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Russian Workers Protest Movements

GEO editor Betsy Bowman talks with Ludmila Bulavka about workers' protest movements in Russia. June, 2000

Ludmila Bulavka, Senior Researcher at Institute of Culture and Social Movements in Moscow, researches the workers' protest movements in Russia.

What follows is her brief description of the workers' protest movement in Russia.

Since last fall, Emil Rudyk and I have visited ten sites where the protest movement is raging. The main reason for the protests is the criminal privatization, but there are also reasons stemming from the previous situation before privatization. The result is that the workers demand more than just an incrase in wages; they also demand some elements of self-rule, self-management. We and those around our journal ALTERNATIVES work with protesting workers who are demanding some degree of self-empowerment and self-management, not just wage increases.

There are seven features of the workers and factories where there are protest movements:
1) the necessity to guard factory.
2) the establishment of clear and distinct relationships with creditors -- workers want to know exactly how much they owe and what repayment was wanted; they wanted open books, i.e. ethical and transparent relations.
3) Councils of Workers Collectives and strike committees had to solve social problems as well. Because factories are factory towns and they run the kindergarten, summer camp, heating for housing complex, etc., the Councils of Workers Collectives and/or strike committees had to organize and run these as well.
4) solidarity with other enterprises in similar situations such as in Vyborg during Sept 13-14, 1999, violence, a flour mill from Siberia sent a train full of flour (Vyborg is 3 hours north of St. Petersberg near border with Norway).
5) the self-organization of these factories has non-dogmatic forms of self-development. For ex. workers' forms of self-organization, strike committees, council of workers collectives, trade union committees.
6) their attitude toward political parties is that they are open to all political parties. Very few party members among the workers (some factories where there are many members of the Russian Communist Workers Party have portraits of Lenin. But on the other hand, for example the women in the textile mill on the Blue Aka River didn't join a political party because they are ready for dialogue with parties but no more; they are afraid of becoming a social basis for some party and they don't want this to happen; they're not ready to make their own analysis of political parties
7) the moral atmosphere is better than what one usually finds; it is more cooperative and more friendly.

I will give examples from five different factories.

1) The Varonish factory is for the repair of trains. Here the protest movement is led by the trade union. Workers have repelled two privatization attempts. With 2,000 signatures, they organized a protest among the officials with these petitions. This trade union committee has fostered an alliance between the workers and the intelligentsia; they have helped other factories in the cities; last June they organized protest meetings against the privatization of a grocery store.

2) Another factory in the Tulska region. In this factory, the workers  established workers' control over where the product is sold and at what price. At the doors of the factory, the workers put brigades to check all trucks and cargo leaving the factory to control and make sure that none of the products they had made got sold and the money ended up in someone else's pocket (someone else such as the Director). On one ocasion they prevented three train cars or trucks from leaving. In this factory the Management, or Administration, recognizes workers' control; they forced the dismissal of the Director who was widely hated and they gained recognition of their collective contract.

3) The Vyborg Pulp and Paper Mill. At this mill, the protest movement is not for wage arrears; their low standard of living is NOT the impetus for the protest. They have a new director, Vantorin, who is greatly respected; for several months, there was an equal distribution of money at the factory, i.e. the same salary for all Directors and workers. Gradually all 26 sections of the mill started to work and produce high quality paper which is very valuable (most paper in Russia is like newspaper). The collective wanted to preserve the production of this high quality paper. Their salaries increased from 90 to 1,500 rubles per month. They organized free dinners, aid to veterans and pensioners. They organized industrial and social life and were empowered.

Then on the night of Oct 13-14, 1999, they were attacked by the riot police, the OMON. All the workers of the plant came out to defend their plant. They had organized a telephone chain so within ten minutes all the workers were out to defend the plant from the OMON. The OMON took several hostages; they wanted to expel most of the activist workers; they shot at the workers; a woman was beaten and thrown into a freezer. But by morning the workers had expelled the OMON. These workers are very militant because they feel empowered as they had organized themselves. Workers will struggle when they are fighting for dignity and not just higher wages.

4) Leningrad Metallurgy Factory The workers' collective of this factory won the dismissal of the Director. They started to elect supervisors who were no longer appointed by management. The trade union committee organized groups of workers who volunteered to help the Vyborg plant even though it was 3 hours away. Workers of this factory defended the name of their factory -- LMZ or Leningrad Metal Factory -- they didn't change it to St. Petersberg Metal Factory.

5) A bakery. In this bakery, the management was forced to endorse the points of the contract proposed by the trade union; the workers then dismissed the Senior Accountant and the Director of Personnel. They gained the right to have access to all the information in the plant, and the Director issued an order to give any information wanted to the chair of the trade union.

As for the problems within the workers' protest movement, they are:

1) whole workers' collectives are inert; they used to delegate right of self defense to certain active members of the trade union of the council of workers' collectives. The protest movement needs time and people aren't ready to volunteer their time for it.
2) even among active members there is not enough energy.
3) great lack of knowledge on laws and economic laws. As an example of this, one women said "We make decisions with our heart and not according to the law. We must make decisions based on the law."
4) in extreme situations, the leaders must make decisions without the approval of the workers' collectives and thus distrust arises.
5) great lack of technical support, lack of literature, computers, telephones (many of these workers don't even have a telephone at home).
6) cooptation; there is always the attempt to buy off the leaders of the protest movement with a big promotion in the factory or a position in the city government. For example, a leader at Vyborg was bought -- now he is the manager of personnel under the oligarch's ownership.
7) almost no support from social level; now there is some solidarity and organization of links with other plants.

Last fall the editors of the journal ALTERNATIVES and I organized a conference for leaders of the Vyborg opposition. In March, we also organized a seminar for leaders of the protest movement, i.e. an analysis of the situation in factories and the experiences of five factories. In June at the Duma, we organized a press conference with leaders of the workers' protest movement from the Vyborg plant, a printing plant in St. Petersburg, and a Moscow factory of ball bearings.

Most importantly, what we call the "protest movement" is not just protest. Within this movement the workers are looking for alternatives and are proposing alternative policies. All these protest movements are looking for forms of horizontal not vertical integration -- they don't want a bureaucratic organization but a democratic organization. Theorists of self-management can help here.

Betsy Bowman: What are the property relations in these factories? What is the ownership structure?

LB: Very few are owned entirely by the state, only about 1/3. The other 2/3 are either an open or closed share holder enterprise. Closed means shares are not for sale outside the workforce; open means shares are for sale to outside investors and can thus be concentrated in the hands of a few people.

In the Varonish mill, 4% of shares are owned by the workers; 96% are diffused, but no one groups owns a majority.

At a factory of leather products -- Akasia -- their problem is that at retirement the worker takes his shares which can then be bought by outsiders. The Director acts in the interst of the workers' collective; but there is conflict between two parts of the workers' collective. In this factory, the workers are paid for attending a technical school for training; and they also pay workers on vacation. The workers with additional training, specialists, paid by the factory then have the opportunity to work elsewhere and get a better job elsewhere. The Director here wants to give shares to the workers' collective.

I ask is there a legal form in Russia for the workers' collective to own shares collectively?

Yes, the workers' collective can get indivisible shares.

BB: What are the People's Enterprises? Boris Slavin (leader of Party of Self-Management in Russia) told me there are 50 People's Enterprises in Russia.

LB: The workers at the factories I have visited are not interested in People's Enterprises. It is important to remember that people don't trust the state and they don't trust any authority.

BB: Self-management means collective ownership and collective control. There doesn't seem to be much collective ownership here. In this context what does self-management mean?

LB: Self-management is seen in small elements such as the election of supervisors. In the St. Petersburg factory, all shares are collective. The forms that self-management takes depend on who are the leaders.

GEO will run a profile of Ludmila Bulavka in an upcoming issue.

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