Highway Blockade Wins Relocation of Homes Polluted by Sulfur Plant

Victory for Workers in Astrakhan, Russia

by Steve Myers, for ISWoR (International Solidarity with Workers in Russia)

The following message was posted on the Internet on September 9. For the ISWoR web site, click here

On Friday, September 7, 2000, at 4 pm, at the end of a 5-day, round-the-clock highway blockade conducted against a huge gas-processing plant, over 200 Zashchita trade union workers and several local communities celebrated their complete victory. The enterprise, employing 10,000 workers, belongs to the giant gas monopoly Gazprom, and is situated near Astrakhan, in southern Russia, where the Volga River runs into the Caspian Sea.

The victory represents yet another example of successful union militancy, and shows why the militant Russian trade union federation Zashchita (Defense), has been growing so much in recent years.

In numerous small towns surrounding the Gazprom plant, which lies16 kilometers to the northeast of Astrakhan city, hundreds of workers and their families who live in the worker settlements and indigenous communities have over the years fallen victim to rampant industrial pollution, to cancer, lung diseases, and sulfur poisoning.

After discussions with Oleg Shein, their parliamentary representative (the only Marxist in the Duma, who is also a co-chair of the all-Russia Zashchita union), a hundred local workers accompanied by Shein blockaded the highway across which trucks loaded with sulfur continually enter the plant. Their demand was simply that 300 homes be built in a safe area for workers living close to the plant — and that the settlements closest to the plant be evacuated. Before long, dozens of trucks loaded with sulfur were lined up at the blockade, unable to pass.

Deputy Shein immediately made an international appeal for protest faxes and e-mails to Putin and the regional authorities. The governor for the Astrakhan region, an official named Guzhvin, initially refused to talk with the workers — which greatly angered many people in the region. Over the next three days the blockade grew, with up to 200 Gazprom workers and many other people joining the picket line.

The workers stopped all transport of chemicals to the plant, but allowed food and other supplies through. The local Communist Party (CPRF) officer Vostretsov (who is also a manager of a small Gazprom business) turned up urging workers to go home. In quick return the workers voted unanimously to send him packing — and he was escorted away from the red flags flying over the workers barricades. But much more was happening behind the scenes too.

Last May, about the time of the first successful All-Russia Day of Action to Defend the Present Labor Code, an action organized by Zashchita, the first “people’s committee” was created in one of the local worker settlements. The committee involved not just workers; it held mass meetings of all the population of the settlement. Suddenly last week, new “Soviets” were being rapidly established in the company towns of Molodyozhny, SU-6, SMP-255, and UM-6. Then two villages joined in, Kuyanly and Aisapai. They were joined on the blockades by people from other local towns and from Astrakhan itself, bringing food, clothing, and comradeship to the workers barricades.

One reason for this degree of community solidarity, was that under the old Soviet system, the plant was responsible for housing its workers, and for repairs. Low rents were maintained. But now Gazprom was hiving off the housing and selling it to local authorities, and was increasingly refusing to employ people from the local settlements, as maintaining that housing was more expensive. Then last year under the worst housing conditions, rents were suddenly raised to levels twice as high as that of much better housing in Astrakhan city. The tenants protested, but despite promises, rents were not reduced. This provoked the formation of the first “people’s committee” last May. In Shein’s own words, “The structure of these new people’s committees are reminiscent of the soviets (workers councils) in the early 20th century, chosen by the population, holding regular meetings on broad questions, including the question of power…” Unlike the mockery that Stalin later made of this early soviet system, the growth and spread of truly democratic fighting committees is what is needed.

Gazprom had been deeply abusing the local population, employing more and more from Astrakhan city, and local unemployment was soaring. And now Gazprom, claiming that resettlement of the workers is the local councils’ responsibility, is at the same time fighting to get the officially recognized contamination area reduced from its current radius of 8 kilometers from the plant, to 3 kilometers — which would eliminate the obligation to resettle most of the affected population. It is a question on which Oleg Shein had been fighting locally and in the Duma for some time now.

Back to the blockade: Wednesday night the police went away, and men (probably FSB agents) in workers clothes brought in cases of vodka — but the trick was seen through and they were forced to leave — vodka and all. The next morning, General Khvatkov, the regional police chief, arrived at the blockade threatening Oleg Shein and “peoples committee” leaders with criminal charges, and promising the use of force to break the blockade. The general’s words had an unintended effect, and he and his guards were quickly sent packing back to Astrakhan.

Strikingly, local police officers at the barricades increasingly and openly expressed support for the struggle of the workers and their communities. By now messages of support from all over the world were coming in fast as International Solidarity with Workers in Russia (ISWoR) and others, worked hard to spread the news. Protest letters — especially from Europe, Latin America, and North America — began to hit the authorities. The Sotsprof union and the International Workers Party made some large donations to help the blockade continue.

And further, television reporters were arriving. Local radio stations advised the people of Astrakhan to support the blockade. Flying pickets hit the Regional Administration buildings in the city in the last two days. Municipal workers were now supporting the blockade, along with the North Caspian Shipworkers union. The Astrakhan Tram and Bus drivers unions, which had just some weeks earlier joined Zashchita, helped in the actions and passed resolutions in support. (These transport workers had just won an extra 12 days annual holiday with assistance from Zashchita.) There were now many solidarity meetings being organized in numerous workplaces in the Astrakhan region.

It quickly began to overwhelm the authorities and Gazprom. The Governor, at 10 am on Thursday, September 7, turned up at the blockade asking if, after all, it would be OK to have negotiations, and this was agreed. They involved Shein, Zashchita, and representatives of the people’s committees on one side; and Governor Guzhvin and Gazprom Director Shchugorev on the other. The 300 new homes were offered — but with the stipulation that Gazprom would allocate them, giving most of them to administrative staff and managers. The community “soviet” representatives then conducted a mass meeting. There Shein gave information about the high level of international solidarity from all over the world, which helped raise the morale of the workers. He explained the offer that had been made. The people at the mass meeting said they wanted more. Shortly after this, Oleg Shein (who is not known at all for overstatement) told me by phone from the barricades, that they were “in a local revolutionary situation,” that “an insurrection was entirely possible” in that entire industrial district north of Astrakhan — unless there was a complete and utter climb-down by the bosses and authorities. “No compromises at all!” was the message of the mass meeting.

On Friday morning new negotiations occurred, and after this, the mass meeting at 3 pm declared an important victory. Firstly the communal tariffs (rent and rates) were cut in half. And also, the workers had now 320 homes, 20 to be provided within weeks, the rest during 2001. Allocation of all the homes was to be under complete control of the new “community soviets.” There would be no charges, arrests, or wage deductions for any of the actions taken by the Gazprom workers or anyone else in connection with the 5-day blockade.

Further, the new “community soviets” informed the bosses that they reserve the right to resume the blockade if the agreement is broken in any way.

The first thing to be mentioned regarding this outright victory is the example set by Deputy Oleg Shein, and the important role of clear-headed leadership alongside full worker and community participation and immediate democratic accountability. Comrade Shein, like all the best militants in those five days, despite little sleep, was continually active on the blockade and working for its success. This is what a workers’ representative in a parliament should be doing.

The second is that the lessons of this exemplary struggle need to be assimilated not just by Russian workers but also by the active workers movement worldwide. In particular, that of relating the demands of any struggle to the existing consciousness of workers. Through the struggle itself, political awareness and wider demands become part of the changing consciousness of workers — all the way to the forming of democratic community soviets — where “the question of power” is raised.

The restoration of the market system in Russia has meant that the old health and safety norms (though themselves often inadequate) may be abandoned altogether by employers anxious to maximize profits and cut costs. Pollution and other environmental problems have soared, while adequate medical care is now a luxury reserved for the rich. In July workers at another Gazprom plant, Vega, many of them gravely ill after a decade of dealing with radioactive nuclear waste without protective clothing, launched an international appeal for protests — see the ISWoR website. Meanwhile in Rostov, workers who had been refused compensation for illnesses connected with their involvement in the Chernobyl clean-up went on strike.

Russian workers affected by radiation, chemical poisoning, or other work-related illnesses are being left for dead by the government and their employers; they need our international support.

ISWoR thanks Oleg Shein in particular, and other comrades of the Movement for a Workers Party, for providing us with detailed information that formed the basis of most of the above important story. However, I take responsibility for any mistakes that may have occurred due to verbal language difficulties in verbal conversations with Shein. Also, thanks to Steve Kerr, Toronto, for the translation of several e-mails.