Train Drivers Stage a Rare Strike

MTA group of striking commuter-train drivers protesting their wages outside Kursky Station on Monday afternoon.
A one-day strike by train drivers over wages disrupted rail services into Moscow for many thousands of commuters on Monday, putting extra strain on the capital's overcrowded transportation systems.

The rare public transportation strike was the first in the capital since 2002, but comes as rampant inflation is wiping out increases in many workers' living standards and prompting a wave of small-scale strikes across the country.

Hundreds of trains were canceled or delayed after more than 120 train drivers walked off the job at the start of their shift early Monday, their small independent union said.

The drivers are demanding that their wages be doubled from 30,000 rubles to 60,000 rubles ($1,300 to $2,500) per month.

"What is 30,000 rubles today?" said Sergei Linyov, head of the independent union, who joined a group of striking train drivers outside Kursky Station to protest Monday. "You can't survive for even half a month on that if you have a family."

A spokesman for Moscow Railways, a division of Russian Railways, or RZD, said the strike had "created great inconvenience" and delayed dozens of trains coming into Moscow from the northeast and east of the city.

RZD gave the number of strikers as lower, at 14 locomotive brigades, or about 30 people.

The strike left many thousands of commuters stranded or late for work.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Anokhin, left, a train driver, talking with Shmykov at Kursky Station on Monday. "I deserve more than a miserable 30,000 rubles per month," Anokhin said.
"I was three hours late to work as the train never came to the station, and no one announced what was going on," said Larisa Trofimova, 37, a resident of the Moscow region town of Orekhovo-Zuyevo. "I had to take a taxi, which I knew my employer would never pay for."

Trofimova said she left for home an hour earlier than usual, "just in case."

"I have a small child [at home], and I didn't know what to expect from the crazy trains," she said.

The strike appeared to have considerable public support, however, as 93 percent of respondents to a poll on Ekho Moskvy radio Monday said they were prepared to suffer delays because of public transportation strikes.

The Kremlin got involved in the dispute late Monday afternoon, as officials from Sots-Prof, an association of independent unions, held talks with unnamed members of the presidential administration, said Dmitry Rasimovich-Rusak, who heads the Moscow region branch of the independent rail union.

The train drivers decided to suspend the strike Monday evening.

"We have understood that the management will not talk to us now, and we don't want to lose our time and money," Rasimovich-Rusak said. "However, we reserve the right to resume the strike at any moment, but not during the May holidays or the presidential inauguration next Wednesday."

The strikers said they would consult with the Duma deputies on their problems after the holidays.

Earlier Monday, a group of about 80, mostly uniformed strikers gathered outside the entrance to Kursky Station, where they spent most of a warm sunny afternoon chatting and explaining their protest.

"I deserve more than a miserable 30,000 rubles per month," said Valentin Anokhin, 49, a train driver for 20 years. "The job is too tough and requires a lot of responsibility."

Vladimir Filonov / MT
"I was three hours late to work as the train never came to the station," said Trofimova, a Moscow region resident.
Anokhin said the situation became worse a year ago, when RZD introduced a new salary scheme depriving employees of long-service bonuses and other perks, and increasing fines.

Several of the OMON riot police officers brought to Kursky Station in buses to keep an eye on the strikers came over and said they sympathized with the strike.

Monday's strike came after an attempted strike action in November was averted after RZD got a court to declare it illegal, but this time the drivers went ahead anyway.

"We are fed up, and we'll not go back to work until our demands are met," Anokhin said.

Strikers standing nearby agreed.

"I want to get normal working conditions, so that I am not ashamed to wear the railway uniform," said Alexander Shmykov, 23.

The strikers said the last straw was a wage raise given to members of the rival official railway workers' union, which is estimated to have more than 1 million members nationally.

RZD vice president Vadim Morozov said in a statement Monday that the company would not talk to the strikers, as the strike was illegal, and RZD filed a complaint with prosecutors Monday.

Linyov, the independent union leader, insisted that his union had handed over its wage demands to RZD on April 7.

A spokesman for Moscow Railways said the drivers in Moscow were already the best paid in the country. "Moscow Railways is the best-run in the country and the average salary for a train driver is 35,000 to 37,000 rubles," he said.

Linyov described these figures as laughable, adding that only a senior train driver with many years of meritorious service could dream of earning so much.

A reporter commuting to Moscow on Monday morning said trains arriving at Yaroslavsky Station had to wait outside the station for other trains to depart.

Staff Writer Anatoly Medetsky contributed to this report.