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Russia rushes into the abyss. Spontaneous strikes of workers and state employees begin in the regions

Russia rushes into the abyss. Spontaneous strikes of workers and state employees begin in the regions
Translated by: A. N.

Judging by pictures on TV, there is no more important news in Russia than news about the situation in Ukraine and NATO's intrigues. In reality, the most important news is taking place in Russia itself instead and are about growing labor protests caused by the domestic economic turmoil: spontaneous strikes by miners, metal workers, and municipal and state workers. The labor protests inexorably ignite social protests. The popular discontent is growing.

While the economy of the Russian Federation was “rising from its knees” and showing some growth, it was considered good form to write about strikes only on the eve of May Day (considered “International Labor Day” in Russia), thus paying tribute to the labor union tradition and to the fear inspired by protesting miners back in the 1990s, writes the magazine “Kommersant-Ogonek.”

At the same time, journalists, ordinary citizens, and the workers themselves did not really believe that similar protest events might repeat. Is it why the reality of the last few months has been so painful for so many?

As reported by local media outlets, problems with unpaid wages began for miners in Kemerovo and for metal workers in Irkutsk Oblast. Public housing workers in Buryatiya are on strike, they have not been getting wages since May… According to statistics from the Center for Social and Labor Rights, currently, for every 1 work day in Russia, there is 1.1 labor protest. If you carefully read the regional press, it becomes clear what news is really occupying the country and what costs the slowing economic growth extolls, when expressed in human lives. The gloomy strikes to protest unpaid wages are being squeezed out of the nationwide TV channels by discussions about the international situation. This is the reality which the Russians have already faced and what they will have to deal with in the future.

“In 2010-2013, labor protests in Russia–albeit slowly–transformed from ‘wild’ to institutional,” – says Peter Bizyukov, chief specialist of socio-economic programs of the Center for Social and Labor Rights.

“We almost departed from the demands of ‘return our wages’ or ‘give us our work back’. In the past year, workers went on strike most often because of ‘policies of the company’s management,’ that is, they learned in advance that authorities are about to introduce some unpopular measures, and responded by work stoppages, meetings, or other methods. From passive objects they transformed themselves into participants of a negotiation process, even though this dialogue was conducted ‘in a raised voice.’ And now we have to admit: we once again returned to the past.”

Pessimism of the researchers is supported by figures. In 2013, 42% of protests were caused by the “policies of management of the companies,” in the first 6 months of this year – by non-payment of salaries. 50% of protests in the last six months, according to the Center for the Social and Labor Rights were not coordinated by the unions in any way, and were, in fact, spontaneous. In the past year, there were not more than 35% of such uncivilized “strikes.”

The Ministry of Labor has already reacted to this amazingly fast slippage into the abyss of uncontrollable social unrest. It has developed a bill increasing fines for salary delay to 100,000 rubles (from 30,000) and prolongs the statute of limitations for labor-related law suits up to one year (from 3 months). Experts, however, are not sure the measures will help. It required the personal intervention of the Russian president to solve the troubles of one town called Pikalev, so a sufficient tool to address workers from across the country, it seems, is just impossible to find. The only thing that is possible is to calculate today is how serious an impact could be.

Search for the Responsible

“In regard to the labor protests, we are headed for the 1990s – it’s obvious,” – says Karin Kleman, Director of the Collective Action Institute, a research fellow of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences of St. Petersburg State University.

“There are two trends working together. On the one hand, in recent years, enterprises systematically destroyed and de-legalized the new, independent trade unions, which started back in the 2000s on the wave of the Ford strikes. This means that conflicts, which are inevitable in the present state of the economy, will be resolved spontaneously. On the other hand, workers today are not what they were in the 1990s. The present ones, as our experience shows, are not going to wait when they are told to “wait a little bit for your salary due to the situation in the country.” Threshold of tolerance became extremely low: people just got a taste of the normal life, took out loans – and even a slight decrease in the standard of living is extremely painful.

In such a situation, it is clear that the authorities need to respond to any conflict in an accelerated manner so as not to let it grow to a national scale. In the beginning of this year, part of the responsibility for solving this problem was shifted to regional governors. The Ministry of Labor compiled the original rating of wage arrears in some regions of Russia, which captures both the amount of arrears and and the dynamics of their payout. Vsevolod Vukolov, the head of the ministry, separately explained that the rating has no purpose to show that “some governors are good or bad.” However, progress is already being assessed, and regional governments have established special “debt committees.” It was discovered that  a bad situation with payments is in Ingushetia, Primorsky Region, Adygea, Altai Republic, whereas the best scores are in Omsk, Volgograd, Leningrad oblasts. Moscow is only 72th out of 82.

Even this rating, however,  does not give the full picture of the situation in a particular region. Official statistics tend to be based on official data, while many employers manage to hide the fact of wage arrears, at least, before a visit from the investigative committee. Therefore, when the Federal State Statistics Service (FSSS) reported about 2.3 bn rubles in total debt to the workers, the Ministry of Labor advises not to believe the number: the real debt is several times higher. In 2013, for example the amount of salaries paid retroactively was 9 bn rubles.

“The drama of the situation is that, ironically, the government is actually pays little attention to information about the protests” – believes Peter Bizyukov. “We have no open official data on the real level of conflict. FSSS counts only protest actions held in accordance with the law, and there are very few of such events in a year. Not surprisingly, all of our major strikes happen “suddenly” and are stunning to the public. According to the data that we try to incorporate into our statistics, there are often hotbeds of tensions in Russia that can explode in the same way as it was in Pikalev. If we talk about specific industries, then the transportation, metallurgy, machinery building industries are at risk. The situation is heating up in the public sector, however, the list goes on.

It Will Encompass Everyone

This year’s increase of transportation workers’ strikes from 21% of total protests to 32% indicate the typical phenomenon of a growing involvement of the public sector employees into labor disputes.

“When public sector employees, such as bus drivers or utilities workers, refuse to work, then there is societal dissatisfaction with the performance of utilities and municipal services, and at that point the local labor dispute transforms into a large-scale, social conflict,” – says Tatiana Maleva, director of the Institute for Social Analysis and Forecasting RANHiGS.

“It is indeed dangerous. The appearance of wage arrears to state employees could have been predicted at the time of the announcement of the presidential decrees. Not all regional governments are able to cope with the assigned budgetary load, some are trying to make their numbers using accounting maneuvers. After all, our accounting practice has a wonderful duality, which is almost never found in the rest of the world: accounts for “transferred” funds and “paid” funds are separate. You can report that all funds have been “transferred” and, at the same time, wait to pay them out without violating the Labor Code. This is a convenient mechanism, so the map of the regions with wage arrears generally coincides with the map of subsidized regions with holes in their budgets.

Serious problems, including reduction and non-payment of wages, affected service and retail industries, which, according to statistics, employ most of the Russians at present. In addition, workers in this sector of the economy are the most vulnerable in terms of protection of their rights. They have no strong trade union or associations. Small businesses, such as street vendors for example, are not required to send wage arrears information to the Federal State Statistics Service, so no one knows anything about them. One thing is clear: in this sector, everyone survives by himself, according to the principle: “Leave if you do not like it here.”

“When the economy is booming, making predictions on the labor market is easy and pleasant,” – said Vladimir Gimpelson, director of the Center for Labor Studies NIU VSHE. “But try to predict something now, the only thing that we do understand is that a more or less conspicuous collapse will soon begin in some sectors of the economy. Few foresaw, for example, that so many workers in the travel industry would be out of work. Or, say, there is now some successful metallurgical plant, which produces parts worth millions of rubles, but tomorrow it could be affected by Western sanctions and these parts will no longer be wanted, so the factory will go bankrupt. The same applies to the chemical industry: a very large share of its output is exported and mostly to Europe. Many effective enterprises used credit, now long-term money is gone, what will happen to them? Issues are everywhere. How to fix them, no one knows… But a lot of potential ulcers.

Experct caution us to remember the Polish “Solidarity” started as a labor dispute, and the new Russia arose after miners’ protests, meaning that unsolved “labor” issues very quickly become political issues. It’s one thing when people claim the right to a certain lifestyle, and another – the right to life itself, a decent wage and housing: the strength of passions is different, and hence the result.

“Time for civilized protests has passed”

Labor protests in Russia are increasingly spontaneous

Boris Kravchenko, president of the Confederation of Labour of Russia, member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights.

We have notice the growth of “wild” protests since autumn of last year. This is indicated by available statistics, reports from regional offices of the Confederation, the trade unions, which are included in the Confederation. Therefore, the labor market researchers’ concerns are more than understandable for us.

According to our data, it is now a frequent practice to have a 2-3 month delay in wage payment at enterprises of the material sector. This applies, above all, to the real part of the economy: automotive industry, metal industry. Most employers delay right up to the point that their employees can no longer bear: once they feel a real threat from the union or active workers, they try to extinguish the conflict, to pay at least part of the debt, if they have the capacity. That is the situation at present. How successful they will be in the future at extinguishing the discontent caused by reductions in real incomes is the big question. The number of industrial protests is growing.

The decline in real income was a concern far from all the sectors of the economy just a couple of years ago. Now it is clear that due to the deep economic crisis, the reduction in income growth looms for practically everyone, and processes in the field of labor relations are becoming difficult to predict. The most dangerous thing is that civilized forms of protest are displaced and marginalized. In the late 1990s we had hope for a normal dialogue with the government and business. But today, we note that this dialogue is actually lost. Only declarations unprotected by enforcement mechanisms are left from the rights of employees and trade unions.

Our current practice proves that the time for talk has passed: it is now increasingly the case that conflicts are solved in the most primitive way – by force. If the company’s management can crush workers, it will crush them. If workers can consolidate efforts to put pressure on the management – they win. That’s the whole game. Such are the un-official rules of engagement, and they lead to an increase in uncertainty, explosivity of any situation that would seem to be solvable through peaceful agreements.

Our legislation is built in such a way that every employee who has a complaint to the management, is actually squeezed out of the legal field. If we summarize all the existing body of the law, it turns out that to hold a legal strike today is possible only with the consent of the employer. Such an humorless joke.

Protests in Russia could be organized, actions could be more thoughtful and productive. Level of education, qualification and the habit of solidarity of our workers in most sectors of the economy can create quite good, robust trade unions. But all the reasons for this process from the point of view of employees are systematically destroyed. We know how to organize the workers to solve their problems, to establish an effective, self-governing trade union. But at the same time we have very few legal options to protect these people from the pressure.

Therefore, in the current social and legal situation, “workers’ riots” of the 1990’s are left for us as a too close reality, the repeat of which is still impossible to prevent simply by banning the display of civic, social and labor activity.


Translated by: A. N.
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