The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Russia:
A Springtime of Strikes

Jun 21, 2007

The following article is translated from Issue #106, July 2007 of Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the magazine of the revolutionary Trotskyist organization Lutte Ouvrière.

Since Putin’s re-election as president of the Russian Federation in 2004, the number of movements and protests around social issues has grown steadily, though somewhat hesitantly. More and more people have gotten involved, and some recently joined a union or went on strike.

In early 2005, there was so much anger among Russian retirees that half a million people participated in demonstrations in nearly 600 cities. This spontaneous mobilization was unprecedented for recent times, and it came as a surprise to the authorities. The mobilization was in reaction to the passage of Federal Law #122 that had practically eliminated all forms of state-provided benefits, such as free access to public transportation, as well as medicine. These benefits had been a hold-over from the Soviet era, and were very important to retirees and people on disability pensions. The government promised to provide financial compensation for eliminating these benefits, but no one believed such promises. They remembered how, in a matter of months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, inflation had eaten up salaries, pensions and savings – and how millions of people, especially the elderly, had been plunged into poverty and misery.

Retirees, Hostel Residents and Workers

This upsurge by ordinary people forced the authorities to repeal the new law, along with similar measures targeting students. The students were not even mobilized. But Putin preferred not to test whether they had the same stamina as the babushkas (“old women”) who had challenged the police in order to defend the few benefits that still came with their pensions.

After the government backed down, the movement stopped. But it seems that these events changed something for many people. Today, in the provinces or in the districts that include Russia’s two big cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, groups of people often organize around issues like rate increases for mass transit or the expenses tenants have to pay on top of their rents. There were, for instance, organized protests against the 2005 modification of the Housing Code that transferred building maintenance expenses from the property owner, usually a publicly-run body, to the tenant. These changes made it more difficult and more expensive for most people to find a place to live. There were also protests against the eviction of workers or students from their hostels. After the privatization of the real estate market in the 1990s, rents went sky-high. The hostels were uncomfortable and sometimes unsanitary, and the authorities wanted to shut them down. But for a young couple or family, they were often the only affordable housing.

But the most important consequence of the government’s attacks was the return of more movements, especially those launched by fractions of the working class. Of course, it is difficult to assess from afar how big these movements are. Our main available source is the Russian press, which does not cover all the social unrest in the country – to say the least. Last March, the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, a financial monthly that advertises itself as “a capitalist tool,” published a survey of the latest strikes and recently created unions under the headline, “Workers move against capital.” However, as far as we can judge, only a small number of workplaces have been touched. In most of Russia’s huge regions, nothing of the sort has been reported – up till now.

The “Official” Union…

The strikes reported by the press were for better wages, better contracts, or to force the boss to accept a contract. These fights were aimed at forcing management to respect the few rights which are granted to workers by the Labor Code. One of them is the right to set up a union, particularly a union not affiliated with the “official” Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (Federatsiya Nezavisimykh Profsoyuzov Rossii—FNPR).

The FNPR, which appears almost like part of the public authorities and company management, is the heir to the former state-run structure that controlled the workers and the workplaces under Brezhnev and Gorbachev. Its “independent” name does not reflect its true role. In fact, it plays the same role (being officially recognized as the workers’ representative by the company hierarchy and the authorities) and enjoys the same resources (through the management of social benefits) as the “unions” of the ex-USSR. Being a member of the FNPR usually means having access to kindergartens and holiday camps for your children, cheap lodgings, vouchers for company-run holiday resorts, etc.

The FNPR claims 31.5 million members, that is, 42.5% of Russia’s 74 million-strong workforce (69 million wage-earners and 5 million unemployed). At its last congress at the end of 2006, the FNPR again reported losing adherents to “unofficial” unions. According to the FNPR, these unions have around 2.5 million members: 1.5 million for the VKT (All-Russian Confederation of Labor), which is the biggest; half a million for Sotsprof (Social Trade Unions) and roughly the same for a couple of others, like Zashchita Truda (Defense of Labor).

After the USSR disintegrated, the FNPR claimed to be the defender of the “collective interests of labor” – a formulation that does not distinguish between the top brass and the ordinary workers. During the privatization period, the FNPR used all its influence to persuade workers at tens of thousands of factories that they should not allow their companies to be grabbed up by “foreigners.” In other words, they asked workers to help local managers and the local or national bureaucrats who supported them to take over ownership and control of the companies.

The FNPR supported company managers it deemed “legitimate.” But on some occasions, it also had to go along with militant workers’ struggles. The most famous example of this was the 1998 sit-down strike at the TsBK plant in Vyborg. Workers fought battles against the police and company thugs. TsBK is a cellulose production plant which the bureaucrats wanted to sell to a Western company.

Workers no doubt viewed the FNPR’s corporatist attitude as a lesser evil in the chaotic post-Soviet era. This fact, combined with continued support from the authorities, explains how the FNPR has maintained its near-hegemony in the working class, though it is steadily losing ground to the so-called “alternative” unions.

…And the “Independent” Unions

During the Soviet era, “union” bosses and the union apparatuses belonged to similar or complementary social strata as their bureaucratic counterparts. Working hand in hand, they shared similar interests. This was visible in the relations between management, union leaders and the workers, which remained more or less paternalistic – so long as the workers did not make any demands.

This social and human framework was the cornerstone of the FNPR’s hegemony. Today, it is slowly crumbling and even disappearing, given Russia’s recent internal developments. First, the way management operates has changed, especially in the companies where there is Western investment. The people who run these companies have also changed. Second, the new unions appeal more to the combative layers of the working class. At the same time, the younger generation of workers is much less deferential toward management (including the “company union”) than was the older generation.

In these conditions, bosses could be quite willing to make room for “independent” unions, especially since the national leaders of these unions have done their best to fully install themselves in today’s Russian society – just as it is.

For instance, Sotsprof’s leader Sergei Khramov started off saying he was “apolitical,” but nonetheless joined the Social-Democratic Party, then the Russian Labor Party. Later Khramov joined three different nationalist organizations before ending up (for the time being) in a Kremlin-sponsored party claiming to fight for the “working man”! There is also the case of Alexander Sergeiev, chairman of the Independent Miners’ Union (NPG). Sergeiev was a member of Yeltsin’s team of advisers. The leaders of the pilots’ union were the co-founders of the Democratic Choice Party run by Egor Gaidar, Yeltsin’s right-hand man at the time of the “shock therapy.” Then there’s union leader Oleg Shein, co-chairman of Defense of Labor, who for years was the idol of a few far-left groups inside and outside Russia. After being elected as a “Marxist” deputy in 1999, he joined a nationalist party and became a member of that party’s political bureau – before joining a pro-Putin party!

All these self-styled “independent” unions have opaque, anti-democratic practices. The union top brass is not held accountable, and the rank-and-file has no control over the union’s political direction, which is decided solely by bureaucrats.

Ford, GM, Renault and Others

Under these circumstances, strikes started developing a few months ago. Several of these strikes were partly successful. The strikes especially hit the branches and businesses set up by Western investors: McDonald’s, Heineken, Coca-Cola and others – including the car industry where a strike in one company would quickly extend to another car company or a neighboring plant, even if it had nothing to do with car-making.

Last March, workers in the Ford plant in Vsevolozhsk, near St. Petersburg, went on strike for the third time in a few months. The strikers quickly obtained 14 to 20% wage increases (the equivalent of $100 a month), extra days off to compensate for the hard work and official recognition of their union. Created in 2006, this union claims a membership representing 70% of the workforce.

Encouraged by this example, St. Petersburg postal truck drivers went on strike at the beginning of April. Some of them left the FNPR when they went on strike, declaring they wanted to set up their own union. The same thing happened in Nevskie Porogi, in the area of Vsevolozhsk. The workers at a packaging company demanded a wage increase, double pay for working on holidays, access to the plant for the labor inspector and an on-site office for the newly created “alternative” union. These demands tell us a lot about the working conditions and management’s total lack of respect for the workers’ few legal rights.

Also in the spring, there was a struggle at the GM-Avtovaz works, a joint venture in the city of Togliatti. In a court procedure, the company had to take back fired autoworkers who had joined Edintsvo (“Unity”), a so-called “autonomous” trade union. Indeed, the bosses often get rid of those who get organized or try to organize their fellow workers. The fact is that today, in Russia, many strikes are launched to obtain the rehiring of fired unionists. Some of these struggles go on for months or even years.

There was also a strike in a Moscow cigarette factory for similar demands plus a wage increase. The strike received the support of the FNPR and, ultimately, management gave in. The same scenario was repeated at Yarpivo’s, a Yaroslavl industrial brewery. In Perm, one of the biggest cities in the Urals, the workers of the city bus depot set up a Zashchita Truda union local to oppose the managers’ “restructuring” plans.

In May, it was Renault’s turn to face a strike in its Moscow Avtoframos plant. Two years ago, in Global, one of Renault’s own publications, the French car-maker boasted that it had built “the biggest foreign automobile factory in Russia,” because the company’s “number one concern was cost.” The magazine did not mention the workers’ monthly wages: around 15,000 rubles ($580), nor the fact that in Moscow, the average monthly salary is higher than anywhere else in Russia, reaching 25,000 rubles. But Global did explain that Renault’s cars were “completely hand-made” in this plant.

In other words, Renault had decided to spend as little as possible on machinery, and it was thanks to the workers’ hard labor that it announced in October that Avtoframos had produced its 50,000th Logan model. Five weeks later, the workers got official recognition for the union they had just created – a local of the same regional union workers had created at Ford, Nokian Tires and GM-Avtovaz.

At the same time, the union sent management an advance notice of a strike. Their main demand was for a 30% wage increase. However, the union leaders are well aware that a strike can be put off for a long time simply by abiding by the legal procedures. Russia’s federal laws and Labor Code impose very restrictive conditions for a strike to be declared “legal.” This includes the creation of a “conflict resolution commission,” weekly workers’ meetings in the presence of management, a majority vote at each and every ballot, the publication of a protocol listing the strikers’ demands and a strike call issued by an officially recognized union. These constraints are of course meant to nip in the bud the workers’ attempts at defending their interests. And this is why the strikers often choose to ignore them!

From Perestroika to Today

During what turned out to be the final years of the USSR, there had been massive strikes by miners who supported Yeltsin against Gorbachev. Then, in the 1990s, during Yeltsin’s two terms as president, strikes became rare.

The working class, like the rest of the country’s population, was disoriented by the collapse of the USSR at the end of 1991 and its consequences. These included the privatizations and carving up of the economy, the “shock therapy,” the social and political chaos, the dramatic drop in the living conditions of millions of people. Their salaries were paid only after long delays and were also eaten up by inflation. Still another blow was dealt by the financial crash of 1998 and its consequences.

In such a context, the only workers who went on strikes were those who felt cornered and fought with their backs to the wall, simply to get their wages paid or to prevent their company’s shutdown. Or they were workers in highly concentrated economic sectors, who were in a better position to defend themselves and whose jobs could not be easily replaced. Some of the “alternative” unions that were formed during perestroika still survive in these sectors, including among the coal miners (NDPR), locomotive engineers, pilots, air traffic controllers, dockworkers, etc. In August 2005, the 2,300-strong union of the St. Petersburg dockers (RPD) went on strike, forcing their employers to negotiate a new collective contract requiring that the bosses respect the “minimal norms of working conditions fixed by law.” Teachers, workers in the energy sector and hospital workers often went on strike in an entire city, region or even nationwide. In October 2005, teachers, whose wages were so low the government had already planned to grant them a 20% raise, demanded a 50% increase.

Today, in Russia, the overall situation remains roughly the same – except for the number of strikes. Western newspapers describe a supposed recovery of Russia’s economy, based on sky-rocketing prices for oil and gas – of which Russia is one of the biggest producer-exporters. The media made it sound as if the workers’ standard of living had improved. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Which “Recovery”? And for Whose Benefit?

In the big cities, there is a lot of construction, especially of skyscrapers and luxury apartment buildings for the elite. But ordinary people find it more and more difficult to get decent housing. As for the hundreds of thousands of construction workers and public works employees, most of whom come from central Asia, they are treated like slaves. They often have no other choice than to sleep on the building site. When they are hired, their bosses take away their legal papers. They are harassed by the police who extort money from these so-called “illegal” workers. They are paid less than what could be called a minimum wage. Immigrants from countries that used to be part of the USSR or from China often work for Siberian lumber companies and other industries in the provinces, and their conditions are even worse.

True, the wages of those who have a valid Russian “internal” passport have increased. According to the government’s statistics, wages have doubled. But there was an enormous loss in purchasing power during the 1990s. According to the same statistics, today’s wages buy 20% less than in 1989! And very often, two-thirds or three-quarters of the paycheck is made up of bonuses, which vary from month to month and are not guaranteed. This is the case even in very prosperous sectors like the oil industry, the so-called driver of economic “recovery!” When thousands of workers at Neftyugansk, in Surgut, Siberia’s main oil producing center, went on strike in July 2006, one of their main demands was not just higher wages, but that their wages be guaranteed. And they won.

Under Putin, a New Labor Code was adopted in 2001 that merely reflects the existing relationship of forces between employers and wage-earners. For example, it says that a worker can be asked to work 12 hours a day, or that the employer can force workers to do 12 hours of overtime a week. And, if workers agree, they can be asked to work 16 hours of overtime.

There is little investment in production. So productivity gains are made mainly through an increased workload. The few limitations that can be found in the Labor Code are often ignored by the employers, including in sectors that have nothing to do with basic production. In the service sector for example, employees and management are asked to work six or seven days a week. The number of days they get off in a week or a year are more or less decided by management. People work 10 hours a day or more in places that are “open 24 hours a day” – which includes banks, small retailers, etc. This explains perhaps why, in late 2006, an “autonomous” union was set up by the employees of the Moscow branch of Citibank, one of Russia’s top financial companies!

The curse of the previous decade – unpaid wages – has not disappeared. For example, the wages of workers at Kholodmash, a company in Yaroslavl that makes industrial cooling equipment, have frequently not been paid since 2003. So they organized countless work stoppages, worker meetings and sit-downs. They also set up a union, although the woman who initiated it was later fired. The same situation plagued the workers of two plants situated in Rybinsk (north of Moscow): Polygraphmash (printing machines) and Rybinkhleb (agribusiness). Toward the end of 2006, the union at Rybinkhleb called on workers not to cash their paychecks, since their wages had been cut to the equivalent of $43 per month. At about the same time, the Tula steelworkers started a hunger strike because the company had stopped paying them months before. The most recent example of unpaid wages is that of the AKDP industrial complex, which makes children’s food products. Upon being warned that workers were about to go on strike, management gave them part of the five-month’s wages the company owed them, threatening to fire those who wouldn’t go along with the deal.

The Point of View of Business

Emphasizing the low level of Russian workers’ wages, an article in Forbes magazine explained, “Russian employers are prepared to give 10 to 15% wage increases.” Of course, this is true only if they are forced to do it.

Kommersant, an influential newspaper in Russian business circles, published another very instructive article, entitled, “A School for Managers about Unions.” The article discusses the recent strikes and the consolidation of the “independent” unions which often initiated them:

By 2006, experts had already forecast a more costly workforce in the Moscow and St. Petersburg plants. For the time being, the automobile companies themselves aren’t too upset about their conflicts with workers in Russia. At GM’s Russian headquarters, word has it that ‘the present level of our collaborators’ wages and benefits allows us to remain competitive.’ Nissan is ‘aware of the situation and ready to engage in a constructive dialogue with the workers.’ Toyota and Volkswagen issued a ‘no comment’.... Russian car makers are totally serene. The managers of Severstal Alto declared that they ‘had no divergences with the unions at the factories.’ Those at Avtovaz underlined the fact that the Unity trade union local created no problem since less than one percent of the workforce had joined.

Given the number of companies where “independent” unions are not tolerated, given that the small handful of workers who set up a union are usually fired and the union decapitated, the employers are perhaps not as “serene” as they would like everybody to believe. And it’s a good bet their “serenity” would disappear if more strikes were to develop and further attempts were made to organize unions different from the FNPR. Indeed, whether or not there has been a genuine economic and political stabilization under Putin, the bureaucrats, the nouveaux riches and the authentic members of the bourgeoisie who shared out the country’s plants among themselves are very aware of the fragility of their social position.

What Perspectives?

As revolutionaries, we can only welcome what appears to be a revival of activity of the Russian working class – although, as we already said, it is difficult to really gauge the extent and depth of the movement from such a distance.

There are also many questions about the situation. Are the struggles mostly defensive, or has the workers’ self-confidence been reinforced by their fights? Do some of those active in these struggles also raise questions concerning Russia’s future, the transformations the country has been through so far and the direction it has taken?

The only answers to such questions are political. And they cannot be expected to come from the present Russian parties or those in positions of leadership in the unions, including “independent” unions.

The Russian working class needs not only to revive its class struggle reflexes, but also to rediscover the ideas of the class struggle. There must be people who find these ideas, who are conscious of the absolute necessity of the class struggle and who can transmit these ideas and this consciousness to the working class. This means there must be people who seek to understand what has happened in Russia and in the Soviet Union over more than a century, and what the stakes have been for the classes and social groups there. This is important not only for the future of Russian society, but for that of the international workers’ movement and finally for humanity.

Today, from afar, it’s hard to know whether such people exist. But in some areas of this huge industrialized country, with its large and highly concentrated working class present throughout most of Russia’s territory, there are at least small groups of workers or of intellectuals who seem to question seriously where Russia is headed.

To what extent will these groups or individuals be able to develop the answers to their questions? Only time will tell. But this future also depends on their willingness to regain socialist and communist ideas, those of the class struggle, to recognize that such ideas are useful and indispensable for the workers.

One can’t really compare two periods, with very big differences, set more than a century apart. But the fact is that the Social-Democratic Party of Russia emerged out of a host of small groups scattered all over the enormous Czarist empire. Initially, these groups represented only themselves. But thanks to their persistence and their modesty, they found the road that led to the social-democracy, from which sprang Bolshevism.

The one thing certain is that the Russian working class will have to fight. The bureaucracy’s greed is as great as that of the bourgeoisie, and it will probably leave the workers no other solution. And the more the workers fight, the more they will need socialist, communist and revolutionary ideas, those of the conscious and organized class struggle. Will the existing small groups be able to rediscover, stand for and transmit the revolutionary ideas of Marxism, even if they get these ideas only through literature? We do not want to make a prediction, but we hope they will. Because it is necessary.