Monthly Archives: September 2007

Organizer Activists–Yevyenia

St. Petersburg         St. Petersburg is a dramatic city built around islands, rivers, canals, and bridges and somehow we ended up yesterday in sunshine even as the temperature turned slightly more crisp. Little did we realize what a rare blessing this might be until we found that on the Baltic and at the same latitude as Alaska, St. Petersburg only enjoys 40 sunny days a year, though some of them are “white nights” in the summer when it is almost never really dark. Even as we met with more people here, I was struck by another blessing that has been a highpoint of the Organizers’ Forum (www.organizersforum.org) meetings. This great luck were two almost coincidental meetings, one in Moscow and the other here in St. Petersburg.

On our last morning in Moscow we had a meeting that to some seemed at first almost like a burden of manners. We were going to visit the Russian Research Institute for Cultural and Natural Heritage. Pat Sweeney of WORC (www.worc.org), one of our board members, had connected us to Tamara Semenova, who he had met on a trip a decade earlier, and they had provided the invitation for our delegation for our visas. We were treated to excellent presentations by the Institute directors Alexander Yeremeev and Slava Stolyarov. Slava had a fascinating presentation on the efforts to rehabilitate a Russian monastery that had been on the island in the White Sea famous as one of the prisons widely written about before the fall.

There was an afterthought presentation that seemed to not add up at all though. After Alexander and Slava had excused themselves to other duties, she introduced a woman, conservatively dressed in her mid-30’s, who had been sitting along the side. She had asked the learned speakers several questions earlier that seemed to have an edge to them about the “practical value” of their work, so it was already clear that she had an edge of some kind, but that also might have been a chip on her shoulder. Yevyenia Chirikova stood ramrod straight before us and began her remarks. It developed that she was trained as an engineer and she and her husband had moved to the outer ring of Moscow to live with their first child in order to be nearer to better air and nature even though it was more than an hour commute into the city. While expecting her second child rumors developed that in the large forest area, some thought to be virgin, near where they lived there were suddenly plans to build a highway of some kind through the forest area.

She tried to find out the facts but was thwarted at every turn. She began talking to neighbors and found they were also worried. The government denied any activity, but then they found a spot that seemed to indicate work was starting already to clear a piece of the old oak forest. The more she learned, the madder she got, and the more she felt like she should do something even though she had no clue about what to do. She began to enlist more of her neighbors around this threat to the forest. They started taking action. They put up a website (www.ecmo.ru). They started passing petitions that now have more than 5000 signatures asking President Putin to halt development and protect their forest. They talked to Greenpeace for help, but there was no interest in their forest because it was not a “national” issue.

She became more active. She and her new friends delivered leaflets in the dark of night calling for public meetings (they have had two now which are the equivalent in this society of a protest), so no one would know who was calling the meeting or single them out. People responded! Yevyenia said all of this without a smile, standing rigidly straight, but with anger and passion in her voice that transcended any translation.

She also was nothing but frank and straightforward. She was an engineer, not a poet, and she was honest. Looking at her hands chopping the air in anger, all of a sudden I would double take almost as the translator would say that she had to admit that she found the organizing “exciting” and that she and her new found friends felt like they were like “revolutionaries” as they organized these “meetings” and actions.

One could feel the passion in the lecture room! I could look at our delegation and see them all suddenly on the edge of their chairs, galvanized by Yevyenia and her awakening through this fight and her pure thrill at organizing, as they remembered how they had also felt years ago as they began the work. There was applause, sudden claps, and smiles. None of us had any idea where her “forty acre forest” might be, but we all desperately wanted Yevyenia and her fledgling organization to win this fight.

And perhaps for the first time, our hope for Russia and its future sprang from the room like a shout!

Yevyenia Chirikova
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail