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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Union Cries Foul in AvtoVAZ Wage Dispute

A union threatening to bring car production at AvtoVAZ to a halt Wednesday has accused the authorities of organizing a campaign of harassment against its members in an effort to prevent the strike.

Since mid-July, independent trade union Yedinstvo has been calling for workers in three workshops at AvtoVAZ's giant Tolyatti plant to go on strike over demands to raise minimum pay to 25,000 rubles ($980) per month. The potential pay hike would see wages almost triple.

The proposed strike, scheduled to begin on Wednesday, would bring the three crucial workshops to a halt and cripple the AvtoVAZ production line, Yedinstvo chairman Pyotr Zolotaryov said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Zolotaryov said approximately 10,000 workers were ready to go on strike, Interfax reported.

"People are dismayed by the behavior of the management and the likelihood of a strike is growing," Zolotaryov said. He could not be contacted later Tuesday for comments.

Earlier Tuesday, Zolotaryov was unable to say whether the strike would go ahead. Yedinstvo has less than 1,000 official members out of the approximately 110,000 workers at the AvtoVAZ plant, Zolotaryov said.

Nikolai Karagin, the head of AvtoVAZ's official trade union, which represents about 100,000 workers at the plant, said it did not support the plans to strike and that wage negotiations with AvtoVAZ management were ongoing.

"We hope that there will be no strike tomorrow," Karagin said. "At the end of the day, a strike can be more harmful for the workers."

In the days leading up to the proposed strike, Yedinstvo officials have accused the company's management and local authorities of a coordinated campaign aimed at disrupting the strike.

On Friday, Yedinstvo activist Anton Vechkunin was arrested and held in custody for three days on the charge of resisting a police officer. Vechkunin was released at about 11 p.m. on Monday. Union officials insisted that the charge was fabricated and designed to disrupt the proposed strike.

A spokeswoman for the Tolyatti police confirmed that Vechkunin had been arrested late Friday evening for "small-scale hooliganism" after refusing to show his documents to police officers.

The police spokeswoman denied that the arrest was linked to Vechkunin's union activities. She could not say whether Vechkunin had been under the influence of alcohol at the time of his arrest.

Acquaintances of Vechkunin, who is in his early 20s, said it would have been out of character for him to swear at and struggled with police officers, as police claimed.

"He is just a skinny little kid," Zolotaryov said.

In the days prior to his arrest, Vechkunin said he felt he was being followed, Zolotaryov said. After getting off a bus after leaving work Friday evening, several men in civilian clothing tried to bundle him into a car. When he resisted they claimed to be policemen and arrested him, Zolotaryov said.

Vechkunin was not answering his mobile phone Tuesday.

Zolotaryov also said police detained another Yedinstvo member Tuesday morning while he was trying to enter the AvtoVAZ compound. Although the activist was quickly released without charge several hundred union leaflets calling for a strike were confiscated, Zolotaryov said.

Zolotaryov said it was the third such incident to happen in recent weeks.

The local police are now investigating the union's pamphlets for extremist material, Zolotaryov said, adding that the union's campaign material was "there for anyone to see on our web site."

Spokesmen for the Tolyatti police and AvtoVAZ denied that anyone had been detained Tuesday.

In a statement released Monday, AvtoVAZ hit back at the proposed strike, accusing organizers of attempting to destabilize the situation at the plant during a period of corporate restructuring.

AvtoVAZ said last month that it was reducing its work force by 1.5 percent in an effort to increase efficiency.

"Not everyone likes these reforms, especially the people who consider AvtoVAZ to be a gravy train," Monday's statement said.

The statement said certain people were looking to politicize the issue ahead of upcoming mayoral elections and that wage negotiations are being carried out in line with current employment legislation and agreements.

Andrei Kolyadin, a spokesman for the Samara regional government, agreed with AvtoVAZ that current strike demands were motivated by political rather than economic concerns ahead of mayoral elections in the region next year.

Demands to triple wages were unfeasible, Kolyadin said. "If that were to happen, then the plant would have to be closed down," he said.

Kolyadin said that, for now, local authorities had no intention of intervening in the dispute.

But he underscored the importance of the AvtoVAZ plant for the local economy and said if the situation became critical the authorities could act.

State Duma Speaker and United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov also weighed into the dispute Tuesday, arguing against politicizing the situation. He said, however, that the discontent was a warning sign for the management. "A demonstration by workers, even by only part of the work force, at any location is a signal that you have to react to," Gryzlov said at a news conference, Interfax reported.

Sergei Khramov, chairman of independent union confederation SotsProf, said the AvtoVAZ workers were merely acting on promises made by United Russia during local elections held earlier this year to raise average wages to 25,000 rubles in the region.

"They are simply trying to cash that in now," he said.

A source in the Samara branch of United Russia said that a pledge had been made to raise wages, but only over a period of five years. The party had never made any specific pledges to the AvtoVAZ workers, the source said.

Khramov said Yedinstvo was held in high esteem after proving itself in previous wage disputes at AvtoVAZ.

In 1994, the union forced management to pay three months in wage arrears. In 2000, the company eventually managed to ward off demands for higher wages.