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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Walkout Threatens To Stall AvtoVAZ

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TOLYATTI, Volga River Valley Along the road to the countrys largest car factory runs a river of parked cars 3 kilometers long and three to five cars wide. In all there are more than 12,000 cars and all are missing seats.

Welcome to the enormous AvtoVAZ plant, where a protest that began a week ago in section 43-2 the department that produces the car seats has quickly gathered momentum.

The strike won support this weekend from Sergei Khramov, head of the All-Russia Trade Union, and also from one of the Samara regions deputies to the State Duma. On Tuesday the strike is expected to widen to include thousands more workers from key parts of the plant.

"If the administration will not start negotiating with workers, the assembly line will stop," warned Pyotr Zolotaryov, the leader of the nine-year-old AvtoVAZ union Unity, which coincidentally shares the same name as Vladimir Putins pet political vehicle.

Union members are alarmed by a restructuring plan that they say will leave some of AvtoVAZs 120,000 employees with less job security. Protesters also insist that their monthly salary it averages 2,800 rubles (about $100) does not reflect their workload.

Management is less publicly vocal. Vladimir Isakov, an adviser to AvtoVAZ president Alexei Nikolayev, said in an interview that the strike was an AvtoVAZ "internal matter" and that the company would resolve the problem. He did not say how although he did add that already the consequences of the strike would be felt "over the next two or three years."

But union members say that management has refused to reply to formal questions from the regions Duma deputy much less to appeals from the union itself and has instead taken to harassing union members.

"Workers dont know their rights and they are afraid of the [plants] administration," said Zinaida Sobchuk, an employee who works on the car seat production line. "They frighten us all the time with talk of a big line of people who want to work here."

Sobchuk said she had worked at the plant for 24 years, but last week the head of the car seat production line told her that "because I was a member of the Unity union, I could only go to use the lavatory at 9 a.m. and 12 p.m., and for the rest of the time I must stay at my machine."

Unity chief Zolotaryov said that last week, when an AvtoVAZ employee died and his colleagues asked for the day off to attend the funeral, management told them they could only go to the funeral if they renounced their union memberships.

National union chief Khramov responded by coming to Tolyatti on Friday to speak with plant workers. He told them that their strike was absolutely legal, that the All-Russia Trade Union was among the official organizers, and that workers should not be afraid of being fired.

"If [workers get fired], the trade union will sue in the court [to get them reinstated], and it will pay financial compensation to fired workers until they have been reinstated at the plant," Khramov said. "I am very surprised that the administration of the plant does not want to resolve the problem in a peaceful way."

The seeds of the strike were planted in April, when AvtoVAZ managers handed down formal orders regarding a restructuring plan that would spin off the enormous factorys various divisions into separate new daughter companies.

Section 43-2, the car seat production line, was to become part of a new daughter company, AvtoVAZagregat. But workers soon learned they would be offered five-year contracts with none of the seniority or social guarantees they had earned at the plant, said Zolotaryov.

Worried workers from across AvtoVAZ began to file requests that management guarantee them their existing salaries and seniority once the restructuring had gone through. But workers say they were met with complete silence by management. They turned to Samaras deputy to the Duma, Anatoly Ivanov himself a former AvtoVAZ union chief but even when Ivanov filed formal parliamentary inquiries on their behalf, management kept mum.

And so the strike began two weeks ago, among the 600 workers of the car seat production line. Workers showed up and worked but only did the exact letter of their job description. As it would at most workplaces around the world, that narrow interpretation of their duties brought matters to a halt.

As the week unfolded, the national union got on board and thousands more workers moved closer to striking. Suddenly AvtoVAZ a plant that employs 120,000 of Tolyattis 750,000 residents, and that controls other companies that employ another 400,000 people, and whose tax revenues make up 60 percent of the citys budget was in trouble.

By Friday afternoon, about 1,000 workers from section 45-2, the car assembly line, had joined the soft strike. And over the weekend and Monday, thousands more pledged to go on strike Tuesday.

The AvtoVAZ section that works the metal presses, and which represents more than 6,000 workers, along with hundreds of workers from the car seat production and test-drive sections, will all go on a one-hour walkout strike on Tuesday, said union chief Zolotaryov.

"We are not sure about our future, no one gives us any guarantees that we will not lose our jobs [or] the salary and social guarantees," reads an appeal sent by the car seat production line to AvtoVAZ president Nikolayev. "In this situation, we have to resort to extreme measures to protect our rights and interests."

And as the strike has gained momentum, the workers have asked for more. If initially they sought just a guarantee of the status quo, by this weekend they were demanding full indexation of their wages to inflation and the payment of "a 13th salary" the Soviet-era equivalent of a months salary as a Christmastime bonus.

"The salary has not grown, neither has the number of workers, and it has continued for 10 years. People were waiting, but their patience is over," said Vladimir Ringach, the foreman of section 54-5, which services and maintains the assembly lines conveyor machinery.

AvtoVAZ production accounts for about three-fourths of the nations market in passenger cars. Last year it produced 677,687 cars, according to a report by Renaissance Capital brokerage that put the plants annual capacity at around 730,000 cars.

The report said the plants main shareholders were the All-Russia Automotive Alliance, or AVVA, with 33.2 percent; the Automotive Financial Corp. with 19.19 percent; and the Russ-Invest company with 5.45 percent. The report says the first two companies are under control of Russias best-known businessman, Boris Berezovsky.

In the mid-1990s, AvtoVAZ sold tens of thousands of cars at a loss to Berezovskys car trading company LogoVAZ, which then sold them on to consumers and made millions.

AVVA was an investment fund founded by Berezovsky and Alexander Voloshin who is now President Putins chief of staff that collected money from citizens to raise money to build "a peoples car." Tens of millions of dollars were collected in shares, but AVVA paid out almost nothing in return.