A Labor Code in Bad Need of Revision

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The labor movement has been making a lot of headlines lately. Workers at multinational companies were the first to strike for higher wages, but now the conflict has spread to Russian firms as well. For example, in mid-March, workers at the KamAZ automotive construction plant -- the former flagship of Soviet industry -- walked out on their jobs, and by the end of the month, bauxite miners in the Urals were also striking.

In all of these conflicts, company management has justified their extremely aggressive behavior by blaming workers for Labor Code violations while at the same time denying striking workers the right to conduct negotiations through their elected union representatives. The reason is that management refuses to recognize the legitimacy of worker-formed unions. Instead, they only grant official status to the purely symbolic unions, which are leftovers from the Soviet era that operate under an umbrella organization called the Federation of Independent Labor Unions.

At most enterprises, the local branch of FILU functions like a department of social affairs run by the general director. Although FILU might serve some useful purpose, it is by no means a labor union. To fill the gap, a handful of a company's workers often form fledgling unions of their own. In most cases, management immediately cracks down on these unions. The director calls the offending workers into his office one at a time to demand that they withdraw their membership in the new union. If they refuse, he transfers the activists to low-paying jobs or fires them. Meanwhile, the official union stands on the side of the company's management and owners. What's more, management can usually find formal justification for its anti-union actions in the Labor Code.

Rather than giving management the upper hand, however, these strong-armed tactics against unions often lead to spontaneous strikes that can spin out of control. One example of this occurred in late March at a mine with the unlikely name of Little Red Riding Hood in Severouralsk, north of Yekaterinburg. The Independent Miners' Union existed at this mine for many years. But the IMU can be considered a worker-formed labor union only in a limited sense. The organization has a history dating back to the widespread miners' strikes of 1989. At that time, the mine's management refused to recognize the new worker-formed IMU and preferred to conduct talks with the official FILU -- tantamount to negotiating with itself. The result was that the number of unresolved issues continued to accumulate, culminating in spontaneous strikes that spread to neighboring mines. RusAl, the company's owner, closed all five of its mines in the Sverdlovsk region as a preventative measure. Management claimed that the move would "protect the lives and health of the other workers who are not involved in the current situation." But they never explained how the loss of jobs and income would protect those workers.

Only after the spontaneous strikes had already started did the company's administration suddenly take an interest in the IMU, but by then it was too late. The IMU could have called off the strikes only if it had been empowered to represent the miners earlier on.

From the beginning, the Labor Code was written in such a way as to make life easier for management. But business leaders are realizing that repressive measures do not work and that it would be more effective to negotiate with freely elected unions than to face the consequences of spontaneous and uncontrollable strikes. Even an organized strike would be easier to cope with than a spontaneous uprising. It is no longer a question of whether authorities will revise the Labor Code, but of when and how.

The Kremlin and State Duma will have to face the new reality of the workers' movement, whether they like it or not.

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