Staunton, August 13 – Anyone who follows the Russian media would conclude that the trade unions in that country have been silent during the crisis, according to two “Nezavisimaya gazeta” journalists. But in fact, while the media aren’t reporting it, Russian unions have become significantly more active as the economy has deteriorated.
Aleksey Gorbachev, a political commentator for the paper, and Velimir Razuvayev, the deputy head of its politics section, say that there has been vigorous growth in the number of labor protests” and that over the last year the unions have played an ever larger role in such actions (ng.ru/politics/2015-08-11/1_protest.html).
They cite a study by the Moscow Institute for Social-Labor Rights which found that the number of labor actions grew by 45 percent between the first half of 2014 and the same period in 2015. Given that the number in the first six months of 2014 was the highest in seven years, they point out, that means that “the record now belongs to the past six months.”
Among the factors sparking labor actions, the Institute study says, are rising unemployment and reductions in pay and benefits. Often, these have led to “spontaneous protests in which workers of an enterprise organize actions – without the participation of the trade unions.”
This “de-institutionalization” of labor actions has prompted the labor unions to get more involved in order not to lose the last bits of their reputation as defenders of workers. As a result, the share of spontaneous actions has in fact declined over the last year, but the number of actions in which unions either of a particular plant or an industry has increased by 6-7 percent.
Another reason unions have become more involved, the two “Nezavisimaya gazeta” writers say, is that Russian labor law is heavily tilted against workers and makes holding a legal strike extremely difficult. Only unions, where they exist, may have people with the expertise to carry them out.
But access to that expertise has been limited both by the lack of a union presence in many factories and industries and by state policy. Nikita Isayev, a lawyer at the Moscow Institute of Actual Economics, says that “in connection with the process of the active stratification of the Russian economy over the last 15 years, the trade union machine to a large extent has become a government system.” And the government and its business allies don’t want strikes.
Thus, workers are often driven to engage in illegal and unorganized actions because the government prevents legal ones. Nonetheless, unions are becoming more active as the protest activity by workers continues. Aleksey Roshin, a social psychologist, says he expects this trend to continue “at a minimum to the end” of 2016.
As a result, more genuine unions may emerge among workers in industries where they are strong in other countries such as over-the-road truckers, and political parties who now avoid appealing to unions even if they claim to represent them may decide again as parties do in the West to compete for their support.
Unfortunately, Roshhin says, “one of the simulacra of political life” in Russia is that “’parties are not entirely or even not completely parties. However the demand,” he says, “sooner or later will give birth to the supply – and on the heels of protests will appear trade unions in the full sense of this word,” something that would be a first for Russia since 1917.