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The East: Labor Leader Says Unreformed Unions Fail Workers

  • Ron Synovitz

Prague, 2 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- An international labor leader from the United States says the rights of workers in the former Soviet Union are not being adequately represented because long-time labor leaders there have failed to reform Soviet-era unions in a way that gives workers a democratic voice.

John Joyce, president of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, told RFE/RL today that many long-time union leaders across the former Soviet Union remain firmly tied to Marxist-Leninist perspectives.

Joyce, who also is a vice president of the largest labor union in the United States, the AFL-CIO, said that unless workers have the power to set the agenda of their labor union, it is not a "genuine trade union" because it is not democratic.

Joyce said entrenched interests have made it nearly impossible to reform totalitarian-era unions in the former Soviet republics. He said new independent unions are more likely to allow workers to decide upon their objectives -- whether those goals are to bring about the payment of wage arrears, or to improve benefits and working conditions.

But Joyce said the energy to start independent unions must come from the workers themselves. Only then can international labor groups offer support and guidance. He noted that even in the United States, outsiders cannot go into a factory with the aim of starting a union.

Joyce has represented workers rights in United States for decades. He said that he was refused entry into the Soviet Union on several occasions before 1989 because he would not recognize Communist Trade Unions as organizations that genuinely fight for workers' rights. Instead, he said, they were monopolized by the Communist Party and had the basic goal of supporting Communist governments.

The failure of these unions to reform since 1989 has meant that there is still little contact between western labor leaders and those in the former Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, the director of an international construction workers' union says democratic labor groups are finding more fertile soil in central and southeastern Europe. James O'Leary, executive director of the International Construction Institute, said that his organization now cooperates with independent unionists in Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia. He said initial contacts also are being made with unionists in Macedonia and Croatia.

Joyce says he cannot offer any strategic advice to workers in transition countries who are fighting to obtain months of unpaid wages. He said the only tool available in many cases is to refuse to work until they are paid. But he said only those who are directly involved in the situation can determine whether such a strategy has a realistic chance of success in their case.

Joyce concluded that perseverance is vital for workers in eastern Europe to succeed in improving their situation. He said: "There's no way around it. To be an effective trade unionist and trade union leader, one must develop a vision beyond their own lifetime. You take things step-by-step. Keep in mind the struggles that other workers and unionists have made at other times and in other countries. Establish solidarity between one another and persevere."