‘Any trade union leader knows he shouldn’t run into trouble and come into conflict’

Why are trade unions in Russia helpless?

‘Any trade union leader knows he shouldn’t run into trouble and come into conflict’
Photo: svoboda.org

The time of notification of a worker about lay-off can reduce from two months to two weeks. President of the Labour Confederation of Russia Boris Kravchenko told the mass media about it. The bill was planned to be discussed at a meeting of a Russian trilateral commission on regulation of social and labour relations on 29 May. In a column written for Realnoe Vremya, sociologist, head of the project Labour Protest Monitoring Pyotr Bizyukov explains if modern trade unions can influence such situations and if they have any influence in general.

What Soviet trade unions were like

There were three levels of control in Soviet enterprises. The first is the party’s control when top managers and top workers were controlled through a party. As a rule, all elite workers were party members as well as all leaders. They were included in the system. The cost of a violation of rules is the return of the party membership card on the table and the loss of one’s status in this space. It wasn’t little. The second control system is Komsomol. It totally controlled the youth. Almost all young workers were Komsomol members, but not all switched to the category of party workers.

And for the third category who didn’t have any ideology, there was control through a trade union. If there was an ideological moment in Komsomol and the party and one had to pretend you believed in the business of the party, a trade union operated only through financial and non-financial stimulation.

The trade union distributed the goods. It was flats, big household appliances and so on. Only those who either worked in the enterprise for long showing their loyalty to it or occupied a significant position or distinguished themselves with some achievements could get it all.

There were inclusive benefits too, for instance, tours to pioneer camps for children at a lower price. I remember my parents paid just 14 rubles for two months of my stay in the camp, it was little money even for those times. There were a lot of benefits through food baskets that were distributed via trade unions in the last years of the USSR. There was a queue to get these benefits. And the biggest punishment of the trade union was an exclusion of a person from this queue. For instance, a heavy drinker lost the right to get a flat.

Of course, some people didn’t care about these benefits. But this reduced the quality of life of their families. For instance, a person couldn’t obtain a tour to a health resort that was very topical in case of an injury any more.

27th session of All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions in Kremlin Palace, 19 March 1982. Photo: wikipedia.org

Shalayev sat on the government’s side, and it became clear that trade unions weren’t on workers’ side

During the transition from socialism to post-socialism, independent groups of workers began to arise, for instance, workmen’s clubs. A mine strike in 1989 gave a great impulse to this. It began in Kuzbass. This event partly determined my life too. I was living in Kuzbass then, I saw these events first-hand and even participated in them to a certain degree. The scale of this strike was huge, it was the first strike in the history of the country. Everything began in Kuzbass on 11 July, all miners in the country began to go on strike a week later, which is, by different estimates, from 400 to 600,000 people from Sakhalin to Ukrainian Donbass.

It is interesting how then-Soviet trade unions reacted to this strike. Chairman of the All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions Mr Shalayev arrived in Kuzbass as part of the governmental commission to hold talks with miners on strike. And he was on the government’s side during the talks. It was such a milestone that it became clear where these trade unions were not on the workers’ side. And it came to their mind it was necessary to create their trade unions.

They went to America and brought such an unknown thing as collective agreement

The first strongest trade union appeared in 1991, it came from workers’ committees. It was the Independent Miners’ Trade Union. It included Ukrainians, people from Vorkuta, Kuzbass, Krasnoyarsk and the Far East. Its influence was huge. The chairman of this trade union was a member of the Security Council and was sitting on Yeltsin’s right side.

What did this new trade union do? It offered new approaches to regulate labour relations. They went to America, talked with their colleagues, brought such an unknown thing as collective agreement.

The Soviet Union had collective agreements, of course, but at times they were signed the following way: “The administration of the enterprise, trade union and staff”, that’s to say, the trade union and staff weren’t the same thing. While the new trade unions offered the sides to assume certain obligations and meet them. And if they aren’t met, workers can go on strike. Today this seems normal. But back in the days directors of enterprises were in fury because they had to assume obligations in front of somebody and that they could be imposed sanctions for not meeting them. The trade union had huge power, and such agreements began to be signed. However, this didn’t last for long.

Mining strike, 1989. Photo: ngr-ru.ru

Trade unions were excluded from the political process in the 1990s

I am very critical about the political management of the country in the 90s. What complaints do I have? Not only the market economy and inflation are the case, it excluded trade unions from the political process. There were adopted laws that limited the influence of trade unions. Trade unions gradually, not suddenly, stopped being a significant institutional structure.

This intensified later, for instance, the guarantee of the trade union activity for leaders seriously weakened in the 2000s. In other words, there was an order when they could be dismissed with the approval of superior trade union agencies. And then it was made a decision they could be dismissed on equal grounds, and superior trade union agencies could express their motivated opinion, but it had no power. People who run the activity at the bottom, in fact, turned out unprotected.

Secondly, negotiating capacities of trade unions in collective talks weakened. The order was reconsidered, there were given certain preferences to employers, while capabilities of trade unions reduced. Most importantly, restrictions on strikes were imposed as early as since the 90s.

Formally, the situation now is the following: the right to strikes is fixed in the Constitution, the Labour Code has it. The code describes the procedure of declaring a strike legal, but since the adoption of the Labour Code, all trade unions clearly say that it is an impossible procedure. It is very long (weeks-long) and complex (a lot of agreements, a lot of documents need to be filed). And, most importantly, the employer can stop this procedure at any moment.

If something began to be done, terms of agreement of one document were breached, that’s it, all procedure stopped, everything must start from the beginning. There are a lot of cases when people tried to organise a legal strike, and the employer foiled it. Some anyway went through this procedure. I studied one of the strikes of dock workers — they organised a legal strike. But they said it was completely senseless because while they were preparing it, the employer suspended several moorings where members of this trade union worked, began repairs there, shifted all production processes to other places and sent some ships to other harbours. And they began the strike without a job — the employer didn’t have any damage. Some went on strike for a couple of weeks and then came to work. In other words, a strike as one of the most powerful tools for workers to influence the employer was taken away from trade unions.

Members of Civil Staff Trade Union of Russia’s Armed Forces near House of Government of Russia, 1997. Photo: psvsrf.ru

Trade unions not just set the agenda in the interests of workers, they adapt to the conditions offered by the employer

All this created a certain legal space trade unions have to stamp in like a cramped pen. And they can’t go outside these frames. What can they do? One thing — they adapt to the situation. And today trade unions are evaluated very negatively, of course. Measurements of all sociological services show that trade unions have the lowest rating. They are helpless. They can do something in some, especially big enterprises. Directors of enterprises with the latest technologies who understand they should be careful have trade unions, have talks with them, but only within the frames the employer agrees with.

As soon as the trade union tried to require more than the employer is ready to give, sanctions are immediately imposed. And today any trade union leader knows that one shouldn’t run into trouble, come into conflict.

New trade unions understand this very well. For instance, air dispatchers, mechanical engineering have had trade unions in the last decades (especially when foreign companies entered Russia such as Ford and Volkswagen). And they understand they should be careful because if the employer declares war on the trade union, a handful can withstand it. A lot of trade unions stopped existing because the employer simply destroyed them. And he destroyed them by taking advantage of those institutional opportunities the Labour Code provided him and the possibilities of informal pressure because both local authorities and security agencies are very often on employers’ side.

I think the situation keeps worsening year after year. Trade unions have a weak influence. And they have to not set the agenda in the interests of workers but adapt to the conditions the employer offers them. This, of course, divests workers of opportunities. Adaptation strategies of individual and group behaviour became determinate.

Statisticians registered no strike last year. According to my data, there were 156 strikes

But the situation can’t remain in such a state for long. A solution is needed. And workers find them in spontaneous strikes. I have been monitoring workers’ protests for 13 years already. I began it for a simple reason: I needed information about strikes. But what the State Committee for Statistics showed were beyond. For instance, statisticians registered no strike last year. What does it mean? They didn’t register a legal strike. While according to my data, there were 156 cases when workers stopped working. But even strikes don’t solve a problem. For instance, what’s the sense of going on strike in an enterprise that is going to close if people don’t agree with the lay-off? They use other forms of protest. They go to protests, picket. Some desperate people can even seize an enterprise, but this happens very rarely.

I had to collect information about different protest forms. There were 403 similar cases in 2019 in total, 156 of them were accompanied by production suspension. This is the real scale of the protest movement in the labour spheres. While the State Committee for Statistics doesn’t register anything.

Who goes on strike and why? In 2019, 64% of all protests were spontaneous. This means that people who can’t tolerate more simply stopped working without any trade union. Now we can see constructors’ riot in the North. A big crowd of rotation workers seized the office and is requiring to fix all violations with threats and an abusive language. It is a spontaneous protest. And over a half of all protests take place this way.

Trade unions very rarely organise protests. A protest quite often is created spontaneously, and trade union leaders, which include a lot of honest responsible people who can’t simply leave their members, chair this protest. But they chair it post factum, without organising it because trade union leaders know their labour law and remember about the responsibility for the organisation of strikes, they try to legalise the workers’ actions not to frame their members.

Photo: Maksim Platonov

Yes, they are weak, they are allowed to do little, but the tension is lower where they exist

And I must say that trade unions rarely participate in protests not only because they are so passive bust also because the employer where there is a powerful trade union is already an “academician”. He knows the cost of a big and long war against the trade union — it isn't certain if you will win, and even if you win, this will echo for many years. This is why strikes, protests often arise where there aren't trade unions. And I see one of the positive functions of modern trade unions here. Yes, they are weak, they are allowed to do little, but the tension is lower where they exist. But we can't talk about the frank betrayal of trade union functionaries. We have sectors where riots are completely banned. Medicine is among them.

Medics are protesting very much now. I do not almost hear the old, traditional trade union back its workers. Unfortunately, I have seen several cases when this trade union was on the employers' side.

Trade unions haven’t learnt how to resist flexible labour, outsourcing schemes

The future of trade unions depends on how they will be able to handle several challenges in the current uneasy situation. Digital technologies interfere the labour relations — it is different forms of control, substitution of people with robots, work with digital platforms instead of the traditional employer (labour uberisation). Employers actively use new technologies, while trade unions simply don’t keep up with them. The case isn’t that they don’t have specialists who can work in the IT sphere but that the majority of trade union bosses simply don’t understand new realities, don’t know how to use modern digital instruments. Many turn their back to these problems preferring not to notice the changes that are taking place.

Another challenge is overcoming informal labour relations.

Trade unions haven’t learnt how to resist flexible labour, outsourcing schemes and even day labour. It is more convenient for them to work in a big enterprise where workers obey legislation. But the sphere of informal labour relations will expand, including through the above-mentioned labour digitalisation.

The third and key challenge is that trade unions must return to big politics. It is necessary to enable them to participate in the creation of modern labour relations. If not they do this, others will do it. There are examples to hand — there has appeared information that employers want to reduce the terms of dismissal. This means that they can influence and build labour relations in a way that is profitable for them. Do trade unions have such an opportunity? I don’t think so.

I have been observing trade unions for many years, I see a constant process of appearance of new structures that sprout like grass through the asphalt. Not everybody survives, but new ones appear. This means that there is very high demand for protecting workers’ rights, and when current trade unions don’t handle it, new ones appear. This is why trade unions have a future. And we will see quite soon what new trade unions should be like and if the old ones can upgrade.

By Pyotr Bizyukov