After more than two years the militant occupation conducted by the workers of Vyborg paper mill has ended in scab treachery and defeat.
Vyborg Paper and Pulp Mill, with its highly advanced machinery, is situated in Sovietsky town, strategically located between St. Petersburg and the Finnish border. Unpaid and threatened with wholesale firings in a planned restructuring by Alcem UK, the mill workers first took control over their plant about two years ago, resuming the production themselves, forcing out the company’s manager, and electing their own.
They used the profits from the paper they produced to feed themselves and their families-the first time they had been paid regularly in a long, long time.
During the long occupation the unarmed Vyborg workers managed to face down the repeated ferocious raids conducted by militarized special police units backed by the regional government, determined to seize control of the mill by force.
A number of workers received serious injuries during these raids; one lost an eye, and two were shot. Nevertheless, they fought on, refusing to give up control.
One of the reasons for their success in keeping the firm, backed by the regional government, at bay for so long was the close solidarity between the workers, who managed to mobilize hundreds at short notice when the mill was attacked. Another, extremely important factor was the authorities’ fear they would stage further mass blockades of the “Scandinavia Highway,” a major road and railway link connecting Russia with western Europe.
Late in November last year a conference took place in Vyborg to which militant workers from all over Russia were invited. In the course of this conference, which had heavy involvement by the Communist Party (KPRF) and the Russian Communist Workers Party (RKRP), Vitaly Kiriakov was named as leader of Vyborg workers. Reports differ as to how much influence the mill workers themselves actually had on these proceedings.
Whatever the case, it is clear that Kiriakov, a municipal councilor who stood in the last Duma elections on the list of the RKRP, was a bosses’ man in disguise. Weeks ago the workers, comprehending that Kiriakov was moving to tie up a deal with the firm Alcem UK, declared he was not their representative and elected mill worker Alexandra Zaikina instead.
But the harsh boycott conducted by the authorities on behalf of Alcem UK against the militant workers was beginning to take its toll. The trucks carrying paper were barred from the roads; once again the workers were unpaid and hungry.
A mill worker describes the situation: “In the week leading up to the events of Jan. 16, the families of the workers at Vyborg simply starved. Pay had not been issued for five months. In December cold was added to hunger. The factory had not received funds from the local council to pay for heating in a long time. The municipal and federal organs were closely organized against us with Alcem and Vyborg Cellulose.
“The local authorities instituted an economic blockade against us. They withheld shipments of cheese and butter. These actions had the political aim of the destruction of our factory through the destruction of us, the self-organized workers of the Vyborg mill and the thousands of other such collectives across Russia….”
Under these desperate circumstances, it is not surprising that some workers agreed to sign petitions circulated by Kiriakov for payments respectively of 500 and 1000 rubles (approximately $17 and $35 dollars) per signature. These petitions declared no confidence in the workers’ committee, and called for the firm to be re-named Vyborg Cellulose (a trading name of Alcem.)
On Jan. 16, just a few days before the Arbitration Court was supposed to investigate the shadowy events surrounding the purchase of the mill by Alcem, Kiriakov, with the aid of company thugs, burst into the mill and seized control. Below is an eyewitness account of what happened:
[At 8:20 p.m. he looked out the window and 10 cars had come through the gate.] “From the cars came many people who ran towards the doors of the mill and who were also ‘neutralizing’ the workers’ guards of the factory. Soon a voice was heard in the administrative building. We closed ourselves off on the fourth floor (five of us, all members of the workers’ committee). The gates of the factory were then blocked with fire trucks. The shop floor was taken over by unauthorized persons. At 10:22 we got a call.
“I answered and it was Kiriakov. He said, ‘So what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘We are going to wait.’ And I hung up the phone. Twenty minutes later we heard the sound of metal breaking. Ten to 20 people broke through the door from the 3rd to 4th floor and were trying to ascend to the 4th on the balcony. They told us that they were the new security at the factory and that we must vacate the premises.”
The firm Alcem, via its scab intermediaries such as Kiriakov and Pavel Privalov, promised to pay off all wage arrears within two weeks, preserve all 2550 jobs, provide a minimum wage of nearly $90 per month (not low by Russian standards), expand production, and provide social benefits.
These are fantastic claims for Alcem, which not long ago promised to fire the vast majority of the workers in a “downsizing” operation. It is very unlikely these promises will be kept.
We know that the Vyborg workers, who have become known not just in Russia but now worldwide for their courage and endurance, will not allow the bosses to ride over their backs.
But now it is up to us, workers of the international labor movement, to come to their aid when they call us-with political support, money for strikers, solidarity actions and whatever else is necessary, whatever they may request from us to ensure that this time the bosses cannot starve, freeze, trick, beat or shoot them into submission.
-Lisa Taylor, International Solidarity with Workers in Russia (ISWoR)