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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Being Here: A Labor Advocate's Labor of Love

Some foreigners come to Russia and see it as a tough-but-necessary step on the way to bigger and more comfortable assignments. Others are looking for a short fling with exotica.

Still others come and stay because they fall in love with the place. Irene Stevenson, an American with six years in Moscow and no plans to leave, falls into the latter category.

"I would have left a long time ago if my attitude was that this is work and life is beyond the border. This is my life," said Stevenson, 34, who first worked as an editor at the English-language service of Itar-Tass and then was later hired by Baker & McKenzie to wrestle with the Russian bureaucracy. "Previously, I found jobs so that I could live here, but now I actually believe in what I am doing," she reflects today.

As deputy director of the U.S.-based Free Trade Union Institute, Stevenson spends 60-hour weeks nurturing the nascent free trade union movement in a country which once cynically called itself a "workers' paradise." The institute is an international nonprofit organization funded, in Russia, mostly by grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy. It operates under the direction of leaders from the AFL-CIO, America's biggest labor federation.

In Russia today, Stevenson estimated that only between 3 and 4 percent of the nation's 58 million employees are represented by democratic labor unions uncompromised by the inclusion of government or management.

"How can you conclude a collective bargaining agreement if the head of your union is your boss?" said Stevenson, a New Yorker.

Although she had no prior experience in labor issues, Stevenson's 2 1/2 years with the institute have given her what she likes to call the "fire" for the "fight" for employees' basic rights.

In theory, Stevenson said, Russian workers enjoy the protection of the still-unrevised and very pro-worker laws inherited from the Soviet Union. The reality is quite different.

"It is extraordinarily rough and tumble out there for people who stick up for their rights," said Stevenson. "People who are making the choice to form a free trade union are fighting against all odds."

However, when an organizing drive is successful, Stevenson said it is also a victory for the process of empowerment key to the development of grassroots democracy in Russia.

"It is an amazing experience to watch these people who have this right and can protect it and then protect it successfully," she said. "It gives them a sense of self worth that the Soviet system did its best to extinguish."

One powerful relic of the Soviet system is the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia, a new name for the old union which controlled access to everything from health care to vacations to housing. Much of the power remains, as does the practice of including management in the operation of the union.

As long as the old structure dominates, Stevenson said, the institute and unionists have much to do.

"My family no longer asks me when I am moving back, when I'll next visit," she said. "My career appears to be Russia, for better or for worse."