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Information Bulletin on the Union Movement in Russia

February-March 2002, no. 17


Teachers’ Unions

Of all the spheres of activity, education has suffered the most from Russia’s economic and social crisis of the past ten years. If the schools are still functioning despite the lack of money for repairing buildings, printing textbooks and sometimes even for heat, it is mainly thanks to the sense of responsibility of the teachers, mostly women, who continue to exercise their profession in face of terrible difficulties. Teachers are among the lowest-paid workers in Russia. In 2000, their average wage was 1424 rubles or about 36 $US a month, as a opposed to the average national salary of $79. Teachers have also been hit hardest by the practice of not paying wages, which can be observed in half of the regions of Russia. (Teachers’ wages depend on the regional governments). Wage arrears, after having declined following the financial collapse of 1998, are rising again at a rate of 5-10% per month and are equal to 34 billion rubles ($1.1 billion) in February 2002.

Strikes to demand payment of wages are again occurring in schools, especially in Siberia, the Urals, the Pacific-coast region, Krasnodar, Tver. They break out mostly spontaneously after wages have not been paid for several months and are led by ad-hoc strike committees. Although the authorities claim they have no money, the strikes generally result in their finding enough to pay at least part of the arrears, though rarely all of them... As a result, teachers are soon forced to repeat the strikes. The problem is that the strikes remain isolated, not reaching even a regional scale.

This allows the government to go on claiming it has liquidated wage arrears. Moreover, it is announcing a pay rise in accordance with commitments made when the Labour-Code reform was adopted. A law of 25 October 2001 raised the minimum wage from 132 to 450 rubles (about $15.5) for the least skilled category of public workers. But this "gift" was accompanied by a reform of the wage scale for public workers, which collapsed differential coefficients from 1-10 to 1-4.5. This means that teachers’ wages, which are in the middle categories of the public sector, will remain practically unchanged. The Union of Education Workers affiliated with the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR -- successor to the Soviet unions) agreed to this wage reform. The alternative unions opposed it, but to no effect for now, and the government has refused to negotiate with them despite a low adopted on October 25 that obliged it to negotiate the wage reform with all national unions.

To complete this picture, it should be mentioned that the plans for educational reform (in effect, creeping privatization) have for now been shelved, following protests by teachers in February 2001, organized by the FNPR. However, they have not been buried. In addition, the new Labour Code worsens the situation of teachers in that they can now be fired for "violating the school’s rules," something that could affect their ability to mobilize.

(See UM no. 7 of February 2001 for more information on the teachers’ situation in Russia.)


Interviews with Union Activists
Umida Borodina is president of the Free Union of Teachers of Russia (an alternative union)

Union Messenger: Where do you work?

Umida Borodina: At present, I am working in a school in a Moscow suburb. I teach history in the higher grades. I have 28 hours of classroom work.. I belong to the Sotsprof union confederation where I am president of the federation of teachers’ unions.

UM: Whom do these unions represent?

UB: They are a coalition of alternative teachers’ unions. They joined together in 1996 at a founding congress in a period of growing protest. But when the wave subsided, the coalition fell apart. There was, however, another congress in October 2001 that breathed new life into it. I was elected president. This federation includes teachers’ unions that are affiliated to Sotprof, Zashchita, the Confederation of Labour of Russia, the All-Russian Confederation of Labour and regional unions in the Urals, Siberia, Voronezh and elsewhere. In all, we are present in 45 regions, but it is hard to specify the number of teachers, since our members are unions and not individuals. Also, the membership of these unions varies a lot according to the level of mobilization as well as repressions against the alternative unions.

UM: What is the nature of you relations with the FNPR?

UB: We are in sharp opposition to the policies of its leadership. We all came out of the FNPR. In the schools, local and regional FNPR leaders are conducting a destructive policy and often impede mobilization. Rank-and-file FNPR members might sometimes support a strike, but not actively. They often remain passive observers. But we maintain polite relations with them and try to activate them.

UM: Maybe you can tell us about one of the mobilization in which you participated.

UB: Before coming to Moscow, I worked at a school in Penza on the Volga. We went on strike in September 1998 because we had not been paid since May. At the start, the strike was part of a one-day national strike called by the FNPR. But a day before the strike, the FNPR leadership suddenly went into reverse, claiming that the Primakov government had made certain promises. But the teachers in my school struck anyway, electing a strike committee made up mainly of Sotsprof activists but supported by the others.

At the end of the strike, the teachers voted to go to court over non-payment of wages. I was elected to negotiate with the school administration and also to represent the workers before the court. I gathered 98 individual suits, including some from FNPR-affiliated teachers. We won.. They tried many tricks to reduce the sum owed, but in the end we got the arrears and compensation for the delay and for the massive inflation that followed the financial collapse of August 1998. The leadership of the FNPR union in the school had to follow our lead, or else it would have been discredited. We thus play the role of catalyst for discontented workers, forcing the FNPR to act.

For example, my school was firing three or four people every year because the number of students was declining, a consequence of the drop of natality in Russia. Sotsprof never gave its approval to these dismissals, unlike FNPR. (The old Labour Code gave unions an effective veto over dismissals.) But as this became known to teachers, FNPR had to follow our example.

UM: What is the situation at present in your school?

UB: The situation in Moscow’s suburbs is among the worst. The younger and more dynamic teachers are leaving for other work. Mainly pension-age teachers remain. We have one teacher of Russian who just celebrated his 85th birthday! One simply cannot live on our salary. According to one’s level, one earns between 830 rubles ($27.5) and 1630 ($54.3) for 18 hours of classroom teaching. So most people do 1.5 or two shifts. I earn about 2100 rubles ($70) a month. We also get a 20% bonus for working in the Moscow region, but we haven’t seen that in ages. The head of the FNPR-affiliated union at the school tried to take action to get the bonus, but she wasn’t support by the city leadership. She was told to avoid conflict and to try to find an understanding with the administration. She finally quit as head of the union.

As for myself, I am now conducting mainly "educational" work. I’m trying to persuade teachers to leave the FNPR in order to be in a position to defend themselves. I won’t form an alternative union there unless I feel I have majority support.

UM: What do you think of the government’s wage rise for teachers?

UB: It’s a mirage. They raise the bottom salary and then collapse the differentials, which comes down to leaving the salaries as they were. Sotsprof lodged a complaint with the Supreme Court alleging violation of the law that requires the government to negotiate this with all unions, not only the FNPR. The court rejected the complaint, saying the Sotsprof is not a member of the Tripartite Commission. But the law does not require that for a union to participate in the negotiations. We are going to fight for a real wage rise, that is, to keep the old coefficients. But it’s hard, since the alternative unions are still very small and have to deal with pressure both from the administrations and from FNPR. Our hope is to see the rise of a solidary, militant trade-union movement.

UM: Besides wages, what are your other demands?

UB: First of all, we have to fight non-payment of wages, a phenomenon that is again on the rise on a large scale. The regional authorities cite a lack of money, but that’s a lie. They use the wages of their employees to blackmail the central government into giving them a larger budget. But the money is there. Our unions are thus forced to strike.

As for the necessary reform of the educational system, we feel it should strengthen the role of the state and not favour privatization. We need centralization so that students in different regions get equal treatment. We oppose the tendency to institute tracking, a practice that condemns weaker students, mostly from poorer families. We want teachers to be consulted on school reform. We demand that teachers be given the right to supervise the use of the school budget. But most of all, we demand a vast programme of investment to raise the quality of education and stop the flight of teachers from the profession. Russia’s future depends on it.

UM: Do you have relations with foreign unions?

UB: Very little at present. But we will join the International Secretariat.

Interview with Nikolai Kolbashkin, Secretary for International Relations, Union of Education Workers, FNPR

UM: What are the main orientations of your union?

NK: Defence of the social and economic rights of teachers.

UM: Are you satisfied with the reform of wage scales in the public sector?

NK: Yes, wages are rising on the average by 50%. Wages are a central issue for us. Even after this last raise, teachers’ pay does not reach the minimal subsistence level. This results in the loss of teachers, especially men, often the best. Over the long term, we aim to obtain at least equal wages with industry. But at present, with this current rise, it would not be wise to exert pressure. But I realize the current increase will soon be erased by inflation.

UM: Some say that the wage increase really amounted to nothing, since the scale was collapsed, reducing the coefficients.

NK: Not so. The only problem is the threat to bonuses and regional supplements. We haven’t reached an agreement with the national government to preserve these. The local unions are demanding payment from the regional authorities.

UM: What means are you using to attain your ends?

NK: First of all, we rely on the law and on negotiations. We have obtained full recognition of our role and so we can influence the top. It’s the same thing at the regional and local levels. As a last recourse, when they leave us no choice, we organize strikes. Our last national strike was in February 2001 to protest plans to reform the school system by disengagement the state and massive introduction of fees. We also launched a petition campaign that gathered 1.5 million signatures and we decorated the walls of the Duma with it. The reform was not passed.

We are also concerned with financing of education. We try to keep a watch on how the funds allocated by the national government are spent. The State Treasury sends us reports which we transmit to local unions. But we are still a long way from order and transparency. We also observe a tendency for the central government to disengage itself, reducing its subsidies to the regions for education.

UM: And what about non-payment of salaries?

NK: It exists on a smaller scale than a few years ago. It affects only the distant regions and is not massive in character. In 1996, we reacted strongly against this practice. We even lodged a complaint with the ILO against the government. As a result, each year our government had to give an account to it. I think this pressure played a role in stopping the practice. And it still does. You saw the reports on television about our union members on hunger strikes in the Far East. After the broadcast, they were quickly paid.

UM: You seem to place a lot of stock in dialogue with the authorities and school administrations. Is that strategy really effective?

NK: Yes, for now cooperation yields results. So why not use it? Conflict is not always the best way to obtain things. Besides, it is not at all easy to mobilize people. You have to take into account the psychological factor. Two or three years ago, teachers were very discouraged, and you couldn’t ask much of them.

UN: What do you think of the alternative unions?

NK: No problem. Any organization has the right to exist if it is useful to the group it wants to defend. But there aren’t any alternative unions in education. Sure, some declare they exist, but they give no proof. Let them show membership cards!

UM: But you must know that the strength of a union can’t be reduced to the number of numbers.

NK: It’s in the capacity to mobilize, I know. There’s some truth to that, but we have 5.5 million members. If a fifth participate in a national action, we’re happy. It’s a lot of people. It’s the huge mass of people we represent that makes them listen to us.

UM: Do you have relations with French Unions?

NK: With two: FSU and UNSA-Education. Five or six years ago were organized together educational workshop in the regions. It was very useful. But now we have largely caught up in that area. We were educated by the problems we encountered. We need solidarity, especially through the International Secretariat.

Contact: (Vladimir Yakovlev, President)


Calls for Solidarity

MacDonalds ATTAC-Voronezh together with the movement "The World Is Not a Commodity" formed a coalition on March 14 to "Stop MacDonalds".. It unites citizens, ecologists, artists and other organizations to stop construction of a restaurant in the historic centre of the city, on the centre’s last remaining park-site. There has been a demonstration, and a petition is circulating. The committee demands an end to the construction, which is prohibited by the city plans. It demands reconstruction of the park and protection of the historic sites. Despite the violations involved in the sale of the land, which have been recognized by the procuracy, the mayor and MacDonalds insist on proceeding.

Messages of support can be sent to "StopMacDonalds" (< and letters of protest to the mayor (A. Kovalev, Mayor of Voronezh, Lenin Square 1, Voronezh 39400 Russia), as well as to MacDonald’s Russia (<>; fax: 7-901-9933883).


Kazakhstan -- Appeal to Solidarity with Miners

Since February 24, Alexander Chupik has been on hunger strike. 45 years old, he is an activists of the "Solidarity" union. He was illegally fired in July 2001 by the Ten-Tekskoi mine in the Karaganda basin. The mine belongs to the multinational Ispat-Karmet that is conducting a policy of constant wage reductions and intensification of labour. He was fired after an illness reduced his work capacity by 25%. But the real reason is his union activity. He is demanding his job back, denouncing corruption of the judiciary and the practices of multinational corporations in Kazakhstan. A week ago, he was joined by ten trade unionists from Karaganda.

Send protests to: Director Prezentu G.M.
Coal Department of Ispat-Karmet
ul. 40 let Kazakhstanu, 14
Karaganda, Kazakhstan


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

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