Big and Small Russian Labor

St. Petersburg         The delegation from the Organizers’ Forum (www.organizersforum.org) shifted venue from Moscow to St. Petersburg, though I am still sorting through all of the meetings and information from those first days. We also seem to have moved in time from the combination of “soviet block” and historic construction around the Kremlin and Red Square to a city along canals like Amsterdam with ornamented buildings and avenues much more European than one might have expected. In these days of climate change, the calendar may have warned us that fall would be hardest here on the northwestern coast of Russia, but the temperature has continued mild to warm. Natives talk about how they used to have snow in St. Petersburg, but now winter simply brings grey and cold.

One of the hardest pieces to truly grasp has been the ecology of organized labor here, though we have had great and impressive guides trying to help us see it clearly. Part of the challenge is that the 800 pound gorilla that was largely not in the room was FNFR, or the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, with 28,000,000 reported members, which was the state supported federation during “soviet times,” as people frequently refer to that period. FNFR is still ubiquitous and as Andrei Mrost, the representative of the newly constituted world labor body, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), said it was the only vestige of the soviet era that continued “unchanged to this day.” He described the national leadership of FNFR as strong and capable, but it appeared that at the local and regional level FNFR was known as the dumping ground for old Party officials who were not able to make it any longer in the Party. Worst, the leadership of many of these unions are desperately hanging on because they seemingly can no longer afford to retire, so many are in their mid-70’s and trying to maintain some semblance of power in order to live period. The pattern seemed uneven, but troubled with many of these unions unable to do the job and used to having to fight for their members.

The fights are complicated as well because so many of the basic employment rights that would only exist in the West in collective agreements continue to be enshrined firmly in the law: 40 hours per week, overtime over 8 in a day, mandatory 28 days of vacation per year, double time after 2 hours of overtime, and so forth. All health care (along with education and other social benefits) continue to be provided by the government. There is no openness about financial records through public markets or union research capacity yet, so the bargaining on money is largely “take it or leave it” with at best only minimal adjustments to low wage patterns. Union rights and mandatory check-off also prevails so many of the FNFR unions have good treasuries and resources. Increasingly we heard reports of “yellow” unions, as they are called here, which are company unions being organized by new enterprises not wanting to deal with either FNFR or independents.
The independents were bold and feisty. Boris Kravshenko, the young 37-year-old President of the All Russian Confederation of Labor (VKT) was sharp as a tack with impeccable English (he insisted on the translator but corrected her regularly!) and a suit-and-tie militancy that was crisp and certain. His federation had supported the Ford strike by 1500 workers in St. Petersburg that was on the tips of everyone’s tongues among the activists in Russia. Boris had 400,000 members he indicated frankly, but everyone was pretty much required to claim 1,000,000 to be taken seriously in the country. We also met Alexander Shepel, the President of the Confederation of Labor of Russia (KTR) formed in 1995 and claiming 1.2 million members. Alexander was older (59, which incidentally is the life expectancy for men now in Russia!) and came out of the struggles in the docks and supporting dock workers. These were good, solid trade unionists from what they had to say and their bearing.

What they really had on the ground was hard to say in this vast country. Any 3 people can constitute a union under law. Any union can represent and bargain for its members with the employer. Several revisions in the labor codes have required unions to bargain as “councils” of sorts and more recently changes have favored FNFR by giving more rights to “majority” unions than other organizations in setting the terms of debate and agreements, so everyone can survive but certainly not with any equity.

Frequently members of our delegation asked our brothers from the independent unions to explain why workers were still joining and paying dues to such unions, especially if they were not delivering. The answers were across the board. Some felt the fact that managers were allowed to be in the unions sometimes played a role, since they were even allowed to vote. Most felt that people were essentially just “going along to get along.” It was what they were used to doing, so they did it. None of this really added up, and it would have taken a longer trip and better translation perhaps to get to the heart of this question that bear decades of experience, culture, and perhaps plain habit. The contradiction did make it easier to understand why Brother Mrost with the ICFTU took the longer view that it made sense to work with the FNFR and other such unions with a state-backed history, not because he or anyone thought they would change over night, but simply because they still had the members even all of these years after the fall, and with work there might be change.

Did unions have power in Russia though? We still found it hard to say with any certainty.

Alexander Shepel, president of KTR (left)
Boris Kravshenko, president of VKT
Andrei Mrost of ICTFU
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