Striking for Fair Pay in Russia

Facing a media shutout, a de facto lockout, and pressure from all
sides, on Tuesday, June 26 workers at Mikhailov Cement in Russia’s
Riazan’ region (a couple of hours southeast of Moscow) announced an
indefinite strike, demanding a fair share of the profits they create.

What makes this strike unusual is the shift in labor and union
consciousness it represents from the last decade. This strike brings
to the fore the problems and possibilities of independent labor
organizing in Russia.

The Current Struggle

Mikhailov Cement is one of dozens of factories owned by EuroCement, a
monopolist on cement production in European Russia. Built in 1964,
the plant went bankrupt and closed for nine months in 1996, during
some of the hardest times of the post-Soviet transition. During these
nine months, workers kept the factory going, walking to work, working
without pay, just to keep the plant from shutting down. Since that
time the factory has recovered and become profitable, feeding the
demand in nearby Moscow for cement brought on by a construction boom.

Yet as profits have risen for EuroCement, living standards have
leveled off and worsened for workers at Mikhailov Cement. Average
actual wages at the factory range from 3800 to 7500 rubles a month
(around $150 to just under $300), with the higher pay levels
available only to those working weekends and holidays. “A person
can’t work that way,” said one of the members of the strike
committee. “I know how much value I create for them, and I don’t see
that in my paycheck.”

“Prices for energy, heat, and food keep going up, but our pay
doesn’t,” was a complaint I heard repeated at a meeting with
activists from Mikhailov Cement. “We just want to be paid fairly.”

The struggle has been going on for over a month. In May, workers
conducted a one-hour work stoppage as a warning to employers that pay
and conditions needed improving. Local media were in attendance, but
refused to report the work stoppage and its reasons. The president of
EuroCement came down from Moscow, “but he didn’t actually say
anything. Nothing changed, and people got angrier,” reported Ol’ga,
one of the five elected members of the strike committee.

The company sought mediation, but, according to an article in the
labor paper “Solidarnost’,” the mediator worked in the interests of
management, in spite of clear evidence that the workers were well
within their rights to demand higher pay. Turning down further
mediation, the workers warned that unless conditions improved they
would go out on strike indefinitely.

The company responded by closing the factory, purportedly to conduct
repairs. “They’re not interested in doing repairs,” said Vitalii,
another strike committee member. “It’s a lockout.” Another worker
reported that company officials have been harassing workers’ children
at school. “They ask, ‘Do you know what your parents are doing?'”
Sergei, also on the strike committee, said, “It’s mostly
psychological pressure. But it’s pressure.”

Workers describe their current situation as tough, but they are
determined to stand strong. “We’re playing chess with the employer
right now,” said Ol’ga, but “this is a fight to the death.”

The Union

Meanwhile, Mikhailov Cement workers are receiving little support from
their union, the Construction Workers’ Union, affiliated with the
Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR). At a May
meeting with workers, union officials signed on in support of their
struggle, but have since stood to the side, failing to forward
workers’ complaints to the employer and to take an active role in the
wage fight. One worker reported, “They made lots of promises, but
they haven’t really done anything. We’re on our own.”

The FNPR is one of a few large labor organizations that came about in
the 1990s, as workers and employers struggled side by side to keep
factories open during the wave of privatization and financial crisis
that led to countless factory shutdowns across the country. During
this time, workers often went months without pay, or received payment
“in kind” in the form of food, factory products, even livestock. But
after privatization, as class conflict came to the fore again and the
unity of an entire factory’s workforce across class lines began to
fall apart, the FNPR model of union representation became more
anachronistic. More militant workers have either begun to leave the
labor movement completely or to join a number of newer, “alternative”
unions.

Workers at Mikhailov Cement strongly defend their right to organize
in their own interests, even without the support of their union,
which has ignored the workers’ unanimous vote to change their
representation. At the same time, however, some workers hold out hope
for “militarizing” their union and the construction industry at large
“by example.”

On Strike

According to Vitalii, on Tuesday “practically the entire workforce”
of the plant took part in the strike. The action continued for an
hour before being put on hold for the duration of the lockout. “We
proposed to continue negotiations, but “the Board of Directors has
decided not to communicate with the strike committee,” instead
“continuing their anti-worker policy of ‘keeping the rabble down.'”

In spite of harassment in the company town where they live,
indifference from the media, and pressure from their employer, the
Mikhailov Cement workers remain committed to winning fair pay for
their work. In their current situation they are relying not only on
their own strength, but on solidarity and pressure from outside. They
are calling on all who can to support their struggle by pressuring
EuroCement to meet their demands for a pay increase and against any
retaliation against activists. They are also encouraging people to
send messages of solidarity to the striking workers themselves.

How You Can Support the Struggle

1) Send a fax to M.A. Skhorokhod, president of EuroCement, at
011-7-495-737-5510 or 011-7-495-795-2581 (24 hours), or to the Office
of Community Relations at 011-7-495-737-5776 (business hours). Tell
EuroCement that you support the workers at Mikhailov Cement and their
demands for better pay, and that you condemn the lockout and any
retaliatory actions taken against workers who have participated in
the dispute. Messages in English are acceptable.

2) Send workers at Mikhailov Cement your messages of solidarity. For
messages in English, send to katyusha1@gmail.com (for translation and
forwarding). For messages in Russian, send directly to the strike
committee at runov07@rambler.ru.

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3 thoughts on “Striking for Fair Pay in Russia

  1. I can respect someone who is passionate about certain subjects, especially when it concerns the wellbeing of the downtrodden. With that being said, why does it appear (in my humble opinion) that you focus on some of the most nonsensical topics? Cement plant workers in Russia? A criminal who was directly involved in murder? A story with a misleading headline nonetheless! “Scheduled To Die for Driving a Car”? Common…

    The energy you spend on these kinds of topics intrigues me. Why call good – evil and evil – good or attempt to defend someone like Foster?

  2. Nice to hear from you again, Greg.
    I’ll just say that the fate of workers in Russia, where my true love is currently living, is connected to the lives of ordinary people here. Globalization, anyone? The fact that Russian workers shook off Stalinism and are now able to organize again in their own interests is of historical importance.

    And, truly, no exaggeration: Kenneth Foster is facing execution for driving a car. Read the other entries. Criminal justice in Texas is a system out of control.

  3. I will check out the Kenneth Foster case… from my brief reading it seems to me that he was hanging around the wrong people i.e. gansta thugs. For their ilk I have no pity. They cause so much woe in our society the circumstances of their present situation are of no consequence (in my humble opinion).

    I love to see that you wrote, ‘The fact that Russian workers shook off Stalinism and are now able to organize again in their own interests is of historical importance. (as if you need my approval eh?)

    I will read up on Kenneth Foster a bit more though… when are you going to get your true love down here to the great U.S. of A.?

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