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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

As Unemployment Rises, State Takes New Approach to Unions

Social researcher Boris Kagarlitsky said Thursday that the government adopted a softer line toward independent union activity last year in an effort to secure organized labor’s support in fighting the rising jobless rate.

“There are many signs that the authorities are ready to conduct a dialog with free unions,” Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute for Globalization and Social Movements, a think tank, said at a news conference. “The authorities want to find more partners.”

He was referring to unions not part of the Russian Federation of Independent Unions, a holdover from the Soviet times that is widely perceived as government-friendly. Specifically, President Dmitry Medvedev met with the All-Russia Labor Confederation leader Boris Kravchenko at the end of December, Kagarlitsky said. The group is the second-largest union organization after the Russian Federation of Independent Unions.

Kravchenko didn’t answer his cell phone when contacted for a comment Thursday afternoon.

Local authorities have no longer sought to thwart union rallies, gatherings or pickets since spring 2009, said Kagarlitsky, who writes a column for The Moscow Times.

On the contrary, government officials have invited independent unions to join in on talks about the future of corporations, he said. In one case, the government asked the Unity union at AvtoVAZ to help in rescuing the carmaker, he said.

“There had been gate locks everywhere,” he said, referring to measures sometimes used by the authorities to handicap unions, such as locking union members out of their congresses. “I haven’t seen a single such lock in the last 10 months.”

He attributed the change to the economic crisis. As businesses continue to shed jobs, their relations with the government will grow more strained, Kagarlitsky said. In this scenario, the government could use a strong intermediary — unions — to contain unemployment, he said.

“It would be a huge leap forward for the unions,” he said.

But organized labor is too weak for that role, Kagarlitsky said. At the same time, the government wouldn’t prevent them from getting stronger, he said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the government had never mistreated unions.

“The Cabinet has always taken into account the opinion of unions when making decisions,” said Peskov, blaming local authorities for any attempts to give unions a hard time.

A Kremlin spokeswoman said she couldn’t immediately comment on union policy.

Igor Kovalchuk, president of the Confederation of Labor of Russia, the country’s third-largest union group, said the government and businesses had taken more of an interest in interacting with unions in the federal trilateral commission that brings together officials, business people and union leaders.

“Everyone understands that the cost of decisions in a crisis is much higher,” he said.