“We never give up”
Persecution of unions in Russia today
According to official data, in Russia, a country with a population of over 140 million, in 2009 there was a grand total of one strike. Of course, this reflects not the actual situation, but rather the unjustifiably strict legal requirements for holding strikes. The unconvincing figures from the Russian Federal Statistics Service (Rosstat) conceal the real story of labour conflicts: hundreds of collective disputes, a multitude of clashes with management and government, which both are often prepared to go to any lengths to destroy active and combative unions.
Tsentrosvarmash: is defending labour rights extremism?
Tver is a typical post-Soviet town in central Russia: a small historic center, modern stores, ornately carved wooden window frames on privately built houses, decaying Soviet-era apartment blocks and, of course, the whole surrounded by a ring of industrial suburbs. Some of the Soviet-era plants closed in the 1990s, victims of privatization and rapid changes in the "effective owners", but the rest continue to operate, accounting for the lion's share of employment in the town.
One such plant is Tsentrosvarmash. Founded in the 1970s, it makes swivel-trucks for railroad cars and welded frames for locomotives, and employs more than a thousand people.
During the current financial crisis, the average wage at the plant fell to 12 thousand rubles (US$410) per month. That sum consists of a small base pay supplemented by additional payments set arbitrarily by the department chiefs; this enables management to keep employees in a permanent state of insecurity, uncertainty and dependence.
Working conditions in the plant are unhealthy and dangerous: the roof leaks, water drips onto machines and high-voltage distribution cabinets (in workshops with metal floors!), and there is no ventilation.
"In winter the temperature never rises above +10°C, and we often have to work at +2 or 3°C," notes union activist Dmitri Kozhnev.
Dmitri started working at Tsentrosvarmash in 2006. Finding no support from the local branch of the Engineering Workers' Union of Russia (Rosprofmash), he became one of the initiators of the local branch of the Inter-Regional Trade Union of Autoworkers (ITUA), a young and active Russian trade union, which is an IMF affiliate. In November 2007 an ITUA local was established at the plant. That was when Kozhnev and other activists of the new union began to suffer persecution.
During his first year and a half at the plant, Kozhnev was not given a single disciplinary penalty. But after the local union was founded, he received one reprimand after another. Among Kozhnev's alleged offenses was that he "talked to workers of workshop no. 8 and distracted them from their work".
Finally, on January 19, 2009, Kozhnev was dismissed. The pretext was that on December 19, a month before the dismissal, he had left his workplace 20 minutes before the end of the shift. On that day the temperature in the workshop was only +6°C, and eleven other workers left early together with Kozhnev.
In May 2009 a court declared Kozhnev's dismissal illegal and ordered management to reinstate him. Management complied with that decision only after the intervention of court enforcement officers - and almost immediately Kozhnev was laid off for many months. Throughout that period he was paid two thirds of his base pay, about four thousand rubles (US$138). With that money he was supposed to survive and feed a family.
On March 5 Kozhnev and another union activist, Alexander Adrianov, were again dismissed, and this time the documents used to justify their dismissal were simply forged. In February they were shown the order indicating the date of their return from layoff as February 12, but they were not allowed to sign the order. When they came to work on that date, they were again shown an order, but with a different date. It turned out they were supposed to have shown up at the plant not on the 12th, but on February 5. And that week of "unauthorized" absence was used as the pretext for dismissing them.
The plant management has spared no effort to get rid of an active and combative local which, despite its small membership and constant persecution, had achieved certain improvements in working conditions. Not only Kozhnev and Adrianov were dismissed - so were many other ITUA activists. Nevertheless, even having lost most of its members and leaders, the local is still operating.
By pressuring union members the plant management is flagrantly violating Russian and international labour legislation. But acrimonious as it may be, the conflict would have remained local if it had involved only the union and management. What makes it particularly significant is the intervention of the authorities.
Several times Kozhnev applied to the procurator's office requesting it to intervene in the situation of horrific working conditions and low wages at the plant. But instead of investigating the employer's conduct, the procurator's office went after the union. All members of the ITUA local at Tsentrosvarmash were summoned for questioning; they were threatened with persecution and told to withdraw from the union.
Nevertheless, the most dramatic episode of the struggle at Tsentrosvarmash, and the most ominous symptom of the situation of union and civil rights in Russia today, was the indictment of the ITUA activists for extremism.
In 2008 and 2009 a full-scale campaign was initiated in Russia to combat extremism. Within the system of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, centers were created to work against extremism, so-called "E Centers" endowed with unclear authority and an extremely broad area of activity. The vague wording of the Federal Law "On Countering Extremist Activity" enables the authorities to attack independent organizations, intellectuals and activists by equating just social demands with manifestations of hatred and hostility. Under present conditions in Russia, the "E Centers" essentially play the role of a political police.
One form of combating extremism consists of compiling lists of forbidden literature. The decision to include materials on the list is made by the courts. Disseminating and even possessing extremist literature entails administrative and criminal penalties.
The list is regularly published in the official "Russian Gazette", and previously it consisted mostly of anti-Semitic pamphlets and ultra-right-wing and Islamist propaganda. But all that changed on August 28, 2009, when the Zavolzhsky district court of Tver declared ITUA leaflets such as "A new union has been created", "We demand the return of the night shift pay!", and "Against precarious employment" to be extremist.
A paradoxical situation has emerged in which the authorities have essentially declared defending labour rights tantamount to extremist activity. If they wanted to, they could indict the entire International Metalworkers' Federation and its campaign against precarious employment - since that slogan has been declared extremist by a court of law.
During his years of union work, Dmitri Kozhnev has become a first-class expert in labour law. In talking with him, the conversation constantly turns to legal and procedural arguments and subtle issues in the Labour Code. As he says, "I had always placed my hope and faith in the law." And it is precisely this person and his organization that the authorities have accused of extremism. Evidently, from the regime's viewpoint placing "too much" faith in the law is also a form of radicalism, and a dangerous one at that.
The attitude of the authorities themselves to the law is well illustrated by the episode with the court on August 28. The ITUA activists were simply not informed of it; moreover, when they requested a copy of the court decision several months later, their request was denied on the grounds that the union was "not a party to the case".
This already absurd situation becomes genuinely tragic when the ITUA, not being a "party to the case", cannot contest the court's decision. In practice, there exist no legal means of removing the union's leaflets from the list of forbidden literature.May 19, 2010 – Ilya Matveev