As Russian forces gather along the border of the Ukraine with the threat of a possible invasion; and as Russian troops return from their Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) relief of Kazakhstan’s internal unrest; additional Russian troops have been added to the already considerable force in Belarus, supporting Lukashenko in his efforts to suppress the Belarus demonstrators. This show of force by Putin has attracted a great deal of international comment as to the ‘real intent’ of Russia’s swashbuckling performance on the world stage and created an image of a powerful Russia regaining its former status as a major player in the days of the USSR. Like much in the history of the USSR and Russian foreign policy this performance is yet another piece of “maskirovka” (military deception) which has been so successful in the past (see the Battle of Kulikovo Field, Operation Bagratian, or the Jassy-Kishinev Operation as a guide). The art of straight-faced bullshit is an integral part of Russia’s military posturing.
What this current bit of “maskirovka” is masking is the parlous state of the Russian economy, the inability of the Russian political apparat to win the full support of its military; the enormous pressures of global warming causing such havoc in Siberia; the woeful lack of water in the Crimea and the Donbas; the demographic crisis compounded by the effects of Covid-19 and the declining appeal of the status quo of Russia’s current condition for the scores of its citizens who seek economic improvement and the right of political and economic self-determination. It is this last point, the rise of free organisations of workers in independent trade unions, that is becoming the most crucial threat to the survival of the current Russian political system. especially in the growing alliance of the new unions with those who seek social and political freedom through parliamentary challenges. Agents of political change, like those led by Navalny in Russia and others in Belorussia and Kazakhstan are forging alliances with the new unions. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it contained within the borders of Russia; it is a movement of free workers and liberty-seeking politicians across the former USSR; and their engagement with similar independent programs in Belorussia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Moldova.
This has happened before. The resistance of the Russian workers to the failure of the Soviet State to provide adequate food supplies at Novocherkassk in 1962 sparked a rebellion which spread across the USSR and was a beacon to the development of free unions in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania. It was the root of the Polish creation of Solidarity and similar groups in the other nations. In May 1962 Khrushchev and the Politburo decided to place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba to demonstrate to the Americans what it was like to have nuclear missiles on its borders. The leadership knew that this policy would have serious consequences and ordered the military-industrial complex to increase armaments production. They chose guns over butter. This dramatic shift of the national resources away from the satisfaction of consumer demand towards expanded military capability was a watershed in the development of the USSR.
The country had to tighten its belt again. The relative improvement of people's material standard of living achieved in 1955-60 was brought to a halt. A period of unrest began. In early 1962 in the city of Aleksandrov the authorities opened fire on a crowd of protesters. This marked the beginning of a series of clashes between the people and the state, which proved that people's trust in the authorities had been unfounded. The economic crisis of 1960-62 created an explosive situation. The price reforms sent shock-waves through the entire country. Indignant workers held discussions to work out what was happening, but in the end they kept working all the same. In Novocherkassk it was different.
Large groups of workers, upset with the lack of food, formed their own organization and a strike for food was prepared. The metalworkers’ union put up signs 'Give us meat and butter!' and 'We need flats to live in!' The slogan 'Eat minced Khrushchev!' became very popular. Soon, the discussions among the workers turned from just food shortages to a wider discussion of the political failings of the Soviet system. They sent out messengers to the surrounding plants and engaged workers throughout the Novocherkassk factories in a united protest. The demonstrations and protests grew. Finally, the crowd reached the buildings of the city council and began demanding that the administrators come out. Suddenly there were sharp reports of machinegun fire. The soldiers opened fire on the people near the police station. Almost immediately all the protestors at the municipal building were fired upon by soldiers, including those high on the roofs. Bullets tore through the foliage of the trees at the very beginning of the shooting, hitting the children there and making them drop into the crowd.
The news that there had been a massacre soon reached everyone and produced an unexpected reaction. The majority of factories stopped work, the streets filled with people. Cars with workers drove up from all directions. The workers filled the streets in a massive demonstration, even though armed soldiers could be seen in the distance. The government caved in in face of such defiance and decided to make Novocherkassk a ‘Hero City’; a designation which would allow it to have better rations than before. The Soviet system had been rocked by this city-wide protest. The news travelled all over Russia through the grapevine, as well as to the neighbouring states. The working people, united, had forced changes from the USSR apparat. Change was in the air and the state was shown to be vulnerable. It was this news which inspired workers’ organizations across the Soviet Empire to think they had a chance to change the system.
Similar frustrations and demands for payment of back wages recently produced a number of independent unions across Russia to form over the last five years and led to hundreds of strikes and demonstrations all across the nation. These have spread, by example and by collaborative action, with the newly-emerging free labour movements in Kazakhstan and Belorussia. The devastating impact of Covid-19 on the economies and the workforces in the last two years has increased the activity and strength of these workplace organisations.
This rise in militance by the workers of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belorussia has grown in parallel with the increase in civil dissent in these nations and there is an effort being made to form a working alliance between the independent unions and the political dissidents. It is this challenge which poses the most severe and fundamental problem for Putin and his allies and supporters.
Russia’s Demographic Crisis
One of Russia’s continuing crises has been the decrease in its population. Russia has a severe demographic problem. Russia faces a demographic crisis, as its population shrinks and ages year-on-year. The number of deaths exceeds births. The number of Russian residents decreased by approximately 0.5 million between January 1, 2020 and January 1, 2021. The increasing migrant outflow and the so-called 'brain drain' from Russia also contribute to the population decline. One of the potential threats stemming from the demographic crisis is a workforce shortage, which could result in the inability of the government to pay out pensions to the next generation of retirees, a decline in labour productivity, armed forces recruitment, and a long-term economic slowdown. In addition, the increasing internal migration to Central Russia raises fears of depopulation of the country's Far Eastern and Siberian Federal Districts.[i] There has been a mass migration of rural Russians in Siberia and the Russian East into the central cities, leaving largely unpopulated regions and to the influx of Asian migrants who have flooded into the East of Russia.
Russia’ population has undergone its largest peacetime decline in recorded history over the last year as the country battles a deadly fourth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. The natural population, a number calculated from registered deaths and births, excluding the impact of migration, declined by 997,000 between October 2020 and September 2021. Russia has been one of the countries hit hardest by the pandemic, registering at least 660,000 excess deaths since the start of 2020, according to government data, and the dramatic drop appears to show the devastating toll the pandemic has had on the country’s social fabric. Previous government reports showed Russia’s population decline in 2020 was 11 times greater than that of the pre-pandemic 2019.[ii]
When the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union had a total population of nearly 290 million, and a Gross National Product estimated at about $2.5 trillion. At that time, the United States had a total population of nearly 250 million, with a Gross Domestic Product of about $5.2 trillion. That is, the population of the United States was smaller than that of the Soviet Union, with an economy that was only twice that of the Soviet Union. Two decades later, Russia's population is about 146 million, with a GDP of about $1.3 trillion, while the population of the United States is over 320 million, with a GDP of $13 trillion. Today, the population of the United States is twice that of Russia, and the US economy is ten times as large.
The monthly minimum wage in Russia as of January 1, 2021 amounted to 12,792 Russian roubles, or approximately 172 U.S. dollars. As of January 1, 2021, retirees in Russia received a gross pension of approximately 15.7 thousand Russian roubles on average, or 212 U.S. dollars per month at the exchange rate as of May 14, 2021. The amount of retirement benefits increased by roughly 840 Russian roubles compared to the previous year. In the capital Moscow, it was set at 20,589 Russian roubles, or over 277 U.S. dollars. Although nearly 20 percent of its population lived under the poverty line, Russia ranked tenth worldwide in the number of ultra-high-net-worth-individuals (UHNWIs), or persons whose wealth exceeded 30 million U.S. dollars. Russians earning the highest 20 percent of income accounted for approximately 47 percent of the total composite monetary income in 2019.[iii]
The death rate in Russia increased to 14.5 mortalities per thousand population as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020. To compare, in the previous year, it was measured at 12.3. COVID-19 was the primary cause of death of 104 thousand people across the country between April and December 2020, according to the Russian Federal Statistical Service (Rosstat)[iv]
Officially, authorities in Moscow maintain that there are only some 60,000 homeless in Russia. However, the true figure is believed to be "vastly" higher, with the country suffering from a significant homelessness crisis. Russian analysts suggest that the true figure of homelessness "is much larger, at least 1.5 million and perhaps as much as eight million" - equivalent to more than one in twenty Russians[v]. The Russian economics ministry has just announced plans to drop 163 of the cities with only a single industry, the monogorody or “company towns,” from the previous list of 321. That means that Moscow will provide far less money to these dying towns, saving itself money but setting the stage for massive outmigration and protests. There have been social and political protests in the monogorody themselves, and new, unfunded liabilities for the regions, such as the Urals, where many of these places are located, liabilities they are not in a position to pay.
Although the rise in the export prices of oil and gas allowed the Russian Government to reduce some of the terrible burden of its regional debt, the spread of the Covid-19 throughout the regions is wiping out these gains and, especially among the poorer regions, causing them to rise towards previous high debt levels. This spread of Covid-19 has had a profound effect on the Russian health system. There were serious problems before the onset of Covid-19 which only accelerated when Covid-19 began to dominate the health concerns of the nation. One of the key areas of concern has been the shrinkage of the hospital care system which has led to massive hospital closures and a decrease in the quality of medicine in Russia. By 2022, the number of hospitals in the country had dropped to the levels last seen in the Russian Empire. It is not only the hospital closings which have affected Russian lives; the number of hospital beds also decreased during the fifteen-year period: on average by 27.5%, down to 1.2 million, according to the government’s calculations. In the countryside, the reduction of hospital beds has been more crushing: the numbers there have been reduced by nearly 40%. This is not because there have been alternative health care provisions made; even out-patient clinics have ben closing. This has been coupled with an on-going doctors’ strike.
In a current report on the health system by Roscongress, The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed these problems in the healthcare system in the Russian Federation; namely: the lack of hospital beds, medical staff and personal protective equipment; the breakdown in leadership between policy makers and regions; and the sluggishness of the systems which fund medical care. “As a result of ‘streamlining’ in the Russian Federation between 2012–2018, the number of medical practitioners in state and municipal medical organizations fell by 12% (46,000 people). The number of hospital beds fell by 15% (160,000) between 2012–2018… A particularly dire situation has emerged in rural areas, small and medium-sized cities and the primary healthcare tier, where there are 1.5 times fewer doctors than needed (36,000), 1.8 times fewer mid-level medical staff (66,000) and 1.9 times fewer paramedics (20,000). In 2018, state expenditure on healthcare in the Russian Federation amounted to 3.3% of GDP. But the main problem of domestic healthcare was and still is the status of medical staff. This has manifested itself in low wages that are impossible to live off, which has led to a mass exodus of staff from the sector and has subsequently placed a huge burden on those who remain. In an overwhelming majority of regions, salaried positions (i.e. without benefits or incentive payments) for doctors ranged from RUB 12,000 to 35,000 in 2019, or from RUB 10,000 to 20,000 for nurses. Many of our colleagues are literally ‘burning out’ at work.” [vi]
This lack of confidence in the ability of the Russian State to meet these challenges has exacerbated the problems of the expanding militancy of the independent labour organisations.
The Background To Russian Labour Movements
Under the Soviet system, there was no independent political action allowed to be taken by workers, and their unions were one means of ensuring that. Soviet unions were part of the government and Party apparat. The official trade unions functioned as a branch of government. Their main duty was ensuring the fulfilment of the several ‘Plans’. They were “transmission belts” between the government and the workers. Union leaders were chosen from the nomenklatura and their primary function was to improve labour productivity, not to promote the interests of the workers. Since, in theory, the state belonged to the working class its interests were, per se, identical to the interests of the state. The workers couldn’t possibly have a strike as it would be a strike against themselves.
In the Soviet and other communist systems, trade unions played a different role than those in the West. Soviet trade unions had a distinctive relationship to the state. They were government organized, state-controlled bodies which performed “dual functions.” They had management and administrative functions and also were charged to protect and defend workers’ interests. They were designed both to represent the workers and to increase workers’ production. Trade unions controlled housing, day care, health care, access to vacation spots, recreation and cultural areas and, most importantly, social security funds and pensions.
The Soviet working class had made a tacit agreement to trade social security for political compliance, a “social contract.” In this contract, the regime promised full and secure employment, low and stable prices on necessities, a wide range of free social services (day cares, hospitals, schools, etc.) and egalitarian wage policies. In exchange for economic and social security, workers accepted the monopoly of the Party on interest representation, agreed to the centrally planned economy and to the dictates of the authoritarian system. The erosion of the social contract during the late Soviet period led to a system in which there were fewer shared values. The lack of consensus or tradition of discussion on what a society or government should or should not do led to a dramatic rise in labour unrest and political activism.
Soviet unions were organized on an industrial as opposed to a craft basis. There were fifteen industrial unions affiliated to the central union organisation the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (AUCCTU). The unions had a state-granted monopoly in their respective industries. This type of organization allowed for maximum Party control and also precluded any choice on the part of union members. The AUCCCTU was led by high level Party functionaries; Alexander Shelepin, the former head of the KGB, became the head of the AUCCTU. The labour movement was a key part of the Party’s control of the government and the economy.
This breakdown of the ‘social contract’ was an important part of the failure of the Gorbachev reforms, as was the gulf between ordinary working people and the official union structures. Perhaps the best example was the Miners’ Strike of 1989. The coal mines of the Donbass in the Ukraine were always a source of dissent in the Soviet Union. The working conditions were appalling. The safety record was worse and the living standards were primitive. The seeming opening of ‘glavnost’ and ‘perestroika’ led the workers in these coal mines to seek an improvement in their lifestyles through their official unions. These official unions were powerless, they said, to make any changes and rebuked the workers for trying to organise themselves outside the established union structures.
The AUCCTU’s Nineteenth Trade Union Conference decentralized the union structure and turned the AUCCTU into a looser confederation: the General Confederation of Trade Unions of the USSR (VKP) under Vladimir Shcherbakov. Despite this, worker protests increased. There were an estimated 2,000 strikes during the years of 1988 and 1989, including the nationwide miners’ strike in July 1989, with a loss of over 7 million work days. Strikes grew in intensity and in length. Strikes were widespread in 1989 – the official trade unions were totally bypassed and new alternative unions (initially strike committees) were established, predominantly in the coal regions of the Donbass (Ukraine), Karaganda (Kazakhstan), Kuzbass (Russia), and Vorkuta (Komi ASSR within Russia). Bus drivers, railroad workers, metallurgists, air traffic controllers, and others also struck. These strikes were precipitated by changes in work and compensation rules, coupled with a declining standard of living. Workers were being penalized through bonus reductions for outmoded and broken equipment, lack of inputs, and transport delays.[iii]
The old Soviet trade union federation was dissolved, in 1991 and a new one created by its affiliated unions, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR). It called itself independent to underline its autonomy from the Communist Party, which Yeltsin banned later that year. The FNPR was the only mass national organization, apart from the military, to survive the transition from socialism. The FNPR was not alone among the new organisation of workers.
Following the crackdown on the leadership of the Free Trade Union Association, the dissident workers expanded their union structure to include a wide variety of trades. They formed the Free Interprofessional Association of Workers (SMOT), which attempted to gain international recognition of their right to represent workers in Soviet industry. In August 1979 the KGB arrested the three most prominent members of the SMOT executive, Vladimir Borisov, Nikolai Nikitin and Albina Yakoreva, on charges of hooliganism and resisting arrest. This was followed by a wave of protests by unions in the West
Union dissidence spread beyond the USSR. In February 1979 the prominent Romanian dissident, Paul Goma, announced that a free trade union had been formed in Romania. The leadership, Dr Ion Cana, Georghe Brasoveanu and others come from a wide range of occupations. Their union, the Romanian Workers' Free Union (SLOMR) concentrated primarily on labour relations, rather than politics, and complained of Romania’s high unemployment rate, poor working conditions, long hours, low pay and the burden of political favouritism in promotion. The SLOMR petitioned the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) for acceptance as an affiliate. The Romanian government soon cracked down on the SLOMR and the president, Ceausescu, called its leaders "betrayers of their country". Many SLOMR leaders soon found themselves behind bars, unemployed or otherwise punished by the authorities.
In mid 1979 the Polish unionists made common cause with the political dissidents to protest at the low wages, shortage of basic foods and the repression of dissent in Poland. They formed an Organising Committee for Free Trade Unions in Silesia and a free trade union committee (KOR) to press their claims for recognition. A prominent leader of this movement, Kazimierz Switon, was arrested in April 1979 and others in the KOR were seized and put on trial. This later grew into Solidarity.
In Czechoslovakia, the dissident group surrounding the Charter 77 movement included a large number of trade unionists. Most, when their protests were reported in the West, were fired from their jobs. The International Labour Organisation (ILO)decided to publish the ICFTU's petition and the Czech government's reply. Most damning, however, was the complaint by Jiri Hajek to the Federal Assembly of Czechoslovakia accusing the government of the persecution of dissident unionists and also accusing the Czech official unions of participating in this persecution. The head of the URO (the Czech Central Union Board) issued a directive ordering all unions to expel all Charter 77 signatories. All appeals to the employment board were ruled out because the government has decided that Charter 77 was a subversive document.
Protests against poor working conditions, low wages and poor management occurred in Eastern Europe through unofficial or wildcat strikes. In Yugoslavia, the home of self-management, these strikes were numerous and widespread. It was a policy of the Yugoslav government to tolerate these strikes, or "work stoppages" as a good indicator of trouble spots in the economy. Through this they were able to prevent the intense politicisation of worker unrest which characterised the dissatisfaction in East Germany and Hungary.
The increase in East-West investment and trade in the early 1980s established greater links between the workforces of Eastern and Western Europe. The growth of East-West trade union unity was, for the communist states, a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the pressures for unity among union movements which transcended the cold war divisions offered the communist unions in the West a new legitimacy and opportunity to play a far more important role in international unionism than previously. The unions linked with the communist parties of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal saw the trade unions as creating a broader base for local pressure groups within the EEC and the multinational companies. They pressed for ‘Eurocommunism’. On the other hand there was always the danger of contagion. The unionists of Eastern Europe who met Western unionists for discussions on a shorter work week, better conditions of health and safety, more adequate pensions, unemployment and the control of the multinational companies were frequently tempted to apply these lessons at home. The growth of unrest within the Eastern European economies and the crisis of unemployment and inflation which threatened the economies of the East inevitably led to further demands that the unions actually be seen to function as a vehicle of workers' demands.
The contact between East and West provided these Eastern unionists with support and advice as to how best to act to defend their members. The Czech metalworkers' union during the Prague Spring sent out delegations to many Western nations and hosted frequent delegations of metalworkers from the USA and Europe. Many of these exchanges consisted of advice on how Western unionists handled key policies relating to collective bargaining and contractual demands. Other meetings encouraged the unionists in their pursuit of legitimate demands from the Czech government. It is small wonder that the fiercest opposition to the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia came from those unionists in closest contact with their Western colleagues in the metal and transport unions. Following the ousting of Dubcek the union leadership was itself purged. The lesson to the Russians was clear; contacts between East and West were not without risk for the East.
One vital reason for Western unionists to visit the East and to promote higher wages, better working conditions and shorter hours in Eastern Europe was that there was a real economic payoff for this activity. Along with the strong political motivation to build free unions in Eastern Europe, West European unions had become increasingly upset by the flow of cheap products into Western European markets from Eastern Europe. As more and more multinational companies invested and produced in Eastern Europe they used this manufacturing base to supply Western European markets. This trend started in the metalworking industry with the growth of Russian and Eastern European manufacture of motor vehicles under licence to companies like Fiat. This expanded to include large Swedish imports of Polish and Baltic softwood products marketed as Swedish-produced and designed. In the mid-1980s there were moves to establish huge chemical, especially petrochemical, plants in Eastern Europe which the multinational chemical corporations used to replace or threaten to replace existing Western European chemical plants as they became obsolete. These developments alarmed West European trade unionists who saw in the low wages, unhygienic conditions, and long working hours of East European labour a threat to the jobs and benefits in the West. The sympathy of the multinational corporations which had made investments in Eastern Europe made union militancy more difficult.
This interaction was not only the province of unionists. Intelligence agencies on both sides of the border used their influence to infiltrate the unions of the other side and to control or report on the resources engaged in the struggle. Josef Frolik, the Czech defector, spent years in the UK in the service of the Czech intelligence organisation targeted primarily on trade union affairs. In his subsequent testimony he revealed numerous contacts with leaders of the British trade unions and exposed the intense rivalry between the Czechs and their Russian masters for access to British unionists. A principal actor in the Russian efforts to penetrate and influence foreign unions was Boris Averyanov, head of the International Affairs Department of the AUCCTU, (the Soviet national union body) executive board member of the WFTU, and colonel in the KGB. Averyanov served in the London embassy as labour attaché and later as an adviser to Allende in Chile. When Shelepin left the leadership of the KGB to become the leader of the AUCCTU, Averyanov was his deputy and right hand man. Another figure well known to trade unionists from the Third World was Timor Timofeeyev who headed the Institute of the International Workers' Movement, a research organisation specialising in analysis of political trends in the world labour movement. He was a frequent lecturer and questioner at the AUCCTU's Higher School of Trade Union Studies, which was loosely attached to Moscow University.
In the U.S. the international affairs department of the AFL-CIO was led by Jay Lovestone, purged as Secretary of the U.S. Communist Party as a result of the Bukharin purges, and now a fierce and rabid anti-communist.; described by Ed Leahy of the St. Louis Post-Despatch as “part cloak and dagger, part cloak and suit”. With the support of George Meany, Jay Lovestone and Irving Brown the AFL-CIO increased its involvement in the foreign policy business. It put Phil Delaney in the State Department to be in charge of U.S. labour policy. With US government support the AFL-CIO engaged in labour projects across the globe, financed and supervised by the CIA. Initially the funding came through Cord Meyer’s shop at the agency but later, after the exposure of the CIA’s links with the ‘charitable foundations’ which donated so freely to the AFL-CIO, funding came through AID sources and the State Department. Several of the US unions (primarily the former CIO unions) objected to the AFL-CIO becoming an agency of the U.S. government and disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO on this issue. The UAW and several of the old CIO unions carried out their own international programs without any ties to or financial support from the government and without the blind anti-communism of the AFL-CIO.
The AFL-CIO was adamant that they would allow no contact between Western “Free” unions and the unions of Eastern Europe, especially those in the Soviet Union. With the outbreak of the 1989 miners’ strikes in the Donbas the new President of the AFL-CIO, Lane Kirkland, decided that the US unions should offer their assistance to the striking miners to help prise them away from the Soviet state. As he had done earlier with Solidarnosc in Poland, he invited the striking Soviet coal miners to the US and gave them substantial financial support.
In April, 1992 the Free Trade Union Institute established an office in Moscow, and organized the Russian American Foundation for Trade Union Research and Education. RAFTURE sought to encourage the formation of a new labour centre to replace the FNPR, and trained organizers for raids on these unions. International labour activity by the AFL-CIO was a creature of U.S. Cold War foreign policy, guiding resources to those unions which supported Yeltsin and privatisation. The FTUI paid the salaries of administrative staff in certain independent unions, and started a newspaper, Delo, with $250,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy. Delo campaigned for Yeltsin and for business/labour/government partnership; a program supported by multinational businesses.
The Free Trade Union Institute set up union training programs in Russia and Eastern Europe. These offered practical courses in unionism along with a strong political direction designed to support Yeltsin. The FTUI funded a database of union activists and their opponents; it subsidised television programs and labour education programs. They set up a public relations operation and an advisory council of trade union leaders. It used $660,000 to set up four radio stations in Russia in 1994. These initiatives in trying to gain control of the direction of Russian labour diminished when Jesse Helms cut the aid budget which deprived the AFL-CIO of its financial lifeline. Its programs continued but not on the same scale.
The European unions, especially in Britain, Germany, Sweden and Norway, competed with the AFL-CIO policies in Eastern Europe and funded the development of independent unions in Spain and Portugal as they rid themselves of Franco and Caetano; often supporting rivals to the AFL-CIO favourites.
Post-Yeltsin Russia saw the replacement of the withered state by a rising tide of ‘oligarchs’ who took over much of the profitable sectors of industry and the concomitant rise in organised criminal gangs who controlled, not just crime, but sat on a mighty wave of corruption that was the strongest force in the new Russian society. There was no respite for the working people and they continued to suffer.
There are two types of labour unions in Russia - the “official” unions, affiliated with the Soviet-legacy Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR) which is marginally independent of everything but Putin’s United Russia Party, and the unaffiliated free or alternative labour unions, which do not belong to FNPR. These independent unions began an extensive campaign of strikes and protests across Russia in 2017. These have continued and expanded, reflecting the rise is social discontent in Russia; especially among the workers. Despite heavy-handed tactics by the government there was a recurring nationwide truck strike in Russia. More than a million trucks went on strike across the country. The origins of the protest was the unilateral imposition of a new tax on trucking by the government in 2015. This system (known as the ‘Platon’ system) was introduced to offset what the government said was ‘wear and tear’ on the nation’s road which is so dependent on trucks. The Platon tax applied to all trucks over 12 tons. This is in addition to all the other taxes paid by the truckers. The truckers have resisted paying this tax because they see the revenues earned going, not to repair of the roads, but directly to the pocket of Putin’s closest friend (and judo partner) the billionaire Arkady Rotenberg whose son owns the Platon system.
There are strikes all over Russia, primarily among workers who haven’t been paid their wages for months at a time. This has been going on for over five years; including doctors, construction workers, teachers, car workers, and factory workers. As these nationwide strikes expand and involve many more people, the independent unions of Russia are gathering their collective strengths to pose a real threat to the existing political system. The police and military may club and beat young protestors and put them in jail or in hospital, but they can’t club a worker to make him/her work anymore; still less a thousand workers. If wages are not being paid by employers or delayed indefinitely, the workers have nothing to lose. They can be militant by doing nothing. Putin hasn’t developed a response to that. It is an axiom of the Russian working class “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”
When Putin decided that he would ‘reform’ the social security and pension system (like Macron in France) he was confronted by mass demonstrations of workers and retirees across Russia. He raised the retirement age for men to 65 and women to 60 (after many marches and protests). These protests were joined by political activists as well as by free unionists.
While these ant-retirement change protests were taking place, the main political opposition leader, Aleksei A. Navalny, who had been organizing a nationwide protest against these changes was put on trial and the sent to jail (on several occasions). Navalny has been leading a major campaign against corruption in Russia and has produced several films and documentaries exposing the corruption of Putin and his allies. Navalny has energised many of Russia’s youth in support of the anti-corruption campaign and, with the rise of the social security protests, united many of the elderly of Russia to that cause. Putin’s response to these protests has been brutal, further distancing him from the mainstream of political change. Navalny was poisoned and is now back in jail.
Putin responded with brute force to these threats by dissident workers and politicians. In April 2016 President Putin announced the creation of the National Guard, (‘Rosgvardia’) a powerful structure that includes more than 180,000 interior ministry troops plus special police units. Putin’s shakeup creates a military and police force of up to 400,000 well-trained servicemen loyal to him personally. The newly appointed commander is one of Putin’s most trusted men, a former undercover KGB agent named Victor Zolotov. Putin has created a vast Praetorian guard, loyal only to him. He has announced that the Rosgvardia is superior to the military and its needs take precedence over any military body; indeed, it can investigate and prosecute the military without judicial review. These are the people Putin has used to negotiate with his opposition.
In Russia, non-payment of wages in one form or another is the main cause of labour conflicts. According to the incomplete, but characteristic statistics of the Monitoring of Labour Protests, in 2020, about 49% of labour conflicts were in one way or another associated with non-payment of wages, and medical workers were especially active in seeking payment of epidemic allowances. In the first quarter of 2021, non-payment of wages was the cause of 36% of labour conflicts. Like labour protests arising for other reasons, these protests are mostly spontaneous and independent of any parties and trade unions.[vii]
A further consequence of the increasing militancy of the Russian workforce has been the employment of North Koreans throughout the Far East of Russia. Tens of thousands of North Korean labourers are currently working in Russia’s construction industry in what human rights groups claim as a form of "slave labour". Supplying labour overseas is one of the few sources of income for the reclusive North Korean economy, which is facing threats of mass starvation. North Korean President Kim Jong Un has reportedly increased the number of labourers the country sends abroad amid economic sanctions from several international powers, and fears of food shortage.
According to the State Department, “The North Korean government sends labourers to work abroad under bilateral contracts with foreign governments, including a significant number of labourers sent to Russia and China”, adding: “These workers face threats of government reprisals against them or their relatives in North Korea if they attempt to escape or complain to outside parties. Workers’ salaries are deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government, which keeps most of the money, claiming various 'voluntary' contributions to government endeavour.
One of the most serious challenges to the Russian state adjusting to the needs of the workers is the fraught confrontation of Chinese workers, employed in the Russian Far East. Many of the new projects agreed between Russia and China (pipelines, energy supplies, et al) require large numbers of workers from China who migrate to Russia for their contracted terms. There is no exact number of these migrants but they amount to hundreds of thousands. Until Covid, these workers moved freely between China and Russia but were constrained in their freedom of movement as the pandemic hit. “Not only are these Chinese workers commonly paid more than the locals and enjoy virtual extraterritorial status, but they often display a kind of arrogance that infuriates the Russians. Moscow has reportedly compounded this problem by firing local and regional officials who have tried to limit the number of Chinese workers in Russia.[viii]
In November 2021, the Chinese employees of the giant Russian state oil company, Rosneft, struck for the third time. Their grievances include the failures of that company to pay them the wages they were owed and had blocked their return to China. More than 50 Chinese laborers broke windows of the Rosneft offices in Komsomolsk-na-Amure and then attempted to march through the streets of the Russian Far East city before being stopped by local police”[ix].
Their presence in the Russian Far East is a running sore with the remaining Russian workers in the region, as the Chinese are paid more and have better conditions than the Russian workers. They also create a challenge to local politicians and administrators as relations between Russia and China fall outside their purview and competence, which means they are forced to finance the social costs of the Chinese and, not infrequently are not compensated for these expenses by the Russian state or the state-owned companies.
As the conflict grows the Chinese are requesting that if the Russian authorities are incapable of maintaining order on their own territory, then perhaps “private Chinese security companies” could do the job. The Russian military have strongly argued against such a solution.
The Parallel Growth of Free Unions In The Ukraine, Belorussia and Kazakhstan
Although the trade union history of the former constituent parts of the Soviet Union followed a relatively similar path, the breakup of the USSR led to the development of different structures in these new states. The post-independence labour situation in the Ukraine was a bit different. As in Russia there was a historical legacy for the central union body. Under the Soviet Union workers were organised in a parallel to the AUCCTU of Russia. It was the sole recognised forum for labour. After Ukrainian Independence on 6 October 1990, The Ukrainian labour movement formed the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FITU). The declaration creating the FITU was signed by 25 national and 24 regional trade unions. In November 1992, at its Second (Extraordinary) Congress, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Ukraine was renamed the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (‘FTUU’).
The FTUU took over many of the social welfare projects it inherited from its predecessor and continue to be the provider of these benefits for the state. Gradually, these ancillary programs were removed from the FTUU by successive Ukrainian governments after the Orange Revolution. The problems with the Ukrainians were not structural; they were due to the political history of the Donbas industrial workers and their antipathy to the 2004 election which brought in the Orange Revolution. The large majority of the citizens in the Donbas voted for their candidate, Victor Yanukovych; about 4.5 million in the election. The people of the Donbas considered themselves as special. They represented the area of heavy industry, long a Soviet totem, and felt they had the right to a government in Kyiv that would represent their views. Official Soviet propaganda portrayed miners and metal workers as the “guardians of labour.” For the people of Donbas, it was normal that the candidate supported by the industrial east always would win. In 1991 it was Leonid Kravchuk, and in 1994 and 1999 it was Kuchma. Later it was Yanukovych.
The ouster of Yanukovych was an important catalyst of the rebellions in the Donbas and Lugansk. These political developments in the Ukraine were not measured in degrees of freedom and democracy from the constraining rules of the USSR; they were delineated by the creation and empowerment of competing oligarchs who moved in to take control of the Ukrainian political and economic structures. Ukraine moved from the control of the Communist Party to the control by rapacious oligarchs backing different political candidates for high office and who were, themselves, oligarchs of note. The diminished leadership of the Ukrainian trade unions was most often drawn from the holdovers of the union leadership of the Communist system. These union leaders made rewarding deals with the plant managers (Red Directors) who turned state enterprises into private companies of which they owned the shares. There were several splits in the labour movement as unpaid and dissatisfied workers tried to take some control.
Ukrainian workers suffered under the new shock tactics of privatisation. For seventy years they had been state employees. Their wages, working conditions and leisure were controlled by a variety of Party and union organisations. Life was hard but predictable. With a stroke of a pen they found themselves in the private sector. The next years saw the replacement of the withered state by a rising tide of ‘oligarchs’ who took over much of the profitable sectors of industry and the concomitant rise in organised criminal gangs who controlled, not just crime, but sat on a mighty wave of corruption that was the strongest force in the new Ukrainian society. There was no respite for the working people and they continued to suffer.
The so-called reforms of the Rada were resisted by the growing tide of labour dissent. In 2020 legislation was agreed to reform the Labour Code of 10 December 1971, which is the key piece of legislation. However, these reforms mainly protected the employers, not the workers. The proposed legislation would abolish union committees at company level, undermine union capacity to protect workers and would eventually lead to the elimination of trade unions in Ukraine.
Thousands union members picketed the building of the parliamentary committee for social politics on the day of the review of the draft law. The draft contradicted national law, including the Constitution of Ukraine, and the core international labour standards, including ILO Conventions 87, 131 and 98. The draft law consisted of 99 articles and was meant to regulate all labour relations. The legislation was full of anti-worker legal provisions, including: the possibility to set a 12-hour working day instead of the current 8 hour limit; reduction of overtime payments, allowing the payment of 120 per cent instead of the current double time; additional opportunities for easier dismissals, including that of pregnant women and women on maternity leave at the employers’ discretion; abolishment of additional leave for workers employed in hazardous industries, for parents with many children and mothers of disabled children; and the elimination of social guarantees for vulnerable categories of employees.[x]
The labour movement in the Ukraine is developing a more political role. In addition to the official unions there has been a rapid growth of independent trade unions, like the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine (NPGU) and the Trade Union of Metalworkers and Miners of Ukraine (PMGU). These have been rallying workers in protest of unpaid wage arrears and the need for greater provisions for health and safety policies (especially after the effects of COVID). While there is little or no co-operation with the banned unions in the Donbas and Lugansk, the workers there are ready to participate to the extent this is possible. There have been important discussions in the international unions, like IndustriAll in Geneva, about co-ordinating a common strategy with unions in the European Union, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The position of Belarus unions has been threatened by the repression and intervention by the government of President Lukashenko and his Prime Minister, Roman Golovchenko in removing the rights a status of the independent unions of Belarus (BITU) which had split off from the pro-government Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus. In response to the growing power of independent unions, authorities launched brutal raids on union offices. Union leaders and activists have been arrested, fined, and their homes searched. BITU leaders and activists have been fired. Many BITU members have not had their short-term contracts renewed. Workers have been pressured to leave the union, threatened with disciplinary penalties, deprivation of bonuses and incentive payments for professional skills, threats of not passing skills exams, summons to the security service for preventive conversations, and dismissals due to notional staff reduction.
The power of the Belarus unions manifest itself in the August 2020 general strike, as the details of police brutality against the strikers began to emerge radicalising even Lukashenko's most loyal supporters. These were accompanied by mass rallies of political protestors who swelled the ranks of the trade unionists in their marches. It became clear to the workers and the dissidents that if they co-operated there was a great possibility of pushing Lukashenko and his cronies out of office.
The strike started slowly. A few workers downed tools, but were quickly arrested by waiting security services agents and disappeared into the detention centres that consumed 6,600 protestors over the first three days of general protests, who were horrifically beaten, raped and tortured. But it was that very ill treatment that gave the general strike the impetus it needed. As details of the beatings emerged the entire population – including the factory workers – were radicalised. Soon the workers of state-owned company after state-owned company walked off the shop floor and the general strike became real.[xi]
The striking workers soon realised, as did the Polish Solidarity unionists in their earlier struggle, that real power was created when the biggest companies in Belarus were brought to a standstill and that the government couldn’t force people to work. Even more importantly, they learned that protesting as an individual allowed for directed reprisals against them as individuals but, if the strike was with a union, the solidarity of the workers was their real strength. This was a lesson learned, as well, by the political strikers.
Despite Russian support for Lukashenko, these protests continue in Belarus and the ties between the unions and the dissident political movements grow in strength.
The same has been generally true in Kazakhstan. One of the most important features of the conflict in Kazakhstan is the crucial role played by the independent labour unions in the current protests. The repression of independent unions has increased after the passage of the 2014 Labour Law and the harassment of union members in industrial centres like Shymkent. These have been the backbone of the popular protests.
In the first half of 2021, there were more strikes in Kazakhstan than in the entire 2018 to 2020 period. On August 23, 2021, around 500 workers of the West Oil Software company in Mangystau province went on strike. The striking oil workers claimed that their wages are too low for the high cost of living in Kazakhstan, especially when some families lost their additional source of income with livestock deaths due to droughts.
Like other former states in the USSR the Kazakhs had a centralised trade union federation. On independence this central union transmogrified to a state-run organisation. In response to the failures and difficulties with such a structure, many independent trade unions formed and a new trade union national centre, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of the Republic of Kazakhstan (KNPRK) was formed.
The government grew increasingly wary of the strength of independent unions. Workers of Uzenmunaigas oil company in Zhanaozen organized a strike demanding timely payment of wages, an increase in salaries, and improvement of the working conditions. Efforts to negotiate failed, which resulted in violent clashes between workers and the local police ending with 14 casualties. The government cracked down on the labour unions and introduced several legislative acts regulating labour relations; the Law on Labour Unions (2014) and a new Labour Code (2015). These were highly restrictive towards union activity. In November 2017,as a result of these changes, Kazakhstan liquidated one of the major national-level unions - the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK). The head of this labour union, Larisa Kharkova, was found guilty of abuse of power and imprisoned for 4 years. The consequent hunger strike of 400 oilmen in 2017 against the disbandment of the CILU was found illegal by the court's decision. About 50 employees were penalized and had to pay compensation to the employers. Two active participants of the hunger strike were sentenced to 2.5 and 2 years of imprisonment with a further ban on any engagement with labour union activities.
The pressure for trade union rights and a concomitant struggle by Kazakh farmers for control of their lands led to a major protest movement. Nazarbayev, the long-time President resigned and was replaced by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in early January 2022. Tokayev reacted to the protests by ordering his troops to “shoot to kill without warning” to suppress protests. The internal affairs ministry said that more than 4,400 people have been arrested, and warned that sentences of between eight years and life will be imposed. The Kazakh regime has used torture against worker activists before: its forces may be emboldened by the 3,000 Russian and other troops flown in to support them. That struggle continues.
One of the most important results of the current Russian policy towards the Ukraine is that there is a growing co-operation among the independent trades unions in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine and their domestic political partners in the dissident movements to force change and liberalisation of the system. This is a force which has developed through the inflexibility of the Russian system to adapt to the challenges of unpaid wages, depopulation of the regions and the severe gaps in social amenities brought by Covid. The harsh crackdowns on dissent in Belarus and Kazahkstan were engendered by the notion that Putin and the Russian forces would be able to assist the leadership of Belarus and Kazahkstan in keeping the lid on the pressure cooker of worker power and political dissent. Whatever happens in the great maskirovka on Ukraine’s border the Russian leadership will find it impossible to enforce their harsh policies on an increasingly dissatisfied populace without provoking serious consequences. A war in the Ukraine will be terminal for Russian domestic politics; a climb down not much better.
[i] Statista Research Department, 17/10/21
[ii] Alexsey Raksha, Rosstat, 9/1/21
[v] “Window on Eurasia”, 2/1/22
[viii] Paul Goble, “Chinese Workers in Russian Far East Attack Rosneft Offices”, EDM, 18/11/21
[x] Svitlana Kheda, Sayenko Kharenko, "The Employment Law Review: Ukraine", 18 March 2021
[xi] Ben Aris, "A general strike in Belarus could bring the Lukashenko regime down, but so far it has failed to reach critical mass", BNE, September 4, 2020