Strikes Going Up With Cost of Living

Sergei Guzev, a train driver from the Vladimir region, said he had always been against the idea of going on strike -- until rising inflation made it difficult for him to meet basic family expenses.

"As a father of two, I can hardly keep up with day-care costs and school bills," Guzev said. "What's the whole point of working if my family cannot subsist on my so-called above-average salary?" In his hometown of Petushki, prices for basic foodstuffs have now risen to the level of those in Moscow, 120 kilometers away, he said.

Earning a monthly salary of 27,000 rubles ($1,100) -- twice the national average -- for a 60-hour week, Guzev, 35, should by rights be seeing some of the benefits of the country's oil-fueled boom trickling down his way. Instead, he is one of a growing number of workers turning to grassroots labor unions as a wave of strikes -- some unofficial -- spreads across the country.

On Wednesday, members of Guzev's union used unorthodox methods to hold a work-to-rule, a few days after a court declared their strike action illegal.

In the Vologda region, about 120 train drivers purportedly feigned sickness to back the union's demand for a 50 percent increase on their basic salary. Meanwhile, in Sverdlovsk and the Moscow region, "many train wagons developed technical problems simultaneously," said Lenov Sergeyevich, who heads the union's Moscow region branch.

The railway workers' dispute is far less well-known than that of workers at U.S. carmaker Ford's plant near St. Petersburg. Workers there went on strike Nov. 21, demanding a 30 percent wage increase and a shorter night shift. On Wednesday, Ford said it had restarted production as more than half the employees had gone back to work, but the union insisted the strike would continue.

That dispute has made headlines internationally, yet away from the glare of media publicity, estimating the rise in labor activism is difficult, as most cases of industrial action go unreported and unregistered by officials.

This year, Russian workers have staged about 25 strikes in various forms, said Carine Clement, a French sociologist who heads the Institute of Collective Action, a left-leaning nonprofit group.

But on its web site, the State Statistics Service records only two strikes happening this year.

Recorded strike activity has been very low during President Vladimir Putin's time in office, as the economy has rebounded from the nightmare of the 1990s, when millions of workers often went for months without being paid.

The latest wave of strikes has swept from eastern Siberia to the Caucasus, with strikes recorded in workplaces as diverse as a construction site in Chechnya, a timber factory in Novgorod, a hospital in the far eastern Chita region, a housing maintenance office in Saratov and at fast-food kiosks in Irkutsk, Clement's institute said.

In the last month, dockers in St. Petersburg have gone on strike, demanding a salary increase of 30 percent, while Russian Post workers struck for their fourth time since 2001.

At Russian Railways, a state-owned monopoly run by Vladimir Yakunin, a close ally of Putin's, Guzev's independent union, which represents some 2,600 train drivers, is threatening the first strike on the railways since 1988.

On Friday, the company obtained a court ruling declaring the action illegal, but Yevgeny Kulikov, the union's leader, said members would organize a limited work-to-rule Wednesday.

Sergei Khramov, chairman of SotsProf, a group of independent labor unions, said the mainstream media largely ignored strikes unless a well-known company such as Ford was involved.

"One reason why the extent of workers' dissatisfaction is not fully appreciated is the conspiracy of silence created by the state-controlled media," Khramov said.

For example, while the state-controlled media "fumed and fretted" about a small strike at the AvtoVAZ car plant in Tolyatti in August, it ignored a bigger strike at the same time at a steel plant in Karelia, Khramov said.

At Ford's factory Wednesday, some 1,300 workers have agreed to operate one shift daily, company spokeswoman Yekaterina Kulinenko said.

However, Alexei Etmanov, leader of the 1,500-strong union at the plant, said the cars produced would not pass the company's quality tests as all the technicians in that department were still on strike.

Tempers flared outside the plant Wednesday morning after striking worker Alexander Filippov, 25, was hit by a car driven by a police official, Etmanov said.

Traffic police blamed the strikers for provoking the incident, while Etmanov said the police had refused to record the incident, in which Filippov was hospitalized.

Experts and activists see varying causes behind the strikes, from a looser fiscal policy by the government to corporate greed to organizers' political motivations.

"Month after month, workers see their monthly take-home pay eaten away by high prices for goods and services," said Khramov, the union chairman. "Workers cannot be expected to resign themselves to their fate if the reward of their daily toil is worth nothing in the market."

"One reason is the complacency of company directors who have not yet learned to share the huge windfall with their workers," said Clement, who is the author of a book on trade unions in Russia. "Workers see around them evidence of the luxurious lifestyle of company directors and top managers, while most of them can hardly afford three square meals."

Oleg Neterebsky, deputy head of the pro-government Federation of Independent Trade Unions, or FNPR, did not rule out a political motivation behind the strikes.

"There is a hidden pattern to all these strike actions," Neterebsky said. "Organizers of strikes are hoping to capitalize on the tranquility before elections to turn the spotlight on themselves."

But Pyotr Zolotaryov, head of the independent Yedinstvo union at carmaker AvtoVAZ, said there was a smear campaign afoot to discredit strikers by associating them with politicians.

"Workers are striking because of frustration and helplessness," Zolotaryov said. "Their demands are purely economic and in no way connected with politics."

Laws making it difficult to legally organize a strike exacerbate the situation by bottling up legitimate grievances, Neterebsky said. Calling a strike, he said, involves five stages, including making formal demands, setting up dispute committees with the approval of 50 percent of workers, and appointing a mediator.

Another problem is the lack of consensus within the labor movement, Clement said.

"The pro-government unions present in every workplace prefer not go into conflict with the employer, while the independent unions are always ready to struggle for the rights of workers," she said.

"It is a paradox that the strongest opponent of the workers' movement is the FNPR," said Khramov. "The wave of strikes is also a signal that workers are tired of the FNPR being imposed on them."

For the factories and other workplaces involved, the economic losses from strikes have been significant.

Etmanov estimated that each day of strike action was costing Ford 300 unassembled cars, or $5 million, while Alexander Moiseyenko, chairman of the St. Petersburg dockers' union, said turnover at the port had fallen by as much as 70 percent as a result of dockers not loading or offloading cargoes.

Natalya Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank, dismissed recent labor disputes as being only of local significance and said they would not dent the country's economic progress.

"Most of the strike actions are limited to an individual plant, enterprise or region, and each has particular local demands," she said.

Yet Anton Struchenevsky, a senior economist at Troika Dialog, warned that the strikes could damage the country seriously, given its demographic crisis.

"The rapid growth in militancy among trade unions is expected to increase in the future and may weaken the economic fabric by turning investors away," Struchenevsky said.

"On the one hand, the population is decreasing and with it, the number of active workers. On the other, the economic boom is boosting the role of trade unions by creating higher demand for labor."