workers’ rights don’t want to be dependent on a political party. Many of them, including Alexey Etmanov of the autoworkers’ union, have stood for political office as Communist or ‘Just Russia’ candidates, but the unions generally try to keep their distance from politicians. They are grateful for any support from them, but that’s as far as it goes.

Kravchenko, however, believes that in the next few years politicians will have much less room for manoeuvre. He sees potential hot spots such as Selenginsk and Pikalevo in just about every part of the country, although it’s difficult to predict where trouble will flare up next. It could well, he suggests, be in public sector organisations such as schools or hospitals. And a lightning visit by Putin is unlikely to be of any help there.           

Source: OpenDemocracy

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