A New Era for Labor Unions

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The State Duma elections, which tried but ultimately failed to frighten voters, are finally over. We can breathe a sigh of relief and forget for the time being about the parliament. We can also forget about United Russia and other parties whose attempts at posing as a legitimate opposition was not very successful.

If the month of November will be remembered, it will not be for the election campaign or the Kremlin's political intrigues, but for the upsurge in worker protests. Prominent among them was the strike at the Ford factory in Vsevolozhsk, near St. Petersburg. It was the first open-ended strike in Russia since President Vladimir Putin came to office in 2000. To a certain extent, it also sums up this epoch.

Our labor laws are absurd. They are ostensibly designed to allow labor strikes, but in reality, they make them illegal. But labor unions often find a way around the legal limitations. For example, they can stage a walkout for one day, and, after receiving a court injunction that prohibits strike activity, they obey the law by cancelling the strike. Some time later, this is repeated all over again -- one day, they strike; the next day, they call it off.

At the Ford factory, however, workers rejected this cat-and-mouse game and upped the stakes by declaring an open-ended strike even though rank-and-file union members and their leaders knew full well that there could be serious reprisals. The people of St. Petersburg are well aware of what happened to the leaders of the city's postal workers' union. Not long after the strike began, the organizer, Maxim Roshchin, was dismissed. The deputy head of the labor union, Dmitry Patsuk, was also fired soon after. Contesting his wrongful dismissal in court, Patsuk continues to negotiate with the administration, but now as a representative of the All-Russia Confederation of Labor, or ARCL, an umbrella organization that includes the St. Petersburg postal workers union. This is not the only case when punitive measures were brought against workers demanding their rights. Valery Sokolov, leader of the labor union at Heineken's brewery in St. Petersburg, was dismissed following a work slowdown staged there in April. Before that, Sergei Dolgy, chairman of the first Coca-Cola employees' union, was fired in similar fashion.

These repressive measures, however, have failed to quell the labor unrest. At the height of the Ford factory strike, workers learned that two members of the union who were fired last summer for striking at the AvtoVAZ factory in Tolyatti had been reinstated following negotiations between the factory administration and the ARCL. Ford workers had supported their Tolyatti colleagues during the summer strike. Now Tolyatti workers are expressing solidarity by sending money to the Ford workers' union.

This solidarity sometimes assumes unusual forms. A group of young artists and philosophers who publish the newspaper What Is to Be Done? sent an open letter to the strikers at Vsevolozhsk expressing their gratitude for the fact that the workers' actions provided them with creative inspiration.

Corporations are gradually getting used to the idea that Russian workers also have rights, and that it is necessary to take union demands into account. The punitive measures that businesses enacted last summer have been largely ineffective. A victory for one union serves as an example for the others. The wave is rising.

In late November, train engineers planned a strike, but they were compelled to call it off after receiving a court injunction and threats of reprisals from the authorities. In effect, workers are forced to break the law in order to demand their rights, but this is the only option available for unions to achieve justice. This is a real, true democratic struggle that people understand much better than the abstract slogans offered by the liberal opposition.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.