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THE UNION MESSENGER October 2001 No. 13

Information Bulletin on the Labor Movement in Russia


Special on Urals-Siberia Regions

News Briefs

--Air-Traffic Controllers Members of the Union of Air-Traffic Controllers of Omsk (Western Siberia) decided on October 10 to start a hunger strike at their workplaces. Similar actions are to occur in other cities to protest management’s refusal to raise salaries since 1998. The form of protest is due to the legal prohibition on strikes in this sector. However, doctors will forbid controllers from working after three days without food, and that should cause a major disruption of air traffic. Messages of solidarity can be sent to: (7-3812) 164-115.

--Bus Drivers Some 200 trolley and street-car drivers and ticket takers in Miass (Southern Urals) began a strike on 15 October to protest wage delays (over a month and a half). Within 12 hours, the city promised to pay the wages. This is the workers’ second victory in two years.

--Police Union In Seversk (Tomsk region) a police union has been formed, whose constitution declares its solidarity with the labor movement. This did not please the authorities, who took quick measures, firing three union leaders in violation of the Labor Code. The three have gone to court. There have also been threats against union members. Letters of protest can be sent to the Chief Executive of the City Administration of Seversk, N.I. Kuzmenko, fax: (7-8242) 776-728.

--Absolute Poverty According to ILO statistics, 30% of Russia’s population has income below the subsistence minimum. That is a proportion five times higher than ten years ago.


Kuzbass: A Labour Movement Facing Oriental Despotism

An inquiry by Karin Clément

On April 22, 2001, Aman Tuleev was reelected governor of Kemerovo Region (Kuzbass, Central Siberia) with 96% of the votes. His score reflected the weakness of his opponents, media propaganda in his support, electoral demagoguery (pensions rose right before the elections) and a 30% rate of absenteeism. Tuleev’s opponent call him the Khan, an all-powerful oriental despot who governs with well-honed populist rhetoric, playing on regional patriotism and defence of the regional economy. Tuleev controls with an iron hand the regions businessmen, natural resources (wood, non-ferrous metals, coal, chemicals) and state institutions (police, judiciary and local administrations).

In contrast to what the governor claims, the region in fact is a disaster area due to the massive closure of coal mines (an operation directed by the IMF since the start of the 1990s), the slowness in creating alternative employment in other sectors, and the influence of the mafia, which is closely linked to the government.

The labour movement is too weak to change the situation and to resist the undemocratic practices of the government. Yet, this is the region where the most important labour mobilizations of the Perestroika took place in 1989-90. It was here too that the "rail wars" began in the summer of 1998 (blockade of the Transiberian railway line). But today most of the former activists are dispirited. Some have gone into business, while others have been co-opted into the hierarchy of power. Still others have just sunk into passivity. Few remain active in the labour movement. And when one examines the correlation of forces more closely, it is not hard to understand why.

Andzhero-Sudzhensk: Rebel City

This city of less than 100,000 in South Kuzbass seems in its death throes. With its many mines and plants closed, supposedly accomplished in a "civilized" manner, its economy is ravaged. Only the walls of the buildings attest to the town’s lost industrial strength. Anything of value has been taken apart and sold. A landscape after war. And housing is not in much better shape, especially the ramshackle and comfortless wooden cottages of the miners. Only the abodes of the mayor and plant directors,... and the building of the state employment agency, stand out from the general devastation with their luxury and numerous guards. (Some deranged miner might get the idea of coming to the employment agency for help).

Despite the moral fatigue, the sense of impotence and fatalism, a group of about one hundred men and women continue to fight for their rights against corruption and arbitrary power. They belong mostly to the local section of the Siberian Confederation of Labour and to the Zashchita Truda (Defense of Labour) trade union. The movement is led by Vladimir Vorobev, a small man with an emaciated face. He was fired in 1998 and, persecuted for being a "shit-disturber", he has not been able to work since. His wife is a teacher, and with their son they live on 280 rubles (about $10 US) a month, which just about covers rent and utilities. For the rest, they manage on the solidarity of activists and small temporary jobs. The region’s press calls Vladimir a dangerous extremist, a gangster, pedophile and whatever else. But this does not stop him. He led the "rail wars" mobilization in the summer of 1998, and today, given the decline in activism, he is trying to work through the courts. He has cases going against a half dozen institutions and enterprises and even against the governor, who publicly called him a "terrorist who destabilizes the region and foments civil war." Given the level of corruption, he rarely win cases, but he keeps on and can count a few victories.

He and another activist, Ekaterina Kalanda, have been charged with illegal activity. This is part of endless attempts to criminalize the labour movement. It has to do with the Sudzhenskii Coal-Enrichment Factory, where Ekaterina worked for 36 years. The plant was declared bankrupt in 1997, but the workers, who held 10% of the shares, were not informed at a general assembly, as required by law. Nor were they paid the compensation they were due as stockholders. Since then, the workers, about 420 people, led by Vladimir and Ekaterina, have been fighting for two things: compensation and for the closure to be declared illegal. They are demanding an independent commission of inquiry of the Ministry of Energy, which was promised months ago.

According to Vladimir, "the backbone of our organization are workers of the Sudhzenksii plant, mostly women, and they are very militant. In January 1998, 60 workers went on a 16-day hunger strike for wages that had not been paid for two years. During that action, the workers found documents that proved there was a conspiracy to illegally close the plant. But the courts don’t even reply to our complaints."

In November 2000, a delegation went to Moscow to pressure the Ministry of Energy, which is responsible for the "social plan" that is supposed to accompany the mine closures. But to this day only a tiny part of the money from the IMF for this purposes has reached any workers. There is strong reason to believe the money has been misappropriated.

But those responsible do not seem worried. On the contrary, it is the worker activists who stand accused. The management of the Sudzhenskii plant has lodged a complaint against Vladimir and Ekaterina, alleging theft of materials that were used in a failed attempt to set up a "people’s" enterprise, using abandoned plant equipment. Both leaders and their families regularly received threats of physical violence. On there part, they are constantly denouncing the authorities. In one case they revealed that the son of Sudzhenskii’s director has been selling off at $40 US a ton the three millions tons of coal residue left over after the plant’s closure. According to Ekaterina: "This is pure profit. The workers don’t even see the colour of this money. Everyone knows the sale is illegal, but we can’t get any action."

This is an illustration of similar goings-on in dozens of plants. The scenario is the same: unjustified closure accompanied by all sorts of legal violations, including misuse of IMF money, theft of equipment and materials, unfulfilled promises of the creation new enterprises and jobs, total contempt for workers’ rights. All this under the approving eye of the governor. During our visit to the governor’s office, an official listed all the newly created plants in the Andzhero area since 1998. But when we checked on the spot, we found that almost none of these plants was in working state, even those inaugurated with great pomp by the governor himself. The machine-building shop set up on the site of the Andzherskii Coal-Enrichment Factory is rusting away. The Sherbnovskii open-pit mine is being flooded and mining has not begun. Meanwhile, the neighbouring Andhzerskaya mine, who seams have not been fully exploited, has just been closed. A newly-opened textile mills is already on the verge of bankruptcy.

Across the Kuznets Basin, 35 mines have been closed, putting at least 35,000 people directly out of work along with many more who depend on the mining industry. Non of this is reflected in the official figures of the employment agency.

But Tuleev’s patriotic rhetoric has its effect. Under the guise of defending the region’s economy, he is taking control of the enterprises and eliminating all competition, whether it comes from workers or private entrepreneurs. He has made good use of police violence.

The Chernigovets Open-Pit Mine

The story of this mine resembles that of other "people’s enterprises" created during the same period by workers in various regions. In February 1998, not having been paid for months, the workers, who held 53% of the shares, replaced the director and set up a control commission of stockholders and a workers’ council to supervise management. The union also came to life. After looking at different alternatives, the workers turned to an outside investor, the firm Mikom, whose social and economic policies seemed positive. Mikom acquired a majority share and became the plant’s main supplier. Production started up, wages began to be paid (about $130 US a month), and a social programme was launched.

It was then that Tuleev began to worry about this enterprise "on the verge of bankruptcy." Through various intermediaries, he exerted pressure in order to get his own people into top management positions at the plant and make the firm MirInvest the main stockholder. The workers blockaded entrances several times to keep Tuleev’s people out. On November 30, 1999, they voted to turn the plan into a "people’s enterprise." At this point, the employees held 70% of the shares. They had the agreement of Mikom, which held the other shares. This was the last straw for Tuleev, who used armed force to oust the elected director. Today, the mine is controlled by the governor through MirInvest, headed by his trusted people.

The leaders of this workers’ rebellion have been marginalized. One of them, Vladimir Mikhailov, greeted us from his sickbed with a herniated disk. Pale and discouraged, he told how he was demoted, how he and his daughter were threatened with dismissal by the new management each time they tried to mobilize people, how his comrades in struggle have all been fired or left on their own, fed up.

Production at the plant is down, wages are stagnating. Nothing remains of the former enthusiasm for self-management. People are afraid. Management encourages spying. A visit to the mine confirms that everything is "normal", as the workers say. The union is again under management’s control.

The Novokuznetsk Metallurgical Complex (NMC)

"Normalization" was managed somehwat better by the employees of Siberia’s main metallurgical plant in Novokuznetsk. They also rebelled in 1998, after wages had not been paid for a year and management’s abuses had become intolerable. The mobilization began from below, from the shops, whose exasperated workers feared for the future of the plant. In June 1998, they organized union elections and removed all the old leaders. Andrei Denyakin, a foreman in the lamination shop, was elected president.

However, the battles at the top among the shareholders predominated over the workers’ mobilization. The union committee called in an outside investor to right the situation, the same Mikom, whose economic and social policies the employees found attractive. It was the appearance of this direct competitor with Tuleev in the region that put the spark to the powder. The forces of order intervened on November 27, 1999, and Tuleevs’ people are now in charge of the plant via the Evrametal firm, the new stockholder imposed by Tuleev.

But in contrast to what is happening at Tchernigovets, the union committee here is resisting "normalization" rather better. Thanks to the authority the union gained among the wokers during the conflict, it enjoys a relatively favourable correlation of forces vis-à-vis the director. Andrei says the collective agreement is a good one, as it guarantees relatively high wages and their timely payment. But apart from Andrei, who is under enormous pressure from the local authorities and media, and a few shop committee leaders, most of the employees are passive, fearing retaliation from management and content to let Andrei defend their interests without them. The time of collective mobilization has passed for now. People have learned what it costs to defend their rights and to oppose the governor. The majority now prefer silence or else they vote for the "Khan."


Editorial committee: David Mandel (Canada), Carine Clément, Denis Paillard (France).
For all correspondence: Messager syndical c/o D. Paillard, 156 rue Oberkampf, 75011 Paris.

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