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Russia: Trade Unions Search For Fresh Role In Russia's New Labor Market

  • Sophie Lambroschini

As the Russian government works to forge a new Labor Code better suited to the country's current economy, observers are asking whether or not labor unions are finally ready to adjust to capitalist conditions after 10 years of post-Soviet paralysis. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 30 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last October, the labor union for Moscow's McDonald's fast-food restaurants and factory won what union activists called a small but significant victory. After two years of fighting, a handful of employees forced McDonald's to recognize the union and negotiate a collective labor agreement.

The agreement, which may be signed this week, is no workers' revolution. It does nothing more than raise the company's working standards to match those laid out in Russia's existing Labor Code. Moreover, it applies only to members of the McDonald's union -- some 10 to 30 people out of a total of 450 employees.

Natalya Gracheva, the head of the McDonald's union, says she fears that management could still back out of the agreement -- as it has in the past. She also notes that even at a place as symbolic of the Western world as McDonald's, "Russians are still far from learning how to fight for their legal rights."

Ever since the collapse of the communist planned economy, where labor unions organized more summer vacations than strikes for their workers, Russia's unions have been one of the weakest links in the country's struggling new economy. Traditionally passive, and at the same time resistant to what they see as Soviet-style collective action, unions have failed to address the conditions of the new labor market, despite gross violations of workers' rights like unpaid salaries and illegal firings.

But some specialists -- pointing to the McDonald's case -- say there are indications that Russian labor unions may be coming out of a 10-year sleep.

Kirill Buketov heads the Moscow branch of the International Union of Food workers, or IUF, which is active in 118 countries worldwide. He says that labor activity has begun to increase in the service sector, which has seen greater productivity since the 1998 financial crisis cut down on the number of foreign imports:

"Before, workers' movements were mainly limited to big industrial companies -- for example, the defense and military-industrial complex. [But unions] are now developing pretty actively in the service sectors, which are in a more advantageous situation than the sectors which [live off state] subsidies. By that I mean the private sector -- foodstuffs, restaurants, the tobacco industry, restaurants, and hotels."

At a trade union forum held last weekend in Moscow, state and union officials noted that the number of complaints of labor violations appeared to be on the rise. They attributed the change to a growing awareness, by both workers and unions, of their legal rights.

The Labor Ministry recorded 2.5 million complaints of workers' violations last year, up from two million in 1999.

Sociologist Boris Kargarlitsky says that the trend is consistent with traditional historical and economic patterns:

"The whole history of the workers' movement shows that the movement grows stronger in times of economic growth. Russia has had three years of economic growth. The thing is that the workers are now in a more advantageous position [to negotiate]. In a factory that has practically come to a standstill, it doesn't make any sense [to go on strike]. But in a factory that has an urgent contract to fulfill, such actions can be very successful."

Yevgenia Gvozdeva is the head of the Agency for Social and Labor Information, Russia's only non-governmental organization monitoring strikes and other worker actions across all of Russia's 11 time zones. She says she does not believe the country's labor movement is on the rise, and dismisses claims that workers and unions are experiencing a heightened social consciousness.

However, Gvozdeva does say that labor-related actions, when they do occur, have improved in effectiveness -- demonstrating that activists are learning to adapt to Russia's new economic conditions.

Gvozdeva says this holds true both for the massive state-led Confederation of Free Trade Unions, or FNPR -- the rich heir to Soviet trade unions -- as well as for the plethora of tiny "alternative" unions that refuse to work alongside the government:

"Over the past few years, [unions] have learned to work more competently. They've [accumulated] some experience, and there are a lot fewer spontaneous, unauthorized strikes as a result. It's all better organized from a legal point of view, and it's all better developed from a public relations aspect. And in a lot of places it is already creating the impression not of a wild, uncontrolled act, but of well-organized demonstrations. This, of course, prompts some respect [for the unions] and some hope that these guys can succeed."

As an example, Gvozdeva cites the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, where unions affiliated with the well-known FNPR develop joint actions with the region's more radical alternative trade unions.

One of the collective organizations, the simply named Labor Union, has focused on court actions and has, Gvozdeva says, won a "significant number" of cases.

She also points to the western enclave of Kaliningrad, where in 1997 and 1998 the dockworkers' union had to go on strike every time it wanted to voice a complaint. Now, she says, the union can sometimes air its grievances without going on strike.

Despite their marginal memberships, alternative unions have at least proven a boost to social awareness on a local level. The Astrakhan-based Zashchita Truda, or "Labor Defense," is one example of an aggressively alternative union that is getting things done -- albeit on a small scale.

One such accomplishment came earlier this year, when an Astrakhan transport company lost a case against Zashchita Truda in attempting to declare a strike illegal. The company had initially caved into demands made by its striking employees, who were protesting a change in work shifts, but later tried to challenge the union in court.

Last year, Zashchita Truda also organized roadblocks on the main highway to Astrakhan, forcing the local subsidiary of the gas monopoly Gazprom to relocate workers living in housing downwind of the company's poisonous sulfur fumes.

Oleg Shein, a Duma deputy and the founder of Zashchita Truda, is a radical contrast to the well-dressed, middle-aged leaders of the FNPR's established, mainstream unions. For one, Shein is only 29 years old. A self-proclaimed leftist who favors black suits and black shirts, he says he is equally distant from Russia's "mainstream communists and Stalinists."

With the exception of well-known parliamentarian Andrei Isayev -- who made a career of union involvement under Soviet rule -- Shein is the only Duma deputy to be elected for his unionist background. A member of the eclectic Regions of Russia group, he says his sympathies are divided between the liberal Yabloko and Communist factions.

Shein explains that his union has learned to play by new rules -- for example, by using tent camps to pressure local elected authorities into taking action against abusive corporations through tax inspections or other methods of control.

Shein says he has few illusions about the depth of Russia's social consciousness, but says that is not necessarily a barrier to effective social action:

"Social activity is pretty much equally low throughout the country. Therefore, a lot depends on the degree of organization among those few people who are socially active. In Astrakhan, we succeeded, in my view, in creating a system that unites different segments of the populations. We have Zashchita Truda, which includes teachers, medical personnel and even artists, but [we have also united with] the street vendors' union, refugee associations, the taxpayers' union, the consumer rights union. We managed to create a flexible system where we help one another."

But Shein says he doesn't expect a sudden rise in interest in trade unions. The best one can hope for, he says, is a slow realization that people have rights and have the right to defend them.

A major wake-up call for unions -- alternative unions in particular -- came with the Kremlin's stated intention to push a new Labor Code through the Duma that could significantly curtail union and workers' rights.

The new code will replace its Soviet predecessor, adopted in 1971. Often, the gaps between the new Russian economy and the outdated concerns of the 30-year-old legislation have created a sort of free-for-all for employers, who withhold salaries and hire and fire at will.

But critics say the government's proposed solution -- advertised as a more "realistic" and "flexible" code that would be more applicable in contemporary Russia -- may not offer workers any better protection.

For example, the new proposed code would not require union authorization to fire people. It is also expected to complicate the registration process for unions at workplaces, and to limit to one the number of unions authorized to negotiate with a company's management.

Official trade unions, dissatisfied with the government draft code, presented an alternative of their own. Shein has also drafted a third version. After complaints from the union and even from Russian President Vladimir Putin, state officials are now working with FNPR unionists to water down the government draft.

This compromise version may be presented to the Duma for a first reading as early as the middle of next month. But only the second reading -- when literally thousands of amendments may be discussed and voted on -- will indicate the unions' actual political weight.

The fate of the Labor Code will also determine the future role of labor unions in the workplace. If the unions succeed in becoming an effective player in Russia's new labor market, it could be instrumental in changing the mind of some of the 72 percent of Russians who polls say are convinced that trade unions "do not play any serious role in the country's life."

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