From the present to the future
The persecution of unions in Russia gives little cause for optimism. Interference by the authorities in the activities of workers' organizations is becoming more frequent and systematic. A particularly ominous trend has emerged of treating the unions as "extremist" groups, involving not only the procurator's office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, but even the intelligence agencies.
In this period of a financial crisis the state has been reducing rather than extending the protection of workers and union activists. While the employers have been increasingly aggressive in pushing for "flexible" employment relationships and deregulation of the labour market, the lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, and the Constitutional Court have repealed the provision of the Labour Code requiring the consent of the union for the dismissal of its leaders. That was one of the last legislative guarantees against discrimination which actually worked in court; with its elimination the unions have essentially lost their last defense against arbitrary action by the employers.
But even so, worker activists have not given up the struggle. First and foremost, they are conducting an active battle in the courts, sometimes winning substantial victories. There have been quite a few decisions in favour of reinstating workers illegally dismissed.
Another important area of activity is solidarity campaigns. Activists of the ITUA and other unions have organized mailings of protest letters through websites; they have been holding meetings and pickets, sometimes involving large numbers of participants, such as in Togliatti, where the ITUA union "Unity" managed to turn out 3,000 people.
Finally, international support is of tremendous importance. Two years ago the IMF began a global campaign of solidarity with ITUA activists who been victims of physical violence. The latest complaint by the All-Russian Confederation of Labour to the ILO was also supported by the IMF.
Despite everything, the protest movement in Russia is growing. According to official data, the number of mass actions rose to 4,900 in the first quarter of this year from 1,269 for the same period in 2009, that is an increase of 400 per cent. All totaled, almost 1.8 million people participated in them. The authorities themselves admit that the role of the unions in this action was by no means the least important.
"We never give up" is a phrase with which Alexei Etmanov often concludes his speeches and commentaries. May it serve as a guide for the action of all trade unions in Russia.May 19, 2010 – Ilya Matveev