The Growth of the Russian Labor Movement


The important confrontation between employees and administration of the "Ford" plant in Vsevolozhsk, north of St Petersburg ended in compromise. Salaries were raised by 16-20 per cent depending on the category of employee, rather than by one third, as the trade union demanded. Using the boxing terminology, one may say that for strikers it was the "victory on points".

The significant outcome of the events at the "Ford" plant lies in the fact that the labor movement has attracted public attention. They started to talk and write about it, they started to look at it–some with hope, others with apprehension. In essence the labor movement proved to be so far the first and the only real manifestation of "civil society" in modern Russia. Not of the artificial one, established for Western grants or sitting in a fake Public Chamber, but of a real grassroots movement.

The owners of enterprises respond to the demands of employees with natural irritation. Though there are differences. Western managers are used to negotiating with strikers. Managers and owners, representing Russian capital behave in a quite different way. During the strike at the Murmansk sea port the internal security cops "dealt" with the employees. But when the strike was called in the port of Novorossiysk, which is larger and more important for the economy, the local Main Department of Internal Affairs was involved at the instance of the administration to suppress the troublemakers. According to Alexander Schepel, leader of the Russian Labor Confederation, the more influential the owner of the enterprise is, the more aggressive is the interference of authorities. Some involve security service, others call for special police squad, and others involve Prosecutor General’s Office to deal with trade union.

Having started in transnational companies, the wave of strikes has gradually spread to "old" soviet enterprises. The work-to-rule strike at Kachkanar Mining and Ore-Processing Plant may be the example to that. The company has adopted the amended labor contract for the year 2008. Chapters concerning remuneration of labor, recreation of employees, labor protection and organization of the way of production were changed. It was promised that by the end of the year in case of meeting the production plan the salary would be indexed by 29%.

It comes naturally that on-site success causes chain reaction of demands at other enterprises. Increasing conflict at enterprises puts the Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR), of which the majority of employees are members, in a complex situation. Official trade unions never wanted to strike. Nevertheless, at the basic level, members of the FNPR get more and more involved in the fight for their rights. Primary organizations showing too much fervor almost always find themselves in conflict with the superior organization. To save face, however, the examples of "successful struggle" are necessary. The problem is that propagating the achievements of the Kachkanar plant trade union, the executives of the FNPR provoke its other member organizations to follow the lead of miners.

The same ambiguity occurs in the FNPR’s attitude towards the Labor Code. On the one hand, this Code was elaborated and adopted with direct participation of the Federation, it consolidates its privileged status. On the other hand, it provokes today the increasing irritation of both activists of free trade unions and many FNPR members. Reflecting these sentiments, Mikhail Schmakov, leader of official trade unions, has backed the request to review the Code. And Oleg Neterebsky, Deputy President of the FNPR, in his statement last week has publicly criticized existing legislation. According to him in Russia it is practically impossible to call a strike without breaking the law, and therewith there is no any mechanism of peaceful argument settlement. Current legislation enables courts to acknowledge all strikes illegal on formal grounds.

One may laugh at the tardy insights of the leaders of official trade unions, but better late than never. The labor movement grows from below, and not only through emergence of new organizations. Uncontrollable inflation becomes the "trigger" causing more and more conflicts.

It is easy to predict that the struggle for the amendment of the Labor Code promises to become the most important political issue of the year 2008. The leadership of the All-Russian Labor Confederation–VKT, the largest union of free trade unions, of which the employees of the Vsevolozhsk’s "Ford" make part – has announced the forthcoming start of a large-scale company for amending the Code. "Social peace" which reigned in Russia during the most part of 2000s naturally ends with the new surge of the class struggle. It is a paradox that one thing has predetermined another one. The same economic growth which primarily made the blue collars calm and obedient, has all in all provoked new demands of the lower strata. Such is the logic of capitalism.

BORIS KAGARLITSKY works as a senior research fellow at the Institute of Comparative Political Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.



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