. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Labor Unions Are Left on Election Sidelines

MTA mining union taking its members' protests over wages to the White House in 2001.
For all their millions of members, the country's labor unions are unlikely to wield much influence in the upcoming State Duma elections. But then, experts say, they never did anyway.

The big brother of the country's labor confederations, the Federation of Independent Labor Unions, or FNPR, can count 38 million members under its umbrella.

Yet the FNPR, a conservative holdover from Soviet-era official labor unions, looks far less likely to campaign actively in the Dec. 7 elections than a smaller group of "free" labor unions, the All-Russia Confederation of Labor, or VKT.

While normally dwarfed by its far bigger rival, the VKT can count at least one political success this year: the election of a former labor leader as the mayor of northern mining town Norilsk.

With 300,000 primary organizations, largely inherited wholesale from the Soviet All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, or TVsSPS, the FNPR formally unites 60 percent of the workforce.

But along with the Soviet-era property, FNPR has adopted the outlook and collaborative practices of its predecessor, too.

"[It] lacks trustworthy leaders capable of mobilizing its members to vote for any one party," said Svetlana Klimova, a labor specialist at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Sociology Institute.

The TVsSPS worked together with managers of state enterprises and party bureaucrats to ensure that the state's five-year plans were carried out. They mobilized workers for production but never defended their interests.

"That situation has not changed," said Carine Clement, a French sociologist who has studied labor unions and workers' rights in the country for more than 10 years. "Very often in factories, FNPR representatives have good relations with employers and often defend the employers' position."

Both Clement and Klimova said they had seen many cases of union leaders backing up employers who claimed to be insolvent, asking workers to be patient if they wanted to be paid.

Their acquiescence led to widespread skepticism among workers toward their union officials, Clement said. But FNPR has largely kept its membership, since employers mostly deduct union dues automatically from workers' pay packets.

"According to surveys, workers don't believe in unions, and they don't even hope for anything from them. This is why FNPR has no political influence over workers," Clement said.

FNPR spokesman Andrei Baranov said that unions should not try to wield political influence. "We are a social organization. We're not supposed to influence politics," he said. "We don't have any people responsible for coordinating our members' votes."

But while FNPR may not be endorsing any of the main parties or candidates, it appears to be making an exception for one of its own -- FNPR deputy chairman Andrei Isayev, who won a seat in the 1999 Duma on the Fatherland-All Russia list. He is running this time on the United Russia ticket, with the union confederation's support.

During the 1999 campaign FNPR established close relations with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, whose Fatherland-All Russia bloc was expected to dominate the Duma. But its dreams of a dominant center-left coalition were dashed by the pro-Kremlin Unity faction, which took much of the center-left vote.

After the 1999 Duma election, FNPR endorsed Vladimir Putin's presidential candidacy, following a path well-worn by Soviet unions of supporting the powers-that-be.

When Fatherland-All Russia merged with the Unity faction in February 2002, FNPR got cozy with the United Russia party. FNPR chairman Mikhail Shmakov met several times with Putin, who returned the compliment by praising the confederation's work.

The alternatives to the conformist FNPR are the so-called "free unions," which are more active but have been generally considered too small and fragmented to influence politics.

But last month, VKT was able to celebrate a rare political victory, with the election of Valery Melnikov as mayor of the northern city of Norilsk. Melnikov, a former VKT union leader at powerful Norilsk Nickel, which employs about a quarter of the city's 230,000 people, beat the company's favored candidate, Jonson Khagazhiyev, a former deputy director at one of Norilsk Nickel's factories, by 51 percent to 34 percent.

The election was a rerun of a vote in April, when Melnikov polled 47 percent against another Norilsk Nickel-backed candidate, who subsequently withdrew from the race. Melnikov campaigned in much the same way he had as a labor leader -- for higher wages and more vacation time at Norilsk Nickel.

Following VKT's Norilsk example, independent-minded unions are trying to get more involved in local elections, and many of them are supporting single-mandate candidates for the Duma.

The Air Traffic Controllers' Union, which has about 7,000 members, organized hunger strikes in 2001 and 2002 for higher wages. In the Duma elections it is backing Labor Party leader Oleg Shein, who is running for a single-mandate seat in Astrakhan, and Stanislav Dasmanov, who is running on the Labor Party's list in Novosibirsk.

The Mining and Smelting Union is backing its vice president, Alexander Kuznezov, for a single-mandate seat in his native Chelyabinsk.

But officials for the two unions said that while they are backing candidates for the Duma, it is not part of a plan to mobilize the masses around a political agenda. "Ours are social organizations, which don't have any political orientation," said Mikhail Tarasenko, the president of the Mining and Smelting Union.

One union official, who asked not to be named, said that free unions tend to back single-mandate deputies as a way of keeping their distance from "big political intrigues."

"When you take part in single-mandate races, you put your person against another. If instead you decide to back a candidate running for a party list, you have two parties fighting each other, and this means deeper political involvement," the official said.