The Russian labour code, written to suit the interests of employers, has pushed workers to unite and oppose its draconian terms.
Recently Russian mass media have focused on labor movement. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russian journalists are writing about strikes and workers’ protests on May 1, 2008. Strike movement has been on the rise in Russia during the last ten months. It was started by the workers of the transnational companies and was assumed by the employees of the Russian corporations. The labor disputes are becoming more intense and enduring. Official trade unions are helpless – they’ve failed to organize the workers who totally ignore those organizations, but neither can they serve the interests of the corporations by preventing or helping to regulate the disputes. When the grassroots worker groups of the official trade unions take initiative proposing to increase the wages or improve the labor conditions, they find themselves in a conflict with the superior agencies and have to turn for support to alternative labor organizations.
The majority of disputes are similar in that the management behaves extremely aggressively pleading violations of the Labor Code by workers. And the strikers cannot negotiate via alternative trade unions, even when they have one, for the administration refuses to recognize it insisting on working with the official trade union. But should the latter take initiative, it is nailed down just as the alternative trade unions are. This is the situation at the Nestle factory in Perm and the Kachkanar refinery complex.
At the majority of enterprises the official structures of the Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions serve the interests of the administration. Sometimes these organizations do serve the interests of workers but that bare fact does not bring them an inch closer to genuine trade unions. When a grassroots trade union emerges it is most usually weak in numbers and is repressed by the administration that has the Labor Code on its side. The workers are invited one by one to the cabinet of the boss and are coerced to give up union membership, while the activists of the movement are paid less and forced to quit. In such situations the official trade union supports the administration and the shareholders.
Under the present Labor Code, the employer is authorized to ignore the emerging workers’ union until it outnumbers the already existing ones, which is practically impossible while intimidating and repression is practiced by the administration and the officially registered trade unions exist in the position of underground organizations. But this policy results not in managers’ triumph but in an uncontrollable strike. The situation usually develops in the following way: administration ignores the trade union and negotiates with the Federation of Trade Unions, which is equal to holding negotiations with oneself. For some time the problems pile up unsolved but only when the strike is at the horizon does the administration agree to negotiate with the alternative trade unions, which by that moment has already lost control over the situation.
The existing law makes strikes practically impossible, but the workers have always broken the law. The autumn strike at the Ford plant practically turned the tide. Since then the disregard of law was so massive that the law became invalid.
No criminal sanctions are imposed for strikes, while administrative sanctions are ineffective. Should such a "troublemaker" be fired, he will immediately find a new – and usually better paid – job. In Russia the demand for skilled workers is strong. It is usually these self-confident workers who start up strikes. In many cases managers only use threats and almost never resort to dismissing the trade union activists. But when the shareholders don’t see any result of the half-measures, they turn to police, prosecution and private security hoping to regulate the situation by the means of force. The workers’ movement becomes more radical and politicized.
The Labor Code written specially to suit the interests of the entrepreneurs has turned to bring about even more problems into their lives. As for the labor movement, the Labor Code made the workers unite and act on a higher organizational level to effectively oppose the draconian laws. People’s lives under the existing laws have become a school of class struggle.
Neither those who created the Labor Code in early 2000s, nor those who opposed it could imagine that the situation would develop that way.
Today in the situation where the repressions prove purposeless the businessmen come to understand that dealing with the independent trade unions is a far better option than uncontrollable strikes. An organized strike causes less damage than a grassroots revolt. Today it is evident that the Labor Code will be amended, the question is when and how that will be done. The Kremlin and the State Duma will have to correspond to the new state of the labor movement.
Eurasian Home, 15 May 2008