Unions in the firing line

19 Febrero 2009
In the media
Publicado en
The Moscow News Weekly
Cites Boris Kagarlitsky
All that Dmitry Kozhnev, a Tver locomotive plant worker, wanted to do was get his company to follow the law. His small trade union at the Tsentrosvarmash factory would organise visits from health and safety inspectors, and, in normal times, the strategy led to some improvements in working conditions. But these are not normal times. Kozhnev's union activities have apparently led to him being fired - although officially the company says it was for leaving his shift early. He is not the only union activist facing a tough time during the crisis. At factories across the country, activists such as Kozhnev who stand up for workers' rights are being targeted as companies put the squeeze on wages and other conditions in harsh anti-crisis measures (see comment, page 2). "When the crisis began, management started putting pressure on union members, they invented trumped-up charges against me and other union members," said Kozhnev, who addressed a protest rally in Moscow over the weekend, where he and fellow activists demanded that workers not be made to pay for the economic crisis. Conditions at Tsentrosvarmash, where 600 workers make machinery for Russian Railways, amid leaking roofs and dangerous chemicals, are still far from adequate, he said. In winter, it is frequently too cold to work in normal clothing, and employees often have to wear heavy layers, which is in violation of health and safety regulations. Holes in the roof allow water to fall onto electrical equipment, causing short circuits and breakdowns. Like many companies across the country, Tsentrosvarmash, whose parent company is Transmash Holding, an affiliate of state-owned Russian Rail­ways, is avoiding having to declare official pay cuts or layoffs by cutting bonuses and other measures. With employees there - as across the country - relying for about half their salaries on a bonus system, now those bonuses have been cut to next to zero, leaving workers earning just 50 per cent or 60 per cent of their pre-crisis wages. Kozhnev said management had tried to get him fired twice before over "trumped-up" disciplinary charges, and both times he got the company to back off through court action. Things finally came to a head on January 19, at the end of his shift, when Kozhnev was summarily fired and escorted out of the factory by security guards. They followed him into the locker room as he changed out of his work clothes, and even stood by while he took a shower, he said. Since Kozhnev's firing, he has taken his case to court, and his union has organised pickets calling for his reinstatement, including one outside the factory on Thursday. Asked why Kozhnev was fired, Tatyana Koptyayeva, head of the plant's human resources department, explained that Kozhnev had "repeatedly" violated disciplinary rules. "He left the shift 40 minutes early," she said by telephone. "This was officially registered." Kozhnev countered that he had left 20 minutes early - after he had finished his job for the day. "I was leaving because it was very cold - too cold to stay in the workshop. It was bad for my health." By law, to fire Kozhnev, the company had first to agree on his sacking with the chairman of the factory's trade union - Kozhnev himself. But Koptyayeva said they had received no response from the union - and so firing him was lawful. "But that doesn't matter, because the trade union was illegal - it was not properly registered," she said. "There is a ruling from the prosecutor's office saying so." Anna-Stefania Chepik, a lawyer at Goltsblat BLP, which specialises in labour and employment practice, said a trade union could only be banned by a court order. Grounds for a trade union being declared illegal are "violating the rights of employees, violating the constitution, and extremism," she said. The regional prosecutor's office, which is handling the case, did not answer repeated calls. While some independent unions - such as the Interregional Professional Unions of Automotive Workers (MPRA), to which Kozhnev's union belonged - previously succeeded in clinching deals with companies and getting them to obey the law, now workers faced with layoffs have little leverage to assert their rights. They may not be striking, but some are protesting. In a series of small rallies organized by MPRA over last weekend, protesters called for equal pay and the end of cuts in working hours. Boris Kagarlitsky, head of the left-leaning Institute of Globalization Studies, said that state bailout measures were ineffective because they were only helping a few select companies, based on the government's preferences. "The government should take the French approach, where it gives money only to companies that pledge not to cut pay or lay off employees," he said. Meanwhile, other union activists are facing different kinds of pressure. Several activists involved in disputes have been subjected to violent attacks in the last few months, and one is in prison on drugs charges after what he claims was a frame-up. In the Sakha republic, Valentin Urusov, a union leader at an Alrosa diamond plant, said police kidnapped him and planted a bag of hashish oil on him. Police denied the accusation, and in December, Urusov was convicted and sentenced to six years in a penal colony. Although there is no proof linking companies to the attacks on activists, the coincidence is suspicious, independent unions say. "In the last two months there have been five attacks on members of our organization," Boris Kravchenko, president of the All-Russian Confederation of Labour, said by telephone. One of those attacked was Alexei Etmanov, an energetic union leader at Ford's car plant near St. Petersburg who is co-chairman of the MPRA. In November, he was beaten up twice by unidentified men. The attacks were followed by telephone threats to one of his colleagues. "Of course, this is no accident, and we are seeing confirmations of this," Etmanov said by telephone. "The government's concern with creating trade organizations that are completely controlled can lead to such harsh measures against those who insist on democratic beginnings in building trade unions." In another case, Yevgeny Ivanov, a union leader at General Motors' plant in St. Petersburg, was beaten on Feb. 8 by unknown assailants, after receiving phone threats, Ekho Moskvy radio reported. Other attacks on activists, in Togliatti and Taganrog, have been recorded by independent unions. Kravchenko said he believed the alleged pressure on Urusov, the Alrosa worker, was local in origin. "As I understand it, the administration of the company was using such measures to suppress any political activism," he said. A petition signed by a slew of both well-established and independent labour organizations and left-wing movements was given to President Dmitry Medvedev at a meeting with A Just Russia leader Nikolai Levichev in January. Tensions between "official," government-sponsored trade union organizations and independent unions are becoming more apparent, as the independents come under increased pressure. Russia has three well-established trade union organizations. The first and largest is the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR), which inherited a massive, Soviet-era structure and officially boasts 28 million members. Then there is the 500,000-strong Sots-Prof, formed in 1989, and the All-Russian Con­federation of Labor (KTR), which has about 800,000 members. According to Novaya Gazeta, the presidential administration had made a number of overtures to the first two of these organisations. Sots-Prof has recently begun collaborating with the authorities, the newspaper said, in exchange for financial support. Kravchenko said that the presidential administration has tried to work together with KTR as well, but that union officials have resisted attempts to buy them off. "When this is about normal consultations among partners in effort to minimise the effects of the economic crisis, we cooperate," he said. "But when there is an attempt to control trade unions to neutralize them and their leaders, we are against this. This is the basis of our disagreements with the presidential administration. It's all very simple." www.mnweekly.ru