Russia - Are workers beginning to show their muscle?

Sept/Oct 2007

The following article is translated from Issue No.106, July 2007 of "Lutte de Classe", the journal published by our French sister organisation, 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, albeit somewhat hesitantly. More and more people have become involved or joined a union - and a significant number of workers have gone 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 mobilisation was without precedent in recent times and came as a surprise to the authorities.

The mobilisation was in reaction to the passage of Federal Law No.122, which practically eliminated all forms of state-provided benefits, such as free access to public transportation, as well free medical prescriptions. These (few) benefits had been retained since the Soviet era, and were very important to retirees and people on disability pensions. The government had 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 which were to target students. The students were not even mobilised yet. But Putin preferred not to test whether they had the same stamina as the babushkas 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 these events seem to have effected a change in the mood of a significant section of the population. Today, in the provinces or in the districts that include Russia's "two capitals", St. Petersburg and Moscow, groups of people are organising around issues like fare increases and rent and rate rises. There were, for instance, organised 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. In fact after the privatisation of the real estate market in the 1990s, these hostels, though they have become increasingly insalubrious, and even unsanitary, have often been the only accommodation which young working class families could find.

What is new about the latest wave of protests is that they seem to have been more determined to go on the offensive and, above all, that they seem to have been supported by sections of the working class which were involved as such.

That said, from our distance, it is not easy to make such a judgment on the basis of the reports published by the Russian press, whose coverage of social protests across the country is at best patchy. But significantly, in March this year, the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, (the US-based financial monthly, whose Russian edition is subtitled "an instrument for capitalists"), published a survey of the latest strikes and recently-created unions under the headline, "Workers move against capital". However, as far as we are aware, this seems to concern only a limited number of workplaces. Whole regions remain unaffected (so far?) and, in fact this is the case for most of them.

The "official" union...

At the same time as strikes which were taking place for better wages, other strikes demanded improvements in workers' collective contracts, or simply the right to have a contract in the first place. These fights aimed at forcing management to respect the few statutory rights which are granted to workers. One of these rights happens to be the right to set up a union which is not affiliated to the "official" Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (Federatsiya Nesavisimykh Profsoyusov Rossii-FNPR).

The FNPR, which appears as an arm of the political authorities and company management, is the direct descendent of the former state-run structure, which used to control workers and workplaces under Breshnev and Gorbachev. So having "independent" in its name is no reflection of its true role. While being officially recognised as the workers' representative by the company hierarchy and the authorities, it enjoys the same resources (through the management of social benefits) as the "unions" of the ex-USSR. Being a member of the FNPR is usually the only way to have access to holiday camps for your children, creches, 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 members 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 Labour), which is the biggest; half a million for Sotsprof (Social Trade Unions) and roughly the same for several others, like Sashchita Truda (Defense of Labour).

After the USSR disintegrated, the FNPR claimed to be the defender of the "collective interests of labour". But this formulation borrowed directly from the Soviet era, was a way of including all personnel, from management to the cleaners. During the privatisation period, the FNPR used all its influence to persuade workers at tens of thousands of factories that they should not allow their companies to fall into the hands of "foreigners" In other words, they asked workers to help their management and the local or national bureaucrats behind 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 well-known example of this was the 1998 sit-down strike at the TsBK plant in Vyborg (near the Finnish border, where workers fought battles against the police and company thugs and occupied the factory. TsBK is a cellulose production plant which the bureaucrats in control wanted to sell to a Western company.

Workers no doubt viewed the FNPR's corporatist attitude as a lesser evil in post-Soviet chaos. 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 "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 and 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 in some instances disappearing, given the changes which have taken place inside Russia. This is due partly to the fact that the way management operates has changed, especially in the companies where there is Western investment. The managers themselves have also been replaced. At the same time, there is a new and younger generation of workers whose reflexes and attitudes to the management (and to the "company union") are no longer marked by those of the preceding epoch. For the more combative workers among them, the new unions have some appeal.

In these conditions, bosses could be quite willing to make room for "independent" unions, especially since many of the national leaders of these unions have done their best to demonstrate how well they are integrated into today's Russian society.

For instance, Sotsprof's leader Sergei Khramov started off saying he was "apolitical", but nonetheless joined the Social-Democratic Party, then the Russian Labour Party. The he joined three different nationalist organisations before ending up (for the time being) in a Kremlin-sponsored party claiming to fight for the "working man"!

Alexander Sergeiev, chairman of the Independent Miners' Union (NPG), was previously 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, who used to be Yeltsin's right-hand man. Then there is union leader Oleg Shein, co-chairman of Defence of Labour, who for years was the idol of a number of 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 leadership is not 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

It is in this context that the strikes of spring 2007 took place, some winning their demands and others at least making significant gains. The strikes most notably hit franchises and businesses set up by Western investors like McDonald's, Heineken and Coca-Cola. In the car industry, a strike in one factory quickly extended to another company or a neighbouring plant, even if it had nothing to do with car-making.

Last March, workers in the Ford plant in Vsevoloshsk, near St Petersburg, went on strike for the third time in as many months. The strikers quickly obtained 14 to 20% wage increases (the equivalent of $100 a month), extra days off to compensate for the increased intensity of 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 that they wanted to set up their own union. The same thing happened in Nevskie Porogi, in the area of Vsevoloshsk. The workers at a packaging company demanded a wage increase, double pay for working during holidays, access to the plant for the labour 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-Avtovas works, a joint venture in the city of Togliatti. In a court procedure, the company had to take back fired car workers who had joined Edintsvo ("Unity"), a so-called "autonomous" trade union. Indeed, the bosses often get rid of those who get organised or try to organise 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 Sashchita Truda union branch 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 roubles (£298), nor the fact that in Moscow, the average monthly salary is higher than anywhere else in Russia, reaching 25,000 roubles (£482). 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 labour 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 branch of the same regional union workers had created at Ford, Nokian Tyres and GM-Avtovas.

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 Labour 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 recognised union. These constraints are of course meant to nip in the bud the workers' attempts at defending their interests. And this is obviously 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 a rarity.

The working class, like the rest of the country's population, was disoriented by the collapse of the USSR at the end of 1991. The consequences of this collapse were even more disorienting. These included the privatisations and carving up of the economy, the so-called "shock therapy", the social and political chaos, the dramatic drop in the living standards of millions of people. Salaries were paid only after long delays and then were eaten up by inflation. Still another blow was dealt by the financial crash of 1998 and its consequences.

In such a context, the workers who went on strike were those who felt utterly cornered and they then 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 management to 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, the situation for workers is not much better (except that they are taking a lot more strike action), even if Western newspapers assert that workers' conditions have improved, thanks to a supposed recovery of Russia's economy, based on rocketing prices for oil and gas - of which Russia is one of the biggest producer-exporters. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Which "recovery"? And who benefits?

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, their 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 a pay cheque 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 centre, 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.

As to working conditions, Putin's 2001 labour code merely reflected the existing relationship of forces between employers and wage-earners when it said workers could be asked to work 12 hours a day, 12 hours of overtime a week. And, if workers agreed, they could be asked to work 16 hours of overtime. But it is this code which still pertains.

In industry, in the absence of significant investment, productivity is increased by intensifying labour. The few limits on turning the screw on the workforce that can be found in the Labour Code are often ignored by the employers, including in sectors that have nothing to do with basic production.

In the service sector employees and management can be asked to work six days a week. The number of days they get off in a week or a year are at management's discretion. People work 10 hours a day or more in workplaces with 24-hour opening - which includes banks, small retailers, etc. This perhaps explains 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.

The wages of workers at Kholodmash, a company in Yaroslavl that makes industrial cooling equipment, have only been paid intermittently ever since 2003. These workers have organised 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). Towards the end of 2006, the union at Rybinkhleb called on workers not to cash their pay cheques, since their wages had been cut to the equivalent of £22 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. On 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

Emphasising 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, 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 Avtovas underlined the fact that the Unity trade union branch created no problem since less than one per cent 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 is a good bet their "serenity" would disappear if more strikes were to develop and further attempts were made to organise unions different from the FNPR. Indeed, whether or not there has been a genuine economic and political stabilisation under Putin, the bureaucrats, the nouveaux riches and the members of the bourgeoisie who shared out the country's industry 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 gauge the real 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, as it seems? 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 industrialised 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 recognise that such ideas are useful and indispensable for the workers.

One cannot 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 social democracy, from which sprang Bolshevism.

The one certainty 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 they will fight, the more the need for an organised, conscious class struggle and the ideas of socialism and communism will become indispensable for the working class. One may think that, if only with the help of the written tradition, small groups of activists will manage to rediscover these ideas, and will see the point of passing them on to the working class. This is not a prognosis, but the expression of our hopes, because it is necessary.