May 17 Day of Action in Russia

Mass Workers Demonstrations Against Putin’s New Labor Code

by Lisa Taylor

The following article was posted on the Internet by the British-based group International Solidarity with Workers in Russia; abbreviation, ISWoR. For their web site, click here

On May 17, approximately 300,000 workers across Russia participated in protests against the government’s proposal to introduce a draconian new Labor Code. The new legislation removes workers rights that have been in force for decades, rendering trade unions impotent and enforcing among other things a 56-hour working week.

The actions ranged from work stoppages to demonstrations and picket lines, often outside the administrative centers of towns. Areas with the largest turnouts included Kaliningrad (150,000 workers); Astrakhan, where years of work building up the local Zashchita union by Oleg Shein, one of the key coordinators of the campaign, paid off (10,000); Novosibirsk (8,000); Nizhny Novgorod (where 8,000 workers at one factory participated), Samara (nearly 4,000); Moscow area (4,000); Omsk (2,000), republic of Komi, where the Vorkuta coal mines are located (2,000, including 1,000 at a rally at Europe’s largest mine).

Certain groups of workers particularly distinguished themselves — for example, the dockers, 15,000 of whom participated in the ports of Vladivostok, Vostochny, Nakhodka, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Magadan, Arkhangelsk, Murmansk, and Novorossiysk. At the Yasnogorsk machine plant, whose courageous workers became famous when their long, militant occupation won unprecedented gains, 3,500 workers took part in a stoppage.

In Kursk and Vladivostok demonstrations were held despite a local ban.

The bureaucratic leaders of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (Russian initials, FNPR), the country’s largest trade union federation, under pressure from grass-roots activists, put its name to a document condemning the new Labor Code. But they did not put any effort or resources into mobilizing for the day. Most of the credit belongs to activists on the ground, especially those of the militant Zashchita trade union alliance and the dockers union, coordinated by a committee set up by Oleg Shein (the only working-class candidate to be elected to the Russian Parliament, the Duma, in December 1999). Also helping with the mobilization were veterans of the recent militant workers struggles at Yasnogorsk and Vyborg, as well as activists of the Movement for a Workers Party, etc.

The secretary of the FNPR, Andrei Isayev, who last year joined forces with millionaire Mayor Luzhkov’s Fatherland – All Russia coalition, submitted an alternative draft Labor Code to the one already submitted by colleagues of Oleg Shein. The draft submitted by Isayev was drawn up in collaboration with a representative from the right-wing Thatcherite Union of Right Forces.

Likewise, the so-called Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), headed by Gennady Zyuganov, was generally noted for its absence from the struggle. This is not surprising considering that, despite their rhetoric, the leaders of this party have willingly approved every government budget for years. The CPRF has declared itself in favor of defending “honest” entrepreneurs. In fact it was on the initiative of a CPRF member, Speaker of the Duma Seleznyov, that the government’s new draft Labor Code, prepared under the Yeltsin regime, was rushed onto the table for discussion after some years of delay.

Well over a hundred additional trade unions and other organizations sent faxes to protest the new Labor Code. In April, ISWoR held protests in London during Putin’s visit to that city, as well as at the business Expo “Russia–2000,” to draw attention to the barbaric new code.

Despite the widespread participation in the May 17 Day of Action, many workers who are not members of Zashchita or who have never before participated in industrial action felt that the battle against the new Labor Code was not relevant to them. This is because so many Russian workers have long been enduring the conditions to which the new Code gives an official stamp of approval — payment in kind, arbitrary sacking at the whim of the boss, casual work with no written contracts at all, long hours without any days off. With the collapse of nearly 50 percent of Russian industry since privatization was brought in, unemployment and nonpayment of workers for up to 18 months or more is so common that many people are ready to tolerate any conditions and hours just for the promise of a little cash.

Nevertheless, this struggle is sharply relevant to even the millions of workers in casual or non-union (or weak union) labor. Efforts by militant activists who have experience of successful action to unionize casual workers, or to encourage those in inactive unions like the FNPR to fight for their rights can achieve much. But under the new Labor Code all intervention by unions will be very much harder.

With top businessmen like the head of Alfa Bank calling on Putin to introduce a “Pinochet-style” regime, an increase in repression against active workers, especially those of the Zashchita union, has already begun. Russian workers, who have seen their living conditions plummet and their life expectancy drop from Western levels to just the age of 56, will be battling literally for their lives.

The IMF enthusiastically approved the new Labor Code, which also forces pregnant women to work night shifts and cuts maternity leave in half. The Western multinationals and their Russian stooges have devastated the lives of Russian workers with their privatization program. Now as a result, ultra-nationalism and a hatred of the West per se, as well as racism against minority groups, have appeared.

The U.S. government, quietly acknowledging the emergence of a new anti-Western mood, not just in public opinion but also among a significant section of the Russian ultra-rich, is pressing ahead with a “National Missile Defense” program which is targeted not least at Russia.

Workers around the world, following this mass 300,000-strong protest in Russia, need to show practical solidarity with Russian workers.

[Important Notice: ISWoR has sponsored Oleg Shein, coordinator of the committee against the new Labor Code, on a speaking tour of Western Europe during July and August. A North American tour is being considered for next year. If you would like to be involved or want more information on how you can help support the struggles of Russian workers in general, contact ISWoR at its e-mail address or write: ISWoR — MCPP, Box R, 46 Denmark Hill, London SE5 8RZ, England.]