The Rebirth of the Unions

Few people in the Soviet era understood the need for trade unions. Sure, the unions collected membership fees and distributed free trips to sanatoriums among the workers, but apart from that no one could clearly explain what function they played. The early 1980s brought sensational news from Poland, when workers formed Solidarity labor union, not controlled by the Communist Party, and threw down a challenge to the ruling communist bureaucracy. Yet this was less a trade-union dispute in the Western sense than a political one.

In Russia, the non-affiliated trade unions that appeared on the wave of social upheaval in 1989-90 went through a baptism of fire, after which came a steep decline.

In terms of ideology and organization, the unions were not prepared for new conditions after the end of the Soviet Union. Because they had appeared during the Soviet era under the slogan of fighting the bureaucracy, they were cynically used by liberal politicians looking for support from the masses. The subsequent economic reforms brought a sharp decline in workers’ standards of living, redundancies, and occasionally even hunger. Independent trade unions, which were meant to provide support for the reformers, were discredited.

The Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, a national umbrella organization that was part of the Soviet legacy, also failed to play a heroic role. It took the side of the “red directors” — Soviet-era bosses who took over at many enterprises. They joined the red directors in first criticizing, and then making peace with the government. It returned to its role as a transmission belt from the authorities to the masses, but this time the authorities were capitalist. In a demonstration of their loyalty, the official trade unions have become one of the main props of the United Russia party.

In recent years, the mass protests that marked the end of the 1990s disappeared and social peace reigned, supported by economic growth and high world energy prices.

The events of recent months provide clear evidence of rising social tensions, however, and relatively successful enterprises are proving to be the beacons of the conflict. Journalists have brought words like “strike,” “workers’ action” and “trade union picket” back into their vocabularies on the front pages of newspapers and magazines.

Workers at Ford fought for a pay raise. Workers at carmakers across Russia are forming a national organization. The oil workers of Surgut are demanding better pay and abandoning the Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions in droves to set up non-affiliated unions. Workers at the Kholodmash factory in Yaroslavl have laid siege to the management building.

Feeling threatened, a number of companies are hurriedly taking preventive measures. Norilsk Nickel, which has faced protracted labor disputes in the past, seems determined to prevent them from happening again. Union representatives at the Kola Mining & Metallurgical Company say they have been forced to go to court because workers are being threatened by management with the lowering or total elimination of bonuses if they don’t quit the union.

A similar story is unfolding at the GM-AvtoVAZ plant in Tolyatti. Chevrolet-Niva was one of the first foreign cars produced in Russia, but here the independent union appeared late. GM-AvtoVAZ’s response to the Ford strike was swift and brutal. Management targeted union leader Andre Lyapin and other activists with disciplinary measures by management. All-Russia Confederation of Labor president Boris Kravchenko was forced to submit a protest letter to management in which he threatened to “inform our partners from abroad.”

The threat was not an idle one, as Kravchenko’s organization is part of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and has started international solidarity campaigns on a number of occasions in the past.

This is an important characteristic of the new trade union movement in Russia. The movement has been formed in a world where globalization is a fact of life and with close ties to international organizations. Russian managers now also have to listen to demands that are commonplace in Western countries, like higher wages, better severance packages and improved working conditions. As profits and production increase, it is increasingly difficult to hold down salary demands. Unions are becoming more radical and are learning how to win.

High oil prices have not only made possible industrial growth and increased demand from the middle class. The revival of the workers’ movement has been another extremely important social consequence.

Copyright 2006 The Moscow Times

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