“Anti-Extremist” Police Crack Down on Unionized Autoworkers in Kaluga

Automotive Industry Checked for Extremism
Center “E” Officers Detain Independent Trade Union Activists in Kaluga
Anatoly Karavayev and Daniil Lomakin
March 23, 2015
Gazeta.Ru

Kaluga police conducted a raid against independent trade union activists who had gathered to discuss layoffs at local car factories. Due to the decline of the auto market, 750 people might be fired in the very near future. After being detained on a technicality, the detainees talked to officers from Center “E”, the Center for Extremism Prevention. The trade union movement considers such actions a preventive measure by the authorities.

A scandal has erupted in Kaluga over the detention of fifteen activists from the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association (ITUWA). (Police claim that twelve activists were detained.) At the weekend, workers from local automotive factories had gathered at the offices of the ITUWA’s Kaluga local to discuss future personnel reductions in the region.

For example, there are plans to lay off 150 people at the local Volkswagen plant in the near future.

In addition, the Peugeot-Citroen plant in Kaluga could dismiss as many as 40% of its workers, around 600 people, without compensation after March 31. Unlike Volkswagen, the French automaker has not yet made an official announcement.

As the ITUWA local informed Gazeta.Ru, they are planning this week to negotiate with plant management. If an agreement to save jobs is not reached, the trade union intends to hold protest rallies and file a series of lawsuits.

The local security forces also took notice of the Kaluga trade union’s activism. Over the weekend, police conducted mass arrests of its members. Moreover, officers from Center “E”, which specializes in combating various forms of extremism, dealt with the activists.

As activists recounted, they had begun gathering for the meeting when police suddenly entered the ITUWA office in Kaluga and arrested everyone present. Ultimately, 15 people were taken to the police station. ITUWA local chair Dmitry Trudovoi is certain the detention of the activists was occasioned by the trade union’s increased activism.

“Layoffs are planned at Peugeot-Citroen and Volkswagen. All this has lead the trade union to ratchet things up. Strikes and all that are possible. Basically, this was an act of intimidation,” Trudovoi said of the incident.

“This was a ridiculous police provocation,” Dmitry Kozhnev, who was among the detainees, told Gazeta.Ru.

“First, a beat cop entered the office. He asked about two people who had committed a robbery nearby and had, allegedly, dashed into the building where the ITUWA meeting was taking place. Some time later, the ‘bigwigs’ arrived (around forty ranking officers), people in uniform and plainclothes who systematically arrested us and took us to the station.”

“At first, they told us that the arrests were linked, allegedly, to the robbery. But that doesn’t seem to be true, given that people were detained for an hour. Center “E” officers conducted the interrogations. They were trying to figure out what our organization was doing, what events were planned. But none of the detained ITUWA members answered their questions.”

According to Kozhnev, the ITUWA regarded the arrests as an attempt to intimidate members of the trade union.

“Center “E” officers told us we were agents of the West and wanted to destabilize the situation in the country,” said Kozhnev.

“But ultimately they didn’t achieve their objective; they only discredited themselves. On the contrary, the situation has united all ITUWA workers even more,” he added.

The Kaluga Region Interior Ministry office denied the arrests of the ITUWA members occurred during an investigation of their activity.

As Svetlana Somova, head of the press center at the regional Interior Ministry office told Gazeta.Ru that a robbery had occurred near where the trade unionists were meeting. Two unidentified men had attacked a third man and stolen his belongings.

“According to the victim, [the robbers] escaped into the building where the meeting was taking place,” explained Somova. “A group of people, some of whom had no documents, was in the room. They were unable to explain anything about the men who had entered the building. Therefore, they were taken to Police Precinct No. 2. And there it transpired that an out-of-town trade union movement leader was among them. Naturally, the desk sergeant summoned Counter-Extremism Center officers to avoid provocations.”

As Somova explained, no more than ten officers had been dispatched to the site where the ITUWA members were detained: an extra-departmental security squad, a patrol squad, and police investigators.

“There were no riot police, as has been previously reported in the media,” said the press spokesperson. “If citizens believe their rights have been violated, they can complain to the prosecutor about the police’s actions. ITUWA activists had earlier accused the police of illegal actions, but no violations were uncovered during the course of probes.”

According to the press service spokesperson, police did not suspect they were detaining trade union members because the building sported a large “Barbershop” sign.

“A signal had to be sent”

ITUWA chair and well-known trade unionist Alexei Etmanov deems the incident in Kaluga unacceptable.

“It’s an absolutely abnormal situation when workers gathered for a trade union meeting are raided by the police. These are the methods not even of the 1990s, but of the 1930s,” Etmanov told Gazeta.Ru.

According to Etmanov, the detainees had gathered on a weekend day at the Kaluga ITUWA office to discuss the situation at the region’s automotive plants.

“There were members from Volkswagen and Peugeot-Citroen and other plants,” said Etmanov. “A beat cop showed up under false pretenses, then a SWAT team. At the precinct, they tried to fingerprint people.  Those who were more experienced were able to wriggle out of it, but some had their fingerprints taken. No one filed any charges, of course, but it was a very heavy hint about not fighting so vigorously for one’s rights. I am certain that 90% of this was at the behest of the regional government. There are many foreign-owned plants here. A clear signal had to be sent that there was no need to defend one’s rights too vigorously.”

According to Etmanov, the ITUWA plans to send a letter about the incident to Russian Federal Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev via the All-Russian Confederation of Labor (VKT).

In turn, the Kaluga Region media relations office told Gazeta.Ru it was planning no statements regarding the incident.

“If there are any questions, we are happy to answer them upon written request,” said Anastasia Davydkina, head of the office.

Layoffs at Auto Factories in Kaluga Region

As Kaluga ITUWA organizer Dmitry Kozhnev explained to Gazeta.Ru, around 40% of the workers at the Peugeot-Citroen are on fixed-term contracts that expire on March 31 and, according to the union’s information, will not be renewed.

“The problem with this arrangement existed long ago and was a ticking time bomb. A fixed-term contract allows the employer to fire a worker without paying out any compensation,” explained Kozhnev. “At the same time, it is illegal to hire workers on such conditions. A fixed-term contract may be concluded only when it is impossible to hire an employee under an open-end contract.

“But in the case of the Kaluga plant, there were no such obstacles. Moreover, we already have won favorable court rulings for several plant employees. The court ordered the plant to sign open-ended contracts with them.”

But employees will be offered to transfer to the Volkswagen engine plant, whose launch in Kaluga is planned for the second half of the year. Volkswagen does not rule out the possibility that a portion of the downsized workers might be dismissed by mutual consent. They would be offered a compensation package.

“The packages include financial compensation and medical insurance valid until the end of 2015. In addition, those employees who leave the company by mutual agreement will be the first to be asked to return to the factory when the car market starts to recover,” Volkswagen spokesperson Natalya Kostyukovich told Gazeta.Ru.

In February of this year, the Volvo truck factory in the Kaluga Region shut down completely.  Due to the collapse of the auto market, demand for cars had slumped. About 200 people lost their jobs.

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