Russia's bold new proletariat

Independent labor unions are springing up, but a Kremlin-backed bill could nip them in the bud.

The workers at Ivanovo Mashzavod had quietly endured almost 10 years of enforced idleness and irregular salaries as their machine-building factory struggled to survive the tough post-Soviet economic winter.

But when fresh orders started flowing in last year, and a new manager decided to launch an "American-style" efficiency campaign with layoffs, wage cuts and cancelled benefits, they rebelled.

Experts say that, throughout Russia, workers are beginning to demand their share from the country's two-year spurt of economic growth. Flexing muscle against management is a dramatic departure from the days of the Soviet "workers' paradise," in which labor protests were not tolerated.

"We went on strike," says Anna Smirnova, the engineer who led the 230 workers of the Ivanovo plant, some 200 miles northeast of Moscow, in a week-long walkout that ended when management agreed to negotiate new terms last month. "We were loyal to our factory all through the bad times, and then when things start to get a bit better, the managers wanted to cut us out. We felt there was no alternative but to show them some strength."

Although the Mashzavod workers have always theoretically belonged to a big and powerful national trade union, they had to learn the rudiments of self-organization. The local leadership of the Machine Builders Union advised against taking labor action, and then suggested that union leaders would try to work things out on a personal level with plant management. The chairman of the Ivanovo regional trade union committee, Vyacheslav Stepashkin, admits that approach was a mistake. "The workers took matters into their own hands and won the respect of management," he says. "They showed us that our old style of trade-union work, which was to act as partners of management and enforcers of social peace, is simply not suitable in the new market economy."

As workers get bolder, they find themselves up against not just the tactics of management, but resistance from their own union leadership. Russia's Soviet-era Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR) looks formidable on paper - about 40 million members - but in practice, it is a vast bureaucracy that seems more concerned with staying in the Kremlin's good graces and preserving properties it inherited from the USSR than in defending the rights of rank-and-file workers.

"The FNPR was schooled for decades in making deals at the top and doling out social benefits in a paternalistic way to its members," says Yevgenia Gvozdova, director of the independent Agency of Social and Labor Information, Russia's only non-governmental group monitoring the labor movement. "There is a big debate over whether the FNPR can be reformed at all."

Although there are no reliable statistics on labor actions in Russia, experts say the grassroots picture has changed radically over recent years. A wave of wildcat strikes followed the 1998 financial crash and ruble devaluation, and led to substantial growth in unions not affiliated with the FNPR.

Last year, by staging road blockades, Zachita Truda, among the most militant of the independent unions, forced a Gazprom subsidiary to relocate workers' housing from a site downwind from the oil producer's poisonous sulfur emissions.

Though strikes are fewer today, amid relative economic stability, workers are restless and inclined to take action locally. "The tendency of the official unions to support the government and pay only lip service to defending their memberships is becoming a big problem for them," says Andrei Ryabov, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "Russia has yet to develop trade unions that represent workers as their main task, and don't fear confrontation with authority."

For the first time since the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia's economy began growing in 1999. "When businesses were bankrupt and producing nothing, there was nothing for unions to do," says Kirill Buketov, Eastern Europe coordinator for the International Union of Food Workers, which recently helped Russian workers unionize the local branches of McDonald's and Coca Cola. "When you're talking about sharing out an expanding profit, that's completely different."

Some activists fear the dawning of Western-style labor relations could halt if a Kremlin-sponsored bill that would permit only one union to exist in each factory is passed by the State Duma later this year. The controversial new labor code was stalled for more than a year amid union objections to provisions that would reduce the role of collective bargaining, lengthen the working day to 12 hours, and slash Soviet-era worker privileges.

But the FNPR subsequently agreed to support a watered-down version, after a clause was added that mandates registration of only the largest union in each workplace. The Duma passed the revised bill on its first reading in July. "Essentially we will return to Soviet times, where one big state-controlled union represents everybody," warns Oleg Babich, a leader of Zachita Truda. "Of course, FNPR, which inherited its huge paper membership from Soviet times, will be registered everywhere. Other unions will be effectively banned from collective bargaining. But without pressure from independent unions, how will anything ever change?"

Other labor activists are not so pessimistic. In Ivanovo, Ms. Smirnova says there's no going back: "Our managers are on notice that they need to work things out with us."

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