How to Shut Down an Independent Trade Union in Russia

How to Shut Down an Independent Trade Union
The reason for the rapid dissolution of Alexei Etmanov’s union was a complaint about what it does: defending the rights of workers 
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
January 12, 2018

The St. Petersburg City Court’s decision to dissolve the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association (MPRA) at the request of the prosecutor’s office has not yet come into force. But the case itself clearly illustrates the current regime’s suspicious attitude towards independent trade unions that do not restrict their activities to handing out discounted holiday packages and tickets to children’s New Year’s celebrations.

MPRA was registered in February 2007. Its core consisted of the trade union of autoworkers at the Ford plant in the Petersburg suburb of Vsevolozhsk, famous for its pay rise demands and defense of workers’ rights. The emergence of a trade union that vigorously and effectively defended workers at foreign-owned plants was no accident. There is no legacy at such plants of servile, Soviet-era trade unions, which were once part of the management machine. Foreign companies have been forced to deal with the right of workers to go on strike and other means of self-defense against overtime and layoffs.

According to MPRA chair Alexei Etmanov, his career as a trade union activist kicked off randomly, in part. In 2001, soon after the Ford plant went on line, as one of the leaders of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) local at the plant, Etmanov was invited to a congress of Ford trade union workers in North and South America. According to Etmanov, it was then he realized a real trade union not only handed out benefits and formally coordinated management’s decisions but also consistently defended the rights of employees from groundless redundancies, unpaid overtime, and other forms of managerial tyranny.

MPRA never concealed its membership in the IndustriALL Global Union, which has fifty million members in 140 countries worldwide, nor did its activities previously trouble the Russian authorities. MPRA’s troubles began after a pro-regime blogger, who saw signs of political activity in the trade union’s work and accused it of hiding its status as a “foreign agent,” filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office. The complaint led to an audit, and later, in December 2017, the prosecutor’s office filed suit with the court, asking it to dissolve MPRA.

The prosecutor’s key claim against MPRA (Vedomosti has obtained a copy of the lawsuit) was that it received financing from abroad and had not registered as a “foreign agent.” MPRA’s crusade to amend labor laws and its solidarity with protests by Russian truckers against the introduction of the Plato road tolls system in 2015—the ordinary work of a normal trade union in a country with a market economy—have been depicted as “political activity” by the prosecutor’s office. The lawsuit also includes claims that appear to be pettifogging, in particular, that MPRA incorrectly listed its official address, that it originally registered in a manner not stipulated by law, and so on.

Yet the lawsuit does not contain any mention of demands by the prosecutor’s office to eliminate the shortcomings it has, allegedly, identified. For example, in 2015, after such demands were voiced and corresponding changes made, the Supreme Court dismissed the Justice Ministry’s suit asking that Memorial be dissolved. In Petersburg, the prosecutor petitioned the court to dissolve the trade union, no more, no less. According to Yulia Ostrovskaya, a lawyer at the Center for Social and Labor Rights, this is excessive punishment. The judgment for the plaintiff is tantamount to calling into question Russia’s observance of the International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, signed by the Soviet Union in 1956. The convention’s third article guarantees the right of workers and employers to draw up their own constitutions and rules, freely elect their representatives, and formulate their own programs, while the fourth article states that professional organizations shall not be liable to be dissolved or suspended by administrative authority.

The circumstances reflect the regime’s growing suspicion toward independent trade unions that have not joined the Russian People’s Front (the FNPR joined the Front in 2011, for example) and insist on defending the rights of workers, notes Pavel Kudyukin, a council member at the Confederation of Labor of Russia. Authorities in some regions have accused the MPRA that they scare away investors, while courts have ruled that IndustriALL’s brochures are “extremist.” If, however, the Petersburg court’s decision is upheld by the Russian Supreme Court, it would be a terrible precedent, argues Kudyukin. All trade unions could declared “foreign agents,” include pro-regime trade unions, since many of them of belong to international trade union associations, from which they receive funding for training activists and making trips abroad.

Labor protests in Russia in terms of percentages of those involved, 2008–first half of 2017. Red = spontaneous; pink = trade union locals; dark blue = national trade unions; gray = workers’ committees; light blue = political parties and grassroots organizations; pale blue = other. The percentage may exceed 100% if several actors were involved in the same protest. Courtesy of the Center for Social and Labor Rights

Biysk Plywood Workers Strike Successfully for Back Pay

The Match Flares Up
MPRA
January 26, 2017

Petroneft-Biysk LLC has nothing to do with so-called black gold. As the company’s website reports, it is the legal successor to the Biysk Plywood and Match Mill, known to Biysk residents as the Match. The Match mainly produces plywood. On January 12, around 200 workers in the plywood facility went on strike, demanding payment of wage arrears dating back to September 2016. Around 300 people are employed at the plant.

Photo courtesy of amic

According to local media, back wages were the cause of the conflict, but the workers themselves talked about an under-the-table bonus. According to them, since new management took over the plant, it has paid a third of their wages off the books. In the autumn, the company stopped paying wages altogether.

Wage delays are not news at Petroneft. As early as January 2016, management had tried to persuade staff to be patient while the company got back on its feet.

“We appealed to people: if you care about the company’s plight and you can make the decision for yourself, we ask you to go on an unpaid leave of absence. We didn’t force anyone to do it. We asked them to understand and accept the situation,” Olga Fischer, the company’s chief economist, said in an interview published in Nash Biysk in January 2016.

A year passed, and the workers’ patience finally snapped.

“The whole plywood facility went on strike. We notified the employer and got everyone in the shop to sign a petition naming the cause of the strike. We got copies of the strike notice back from management, with a stamp and number indicating they had received it. On Thursday, we didn’t go to work. There was no pressure. The foreman relayed our conditions to management, and ultimately they put us on technical downtime,” a striker told MPRA Omsk activists.

However, the workers did not have to sit at home for long. On January 17, the employer paid six months of back wages to workers from the striking shop floors. Support staff, who did not strike, were not paid the wages owed them, however.

“Afterwards, that bonus was issued, but it was issued only to those workers who had been on strike. Now they’re looking for the instigators, but we won’t give them up. The minutes of the trade union organizing meeting we had do exist, but unfortunately it won’t go any farther than that,” said our source in the mill.

MPRA congratulates the workers on their first victory. However, their success will not endure if they do not secure it by forming a trade union. We hope the folks in Biysk will be able to take this second, decisive step towards fairness. Then the Match will kindle the flame.

Based on reporting from MPRA Omsk

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks again to Comrade Ivan Ovsyannikov for the heads-up. MPRA is the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association. MPRA is affiliated with the IndustriALL Global Union.

Ford: Don’t Cut Workers at the Vsevolozhsk Plant!

“Ford! Stop Laying People Off! http://www.mpra.su.” Photo courtesy of MPRA

Ford! Stop Laying People Off!
MPRA
November 15, 2016

The Ford plant in Vsevolozhsk is going to cut 130 employees. The workers are becoming more and more dissatisfied. Attempts to sweeten the pill have only added fuel to the fire. MPRA (Interregional Trade Union Workers Association) activists at the plant have related a telltale story. Recently, management decided to reward the best workers with movie tickets, including workers who had received layoff notices. One such worker threw the tickets in a manager’s face, saying he needed a job, not a handout. After this incident, they say, Ford’s director general Maslyakov has banned giving perks to workers about to be downsized because, allegedly, it appears “unethical.” MPRA would argue that it is the layoffs, whose soundness is quite dubious, that appear unethical.

“We are told the layoffs are unavoidable,” reads a trade union leaflet, “but who has verified and proven it? Shouldn’t management first save money by cutting the wages and bonuses of managers?”

Today, trade union activists came to the front gates of the auto plant to hold solo pickets and talk with workers. Some of them said straight out they have nothing to lose. The layoffs are a challenge to everyone, not only to those slated to be fired, for everyone could find themselves in their shoes. MPRA urges people to join the union and support the protest campaign. We have no doubt the decision to cut jobs can be reconsidered if the majority of employees join the fight to save those jobs. MPRA’s experience at Omsktransmash and the Volkswagen plant in Kaluga, where collective action and negotations helped avoid massive layoffs, testifies to this fact.

We call upon fraternal trade unions and all people for whom social justice is not an empty phrase to support Ford workers personally by sending us photos containing messages of solidarity and the demand that Ford rescind its order to cut employees.

MPRA St. Petersburg

Translated by the Russian Reader. You can read my previous posts about the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association (MPRA)other independent Russian trade unions, and the brave campaigns waged by other Russian workers here and here.

Leonid Tikhonov Freed!

Leonid Tikhonov (second from left) after his release from prison. Photo courtesy of Ivan Ovsyannikov and MPRA
Leonid Tikhonov (second from left) after his release from prison. Photo courtesy of Ivan Ovsyannikov and MPRA

“Leonid Tikhonov, leader of the Dockers’ Union of Russian local at Vostochny Port in the Maritime Territory has been released from prison. In 2014, Tikhonov was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on false charges of embezzlement. (The port’s management accused Tikhonov of stealing funds allocated, according to the collective bargaining agreement, for New Year’s gifts for union members.) The real motive behind Tikhonov’s criminal prosecution was management’s desire to take revenge on the union local for being “too active” in keeping them from capitalizing on the dockers’ worsening work conditions. Charges were filed against Tikhonov after the workers held heavily attended rallies and other public protests in June 2012.”

Source: MPRA Facebook page

For more details on the Leonid Tikhonov case, see “Free Leonid Tikhonov!” The Russian Reader, January 14, 2015.

Ivan Ovsyannikov: A Wake-Up Call for the Regime

“United Russia. No. 4 [on the ballot]. We hear people. We can get it done.” Photo courtesy of Surkovian Propaganda

Ivan Ovsyannikov
A Wake-Up Call for the Regime
Anticapitalist.ru
September 19, 2016

The most inappropriate reaction to these so-called elections is disenchantment with their outcome. Was anyone really enchanted by them? I can understand the pessimism of moderate liberals, for whom the procedure of voting is democracy’s alpha and omega, but a “constitutional change of power” is the ultimate political daydream. Even smart liberals must realize the Duma is not a parliament, and Russia is not a republic. What, then, are we to make of elections to a body that does not form the cabinet, cannot impeach the president, and, most important, gave up any pretensions to power long ago? What is demonstrated by so-called elections to a body in whose necessity over forty percent of respondents have doubts, according to opinion polls? What does it mean when people vote for parties that in their vast majority are flimflam organizations imitating political pluralism?

Nothing sounded more out of tune in the opposition’s rhetoric of recent months than the campaign slogans of liberals, hoping to cross the five-percent threshold, about effecting a “change of power” by dropping a ballot into a ballot box. Perhaps the statement made by Ella Pamfilova, chair of the Russian Central Electoral Commission, that she was “really, really sorry” not a single non-parliamentary party made it into the Duma, reflects not only her own opinion but also that of her bosses. A few rebellious voices would not have harmed a body one of its former speakers infamously dubbed “not a place for discussion.” They would have made the bureaucracy’s imitation of democracy slightly more believable.

But let us get back to the question of what these so-called elections show us. Maybe, at least, they are a cross section of public opinion, a sincere manifestation of confidence in the regime or, as the opposition is fond of claiming, an index of the populace’s “zombification”? No, they are none of these things, and that, perhaps, is the most troubling news for the ruling elite.

If, after several years of severe economic crisis, and amidst a record-low turnout, a party headed by an unpopular prime minister garners even more votes than it did in 2011, it means that elections to the Duma have finally shed their remaining links with any known social reality. It would be more soothing for the Kremlin if the votes had been divvied up more evenly among the four pro-regime parties. That would have been a sign of confidence in the political system. If Russians had sought an alternative within the current system by voting for the Communists or any other pro-Kremlin party that would have told us that faith in the Putin regime is indeed strong.

But people who vote for United Russia in 2016 are not voting for the government’s policies, the annexation of Crimea or even Putin. They vote not because they expect the elections will change things for the better, and not because they are blinded by propaganda or are especially fond of government officials. They fear a change for the worse and take part in a pre-programmed ritual, thus hoping to prevent the collapse of their usual lives. In its own way, this choice is rational, although it smacks of pessimism and conservatism. People are clinging with all their might to a crumbling stability. But what will happen when there is nothing more to cling to?

Turnout to Duma Elections by Year
1993 – 54%
1995 – 64%
1999 – 61%
2003 – 55.7%
2007– 59%
2011– 60%
2016 – 48%

 

Some of the voters who did not go to the polls could have been guided by similar motives. It would be wrong to interpret high absenteeism unambiguously as passive protest. The majority realizes nothing actually depends on Duma elections. Superstitiously, involuntarily or habitually, some partake in this ritual exorcism of hardship and troubles. Others fail to partake in the ritual out of laziness, apathy or contempt. Only an indoctrinated minority literally believes in the campaign slogans.

So the only information the powers that be and we can extract from the election results is that the country is not in the midst of a revolution, and the supplies of public apathy on which the system depends have not run out yet. But as a tool of political leverage, a reflection of the confidence the masses have in the ruling class, and even as a means of studying public opinion, the Duma elections have shown their uselessness. Like routine vote rigging, their outcome is an indication of Putinism’s degradation as a political system rather than its stability.

socresist_knsnjnkbt84-jpg-ecfbe02aa410465c66e5c5c5f251a5e3Ivan Ovsyannikov is a writer, union activist, member of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD), and editor of Trade Union Navigator (Profsoiuznyi navigator), the newspaper of the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association (MPRA). Translated by the Russian Reader. Previously published on LeftEast

Migrant Construction Workers Demand Back Pay from Baltic Pearl Subcontractor

Baltic Pearl Migrant Construction Workers Demand 780,000 Rubles from Employer
July 20, 2015
Rosbalt

PETERSBURG, JULY 20. Workers building the Baltic Pearl residential complex have demanded back pay from their employer, Trivium Group. As one of the construction workers, foreman Khusrav Kholmirzayev, told Rosbalt, the employees calculated the company has owned thirty workers approximately 780,000 rubles [approx. 12,600 euros] since last year.

IMG_8731
The Baltic Pearl. June 28, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

According to Kholmirzayev, last year, three crews were employed on the building site, and he supervised thirty men. He added that they worked without having signed labor contracts. Meanwhile, Russian authorities deported several migrants: the workers did not have enough money to pay for work licenses. Kholmirzayev noted that his crew was not paid fully from August to October 2014.

“We had only enough to survive. We stayed because we were promised the remainder would be paid,” he said.

IMG_8736
A makeshift container village, inhabited by migrant construction workers, with the Baltic Pearl in the background. Photo taken on June 28, 2015, by the Russian Reader

In 2015, the workers were not paid for March and April, after which they walked off the construction site. The workers who remained in Petersburg got jobs at other building sites, while Kholmirzayev has been trying to get the money from the previous employer.

“Relatives of the workers call me and say, ‘As foreman, you have to pay the workers.’ My parents have paid many of them,” he noted.

Today, the Trivium Group’s offices at Burtsev Street, 13, were supposed to be picketed by twelve migrant workers, but the protest did not take place. Only Kholmirzayev and Maksim Kulaev, an activist with the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association (ITUWA), showed up for the event. Moreover, the company could not be found at its registered address.

According to Kulaev, because of the crisis, “wage arrears are widespread in the housing sector and construction, especially if migrant workers are involved.”

IMG_8734
Another view of the container village for migrant construction workers, which is situated right next to the Gulf of Finland, where residents of the Baltic Pearl and environs could be observed swimming on June 28, 2015, when this photo was taken.

Rosbalt tried and failed, over the course of the day, to make contact with Trivium Group management over the phone via its listed numbers.

The website of the Petersburg and Leningrad Region Arbritration Court currently lists nine suits which Trivium Group has lost. According to the files viewable on the website, it transpires that Trivium Group has been ordered to play over fifty million rubles [approx. 808,000 euros] to other organizations. The claims have been appealed.

Trivium Group is one of the many companies engaged in erecting the Baltic Pearl complex.

This is the third in a series of posts dealing with Central Asia, Central Asians, immigration, and migrant workers in Russia. The first post in the series, a translation of Sergei Abashin’s essay “Movements and Migrants,” can be read here. The second post, “Why Migrant Children Are Being Expelled from Russian Schools,” can be read here. Translated by the Russian Reader

“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.