Sunday, December 21, 2008

As the Russian state gradually devolves into a situation of "Stalin without social security" Russian trade unions have had a difficult time of surviving, pitted as they are against both an increasingly authoritarian state and a class of bosses who have yet to forget their Mafia origins. The class war is at its brutal worst in Russia. here's one commentary from the AFL-CIO Blog on what is happening there today.
Russian trade union leader Alexei Etmanov has been physically attacked twice for trying to build a democratic union of autoworkers.

Tim Ryan of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center reports on growing violence in Russia against labor activists seeking to create democratic unions.

Over the past several years, the government of Vladimir Putin has consistently and deliberately shut down one avenue after another of free expression, pluralism and democracy in Russia.

The single bright spot that points the way toward a future for the Russian people is a democratic, independent union movement—one of the few survivors of the past decade’s attacks on political opponents and nongovernmental (NGO) organizations. But the survival of independent unions is threatened. The experience of Alexei Etmanov shows why. Etmanov is a highly respected and charismatic leader of Russian autoworkers and a welder at the Ford Motors plant in St. Petersburg. In November, criminals attacked Etmanov twice in one week.

Says Etmanov:

"I was walking home after my shift late at night when I was attacked by three people. They did not say anything; they just started to beat me. This tells me that it was not just an attack by thugs. The following day we received an anonymous phone call, and the caller said, “If you continue with your activities, we will kill all of you.”

Etmanov does not know who specifically threatened him, “but I can tell you for sure that there are people who do not like it that we demand from the employers that they observe Russian labor laws.”

A couple of days later, he was attacked again. He was walking up the steps of his apartment building and realized the staircase light at his floor was off. Just then, he was attacked with a cut-off metal pipe. He fired shots from the rubber bullet pistol he had started to carry recently. The attacker ran downstairs where he was captured by union activists waiting by the apartment building. But before they could stop him, the attacker swallowed his mobile phone chip to prevent them from learning his identity.

Etmanov is no stranger to tough situations. He has withstood pressure from the plant management and local authorities, but he knows that now he is being confronted by criminals. There is no doubt that these attacks are the result of the incessant fight that he and his union are undertaking for the rights of workers.

The Interregional Trade Union of Auto Workers he heads includes local unions representing workers at Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Toyota and other auto assembly plants and parts manufacturers in Russia where unions are fighting for better wages and working conditions. Etmanov is under attack from those unhappy about the growth of free trade unions in numbers and in strength.

The worsening economic situation in Russia heightens the unionists’ concern over their leaders’ safety. A wave of mass layoffs at Russia’s leading companies is gaining strength against a background of assurances in the controlled media outlets about Russia’s “political stability.” Wage arrears are growing at an alarming rate. Real wages are falling. Inflation is skyrocketing. The global economic meltdown created by the U.S. financial markets is exacerbating and fueling this trend.

Boris Kravchenko, president of the Russian free trade union center VKT, says:

"Russian authorities are clearly concerned about losing credibility and having to face huge crowds of the unemployed. The resources of the multi-billion dollar Stabilization Fund that have been accumulated over the years of high oil prices are being invested in the banks that are “close” to the government and used to support state corporations. Workers are forgotten as industry leaders and bureaucrats (who have invested money in large enterprises) are concerned about keeping up their high-profit margins. Several NGO and union activists as well as independent journalists have been physically assaulted in November. The authorities are working to neutralize their potential opponents in the future confrontation that can be brought about by mass unrest. There is little doubt that the strength of this opposition to the government’s actions will grow and reach a critical point."

Russian free trade union leaders clearly are facing a serious and building threat. Criminalized capital and corrupt bureaucrats see free trade unions and their leaders as the principal threat to their authority.

Russian free trade unions need international solidarity now more than ever, because their survival and the survival of Russian civil society depend on it. The Russian government must receive a clear signal that the international trade union movement is closely following the developments in Russia and will firmly insist on the observance of fundamental trade union rights in Russia. Alexei Etmanov and his union activists—not those who attempt to silence them—are contributing to the future of the Russian people.

For those who think that highlighting these developments is endangering them, the unions want the world to know that they are patriotic, that they are working for the benefit of Russian workers in a global economy, and that they see that a prosperous Russia is the Russia of the future—for themselves and for their children.

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