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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Pay Ultimatum Delivers Goodies and Guilt Trip




Miners, as we all know, will often struggle for a year without pay. Doctors and teachers declare hunger strikes and starve until they faint or even, in one recent case in Ulyanovsk, die of cardiac arrest.


But I recently ended my short adventure as an unpaid worker - I hadn't gotten paid in three months - and I didn't have to skip a meal, block the Trans-Siberian Railroad, or burn Yeltsin in effigy. Thus, I offer my story in the hopes that millions of others will also stomp into the boss's office and demand compensation for their labor, or at least a trip to Japan.


My paper - a biweekly that now survives only on the Internet - is published by a Russian-language daily. If we didn't already know, we discovered our place in the pecking order during a bomb scare last winter, when our bosses evacuated the building but forgot to tell us.


My hopes were not high when my girlfriend Nonna, who is our deputy editor, and I decided to demand compensation for our staff and ourselves or the two of us would quit. I figured we were gone. I was already looking forward to devoting more time to freelancing.


We timed our ultimatum perfectly. Our bosses periodically offer travel agencies free ads in exchange for trips abroad, and our acting publisher had just returned from a cruise to South Korea. When we knocked on his door and told him why we were there, his gaze fell. He didn't look at us for the 10 minutes it took to say, "Pay or else."


"Oh, there's one other thing," Nonna couldn't resist adding. "We want a trip to Japan."


Our boss said this was impossible. He added, "If you go, I'll have to close the Vladivostok News. I can't decide that on my own. I have to consult the shareholders."


Who could argue? Why publish a struggling English-language paper when foreigners are stampeding from Russia?


The next day, the boss called Nonna into his office while I was out. "Now tell me what this is all about," he said. Nonna dropped a general hint: "We want to be paid for our work."


"Well," he said. "The shareholders have agreed that we want to keep publishing an English paper, and we will do what it takes to keep you here."


Here's what we got: three months back pay for the three of us who remained; contracts guaranteeing timely pay; and the promise of a two week trip to Japan for Nonna and me.


There's a dark irony in our victory: I feel guilty. The Russian daily's reporters, editors and cleaning ladies are still waiting for their back wages. They don't have an income in dollars. They can't afford to make demands.


What's wrong with this picture? Why can a foreigner get paid for his labor while his Russian colleagues work for nothing?