The tireless struggle for independent unions
Union activist Ainur Kurmanov is part of a grass-roots struggle that is creating new, independent unions in Kazakhstan.
Text / Ilya Matveev
On September 21, 2009 the employees of the Almaty Heavy Machine-Building Plant (AZTM) submitted a special petition to the President of Kazakhstan. The workers demanded the nationalization of the enterprise. One of the organizers of the action was worker and union activist Ainur Kurmanv.
The next day Ainur was severely beaten by unknown persons on the threshold of his own home. Bleeding profusely, he was able to make it to his apartment and then spent several days in hospital.
That vicious attack, which has attracted international attention, is an indicator of the atmosphere of persecution and terror against workers and social activists prevailing in Kazakhstan - a country which, don't forget, is supposed to chair the Organization for Security and
Co-operation in Europe in 2010.
"I'm 33 years old now, and I've spent 18 years serving the cause of the workers of Kazakhstan," says Ainur. "At 16, I went to work at the Metallist military plant in Uralsk, where I joined the Solidarity workers' movement."
In 1997 Ainur was arrested on trumped up charges of "insulting the President and representatives of authority", and pending the investigation and trial he spent six months in prison. A friend of Ainur's, worker activist Sergei Kolokolov, was charged in connection with the same case. Although he suffered from a kidney disease, he was put in a cell with no window in the winter: immediately after his release he was taken from the courtroom to the hospital. The doctors could not save him, and a few months later he was dead.
"Seeing the constant humiliations to which the workers are subjected, the universal non-payment of wages, beatings of worker activists by the police and criminals, the destruction of their plants by government officials and new owners, we realized the need for an uncompromising struggle to create new, independent unions," says Ainur.
In 1999 there was a mass strike in Uralsk and some big plants were shut down for several months. The 2,000 workers of the Metallist plant went on strike for almost six months, setting up roadblocks and holding marches, picket lines and meetings. In 2000, at the age of 23, Ainur became the chairman of the union committee, and held the position for two years.
Recently in Kazakhstan, as in other CIS countries, more and more independent unions have been emerging. The workers are beginning to organize themselves and their organizations are becoming the basis of a new labour movement. "In Karabatan, Zhanaozen, Karabulak and at the Almaty Railroad Car Repair Plant this year, worker protests have been conducted by independent unions or strike committees created and elected from below," says Ainur.
Confronted with the closing of plants, cutbacks in production and non-payment of wages, the workers have not only been creating independent unions, they have also been promoting the slogan of nationalization. That is what happened at TOO "Burgylau" in Zhanaozen, and the Railroad Repair Plant and Heavy Machine-Building Plant in Almaty. The workers have appealed to the state as the "only tool for solving acute conflicts", says Ainur.
But the country's leadership has no interest in nationalization. The authorities have been defending the interests of the owners, and have crushed any demonstrations by the workers with force. In many cases the owners are not even interested in maintaining production: they simply try to squeeze as much as they can out of the workers and obsolete equipment, and then close the plant and use the land for warehouses or commercial space.
"A real opportunity is now emerging to revive the mass workers' movement through the formation of independent industrial and regional union centres," says Ainur. "Our non-governmental organization Talmas, together with the science workers' union and the Odak association of unions, has been actively working to that end and has set up an information centre to help the workers organize themselves. A whole series of actions aimed at promoting unity is planned for the autumn of 2009 and the spring of 2010, and we are very optimistic about that process."Dec 01, 2009 – Alex Ivanou