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Russia: Trade Unions Face Skeptical Public

  • Tony Wesolowsky

While Russia faces daunting economic problems, many Russians don't see trade unions as part of the solution. RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky, in Moscow recently, writes that for union leaders, the task remains to convince the general public that unions still have an important role to play.

Moscow, 12 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Tanya's face draws a blank when she is asked her opinion of trade unions. The 20-year-old receptionist at a posh hotel in Moscow mulls the question a few moments during one of the breaks in her hectic work.

"Unions? I really haven't given them much thought. But I guess they could do some good."

Volodya, a 47-year-old driver in the Russian capital, is convinced unions mean just one thing -- paying dues.

As such comments suggest, for many Russians trade unions are a curiosity at best and an irritant at worst. With membership down, trade unions in Russia are struggling to regain the faith of the rank and file (ordinary workers). A 1996 poll showed only 7 percent of Russians trusted labor unions.

Much of the Russian public has grown weary and lost hope following 10 years of mostly unsuccessful economic reforms. Millions of people go without pay for months on end. Millions more are unemployed. Just how many is unclear because tens of thousands have been ordered to take unpaid administrative leave, swelling the ranks of the "hidden unemployed." Others work part-time at crumbling industries.

Many Russians interviewed on the streets of Moscow say they feel a sense of utter hopelessness, and few put any faith in organizations, such as unions, that promise to make things better.

That sense of hopelessness extends to many union members themselves. Workers are leaving unions in growing numbers. Russia's Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR) boasted of representing 60 of the 73 million Russian workers in 1992. Credible figures put the number now at below 40 million, and independent studies confirm a decline of some 25 percent.

Russia is not alone in seeing a decline in union membership. Membership figures are down worldwide as the economy moves away from the industrial sector -- a traditional union stronghold -- to the service sector.

Some of the biggest declines have taken place in Eastern Europe, where unions are still tainted by their association to the former Communist regimes.

The number of workers in labor unions in Eastern Europe has fallen by around 36 percent in recent years. A report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) says much of the decline can be attributed to the fact that union membership in many countries is no longer seen as practically obligatory.

But even if more employees wanted to join unions, it's not clear that employers would be keen to allow them.

According to a 1998 report on worldwide labor rights by the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), employers typically obstruct unionization, especially in newly created commercial organizations.

In Yekaterinburg, Russia, the 250 workers at the Coca-Cola bottling plant voted last June to form a union. But their victory was fleeting. Just months after creating the union, the same employees withdrew their support. The workers say they backed down after the multinational soft-drink manufacturer made it clear they must quit the union or lose their jobs.

The company even barred their elected shop steward from the shop floor, according to the Moscow bureau of the Geneva-based International Union of Food and Allied Workers' Association (IUF), with which the Coca-Cola bottlers were affiliated.

The workers complained to the local prosecutor's office, which, following an investigation, backed their charges that Coca-Cola management had violated their rights by pressuring them to abandon the union. The case took on international scope when the IUF's Geneva leadership sent an official complaint to Coca-Cola. Despite these efforts, the union has not been reinstated.

Workers are not the only ones being intimidated. Union activists trying to organize their colleagues routinely face being sacked, demoted, or even killed, according to the ICFTU report.

Last January, Gennady Borisov, the leader of Moscow's Vnukovo Airlines Technical and Ground Personnel Union, was found murdered in the entrance to his apartment. He was the second union leader at Vnukovo to be killed in less than five years.

To many Russian labor specialists, the country's current labor woes are rooted in the Soviet past.

Back then, unions, under the all-encompassing All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (TVsSPS), formed a "troika" with management and party apparatchiks to ensure fulfillment of the five-year economic plan. As American academic Linda Cook of Brown University notes in her book "Labor and Liberalization: Trade Unions in the New Russia," the major responsibility of trade unions in Soviet times was to mobilize workers for production, not to defend their interests against management.

But even in the old days, trade unions had relatively few levers to motivate workers to produce better or more, according to Frank Hoffer, the ILO workers activities senior specialist in Moscow. Hoffer says in his paper, "Traditional Trade Unions During Transition and Economic Reform in Russia," that working harder and better rarely meant higher wages, which were tightly controlled by plan requirements.

On the other hand, poor work performance, with few exceptions, did not result in an employee's being sacked. And the death of Stalin in 1953 meant plant managers could no longer threaten workers with exile to the gulag for failing to fulfill production quotas. Hoffer says that as a result, payment in kind and paternalism became a plant manager's "carrots" to encourage better labor productivity.

The unions' main role was to oversee and dispense the carrots -- valued goods and services -- to employees at the workplace. Unions determined and paid pensions, controlled benefits from social insurance funds (for sickness, disability, maternity, etc.), and established eligibility for state welfare benefits. Unions dispensed passes to union-managed health facilities, vacation resorts, and children's summer camps. In 1975, unions oversaw 11,000 Pioneer camps. They also had a hand in managing company-owned housing, child care, and the distribution of scarce consumer goods and even food. Moreover, unions looked to management for cooperation, not for conflict. Strikes were unheard of.

Brown University's Cook says the image of a cozy union-management relationship lingers till this day.

But, she says, some newly created independent unions (not tied to the main federation of trade unions) have succeeded in attracting some new members. Cook notes independents have done well among workers who have demonstrated solidarity and militancy in the past -- like the coal miners. The independents have also had some success in industries that employ well-educated workers or which produce goods that are vitally necessary for the economy.

In the end, the unions' fortunes may mirror those of the Russian economy if and when it rebounds. It is difficult to define and defend workers' rights in an overstaffed, inefficient and collapsing economy.