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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Time for Trade Unions

When the new Labor Code went into effect in February 2002, many believed that it spelled the end of alternative trade unions. The code stipulated that only one union could represent the employees of any given enterprise. It therefore came as no surprise that the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia, or FNPR, a conservative holdover from official Soviet-era trade unions and a close ally of the United Russia party, hailed the new code as an historic victory.

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The new Labor Code dealt a serious blow not just to alternative labor organizations, however, but to anyone who attempted to stand up for workers' rights. Strikes were effectively outlawed. The right to down tools was included in the new code, but the conditions spelled out in the code made organizing a strike all but impossible. This didn't bother the NFPR leadership, which had no intention of fighting for the rights of its members in any case.

The experience of the last four years has shown that the Labor Code may have done more damage to the FNPR than it did to the alternative unions. Not every local FNPR official is a corrupt opportunist, embezzling membership dues and making a killing on the sale and lease of union buildings. But whenever honest FNPR leaders try to do anything else, they get hit with the full force of the repressive Labor Code.

Infighting has increased within the FNPR, and many unions have opted to leave, most notably the trade union representing the employees of the Ford Motor Co. plant in the Leningrad region. As they pulled off two successful strikes, labor activists at the plant discovered that their own union was more concerned about collecting dues than supporting their initiatives. By contrast, alternative unions were extremely supportive despite their shortage of resources and political clout.

The core group of alternative trade union activists held together under the assault, although many labor organizations went under. The largest alternative organization, the All-Russia Confederation of Labor, has survived in a somewhat depleted form, along with the radical left-wing Defense of Labor organization.

A pilots' strike at Bashkir Airlines in 2004 gained national attention. It proved that the Labor Code could be flouted without exposing striking workers to retaliation. As so often happens with bad laws, the Labor Code is not only repressive in the extreme, it also contains obvious internal contradictions and conflicts with other laws already on the books. The pilots at Bashkir Airlines took advantage of these loopholes. Successful strike action at the Ford plant was made possible thanks to an exchange of information between activists at Ford and Bashkir Airlines.

The crisis in the labor movement is obvious. Membership in alternative unions has fallen off dramatically. Union leaders left over from the 1990s have proven incapable of meeting the new challenges facing their members. Some have been removed from their posts, while others have lost the support of union activists.

A new generation of leaders has begun to emerge, including Pyotr Zolotaryov at AvtoVAZ and Alexei Etmanov at Ford. In 2005, members of the All-Russia Confederation of Labor elected a new leader, Boris Kravchenko.

Change was in the air at a meeting of trade union activists from the automotive and food industries and the service sector in late February. Most of the participants represented enterprises opened in Russia by multinational companies such as Caterpillar in Tosno, Ford in the Leningrad region and Heineken in St. Petersburg. Trade unionists from more established concerns such as AvtoVAZ and the Likinsk Bus Plant, or LiAZ, a major producer of buses and other heavy-duty vehicles, were also in attendance.

Kravchenko believes that the only way out of the current systemic crisis is to organize workers in new sectors of the economy that are not already unionized. An aggressive policy of expansion, coupled with greater democracy within unions themselves, could make the difference.

What FNPR officials have failed to grasp is that new enterprises provide optimal conditions for trade union activities. Unlike the old, often moribund plants left over from the Soviet era, the new enterprises are largely run along Western lines. Trade unions can operate effectively in this environment, and the leaders of alternative unions see little point in working with the FNPR.

The rebirth of the trade union movement is underway, and it could signal the beginning of the end for the FNPR.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute for Globalization Studies.