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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

1,500 Ford Workers Strike for a Day

Some 1,500 Ford workers laid down their tools in a daylong strike Wednesday, bringing production to a standstill at the carmaker's assembly plant near St. Petersburg.

Such a large walkout has not been seen in years, and the Ford strike could encourage workers at other companies to follow suit -- a potentially unwelcome development for foreign investors and the Kremlin, which would not want labor unrest in a national election season.

Wednesday's strike attracted offers of support from a range of political parties looking to raise their profile ahead of the State Duma elections in December. Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, the leader of the A Just Russia party, planned to visit the plant in Vsevolozhsk on Thursday to offer his support to the workers, while liberal party Yabloko and opposition group Unified Civil Front also backed the strike.

The leader of the plant's union, Alexei Etmanov, warned that some of the politicians' interventions were turning the dispute into "The Muppet Show."

"Ships of all flags are coming," Etmanov said, paraphrasing Alexander Pushkin's poem, "The Bronze Horseman."

Union leaders said Wednesday that the strike would end at midnight. The strike cost Ford an estimated $4 million, NTV television said.

More than 1,000 workers voted overwhelmingly for a sit-in strike at the plant after a mass meeting lasting several hours Tuesday, with only 20 votes in favor of management's offer, Etmanov said by mobile phone from the plant Wednesday evening. About 1,500 workers took part in the strike, occupying the plant but doing no work, he said.

Interfax cited Etmanov as saying late Wednesday that the strike would be called off at midnight. Five hundred workers voted to suspend the strike, Interfax said.

Etmanov could not immediately be reached to confirm the report, and it was not clear whether any agreement had been struck to resolve the dispute.

Earlier Wednesday, Etmanov said the workers would probably decide to "take a breather" and go back to work at midnight, adding that he had been awake for more than 30 hours straight.

But he added: "If they don't offer concessions, we'll continue."

Ford management is offering workers a pay raise of between 14 percent and 20 percent, interest-free loans and a one-off loyalty bonus of 10,000 rubles ($380) for those who have worked at the plant for more than five years, among other concessions.

Average monthly salaries at the plant are between 16,000 and 19,000 rubles ($600-$720), company spokeswoman Yekaterina Kulinenko said.

Talks between management and the union ended without agreement in December. The offer was "like an ultimatum, aimed at getting us to shut up," Etmanov said. The union says that more important than pay in the dispute are fixed working hours, a ban on outsourcing and reducing safety risks.

Last year, after two work-to-rule actions, the union won pay raises of between 14 percent and 17.5 percent, in addition to other concessions.

The strike comes as Ford plans to increase production at the Leningrad region plant by 20 percent to 75,000 units this year. Last year, Ford emerged as the country's best-selling foreign carmaker, with 116,000 vehicles. The plant assembles about 300 Ford Focus cars per day.

St. Petersburg and the adjacent Leningrad region have become the new hub of the country's auto industry, with General Motors, Nissan and Toyota moving to build plants in the area.

During Wednesday's strike, Ford's management indicated that it would not give in to union demands. "We are disappointed that they went on strike because we'd made good progress over the past week toward a collective-bargaining agreement," Theo Streit, the plant's director, said by telephone.

"We made a final offer and we offered to continue negotiations as we always have," he added through Kulinenko. She said a court had declared the strike action illegal.

Kulinenko declined to confirm a report that the strike would cost Ford $4 million, saying that the company could import cars from Germany.

Labor experts said Etmanov was a rare example of a charismatic, independent workers' leader in the country.

"A lot is being decided at Ford now," said Boris Kagarlitsky, head of the Institute for Globalization Studies. If Ford satisfied the workers' demands, the strike would set a precedent and show others that workers can gain pay raises and respect through legal means, he said.

"Effectively, we talking about legal mechanisms to stage so-called illegal strikes," said Boris Kravchenko, head of the All-Russia Confederation of Labor, an umbrella organization that includes the Ford workers' group. Kravchenko said his confederation had asked two trade unions in Spain to support the strike. Ford's plant in Valencia, Spain, also makes Focus models.

Andrei Semushin, a union leader at the Caterpillar factory in the nearby Leningrad region town of Tosno, said he wholeheartedly supported the Ford workers, but the union at his plant was too small for that kind of action.

Given the upcoming election season, it was natural that parties across the political spectrum would want to get involved in the dispute, experts said.

Mironov would meet the plant's workers and see for himself "what foreign investments are like" as part of a on-going trip to St. Petersburg, said Yulia Sokolova, a member of A Just Russia's Leningrad region branch. Sokolova said that while the party welcomed foreign investments, they should not come "at any price."

Olga Kurnosova, the head of United Civil Front's St. Petersburg branch, said she met with Etmanov last week, offered her group's support and invited the workers to participate in a rally next month. "They are ready to cooperate with those who will help them achieve their goals," she said.

The outcome of the strike "will show whether employees in today's Russia can achieve decent working conditions and pay and conduct a full-fledged dialogue with employers," Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky said in a statement Wednesday. "For the first time, the workers of a multinational company operating in Russia ... are confidently demanding conditions approaching those of [Ford] workers in the United States and European countries."

When asked with whom his union sided politically, Etmanov said it was left leaning, but declined to be more specific.

"We are with those who are with us," he said.