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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From Itar-Tass to Union Activist

APIrene Stevenson's visa was confiscated when she flew into Sheremetyevo on Dec. 30.
Irene Stevenson, a U.S. trade union activist who was barred entry to Russia, is widely respected here for her efforts to defend workers' rights.

A native of Chicago, she was one of a rare, hearty breed of American expatriates who came to Moscow in the waning days of the Soviet Union and stayed -- first working for the Itar-Tass state news agency, then moving on to consulting work and union development. She heads the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, the AFL-CIO's outpost in Moscow.

"I don't think there's an independent trade union that doesn't know Irene Stevenson and isn't grateful for the efforts she's made," veteran Russian human rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva said Friday.

Stevenson left Moscow on Dec. 24 for a brief holiday visit to her family. When she flew in to Sheremetyevo Airport on Dec. 30, passport officials confiscated her visa -- which had been renewed just a month and a half previously -- and told her she was barred from entering the country.

No reason was given, and Stevenson's colleagues in Moscow have been unable so far to get any explanation for the expulsion. They assume it was connected with her work, which included plenty of media appearances in which she spoke out passionately in perfect Russian about the need for workers to defend their interests.

"Probably when our trade unionists say the law is being broken and wages aren't being paid, no one pays attention," said Eduard Vokhmin, the American Center's program director. "But when a representative of an international organization says so, it's probably not very comfortable for some people."

Stevenson's expulsion came on the heels of the most successful Russian labor action in years -- a highly publicized, four-day hunger strike by air traffic controllers, who succeeded in winning salary increases of up to 28 percent.

Government officials only reluctantly agreed to negotiations as doctors pulled weakened controllers off the job and several regional airports were forced to delay flights or close down operations altogether.

"Considering the general attention and results we achieved, we probably have inspired other trade unions," said Sergei Kovalyov, the president of Russia's Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Trade Unions.

Stevenson played no direct role in the hunger strike, Kovalyov said. The only link was a lawyer from the American Center who represented the air controllers during a court case in early December. The court ruled any work stoppage by the air controllers illegal, so they settled on a hunger strike as a way to dramatize their demands.

For many Russian workers, the hunger strike crystallized growing dissatisfaction over lagging salaries and what many see as worsening conditions for labor here.

President Vladimir Putin made it an early priority of his administration to shrink the mountain of unpaid salaries to state workers, but after initial successes the debt is creeping back up.

As of Dec. 1, the government owed 36.26 billion rubles ($1.17 billion) in back wages, up from 34.79 rubles ($1.12 billion) the previous year, according to the State Statistics Committee.

Protests over such salary delays were held frequently during President Boris Yeltsin's reign, but they faded with Putin's accession to the presidency in 2000.

Now they are being seen again -- most recently last month, when construction workers building new public housing in Grozny refused to let new residents enter until they had received the wages they were owed for five months.

Many workers are even more incensed about Russia's new Labor Code, which was passed by parliament and signed into law last year. The new code is perceived to weaken unions, for example by making no provision for collective agreements.

"Now our hired workers ... are absolutely without protection," Alexeyeva said. "So the work of Irene and her organization is absolutely necessary."