Workers’ struggles repressed in the former USSR

Sept.2017 Russia workers

Construction workers at work on St. Petersburg’s new stadium in 2016. Workers spoke of missing wages and abusive working conditions. Three workers died on the job. Those who complained were detained by police. Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters

By ANN MONTAGUE

On the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, many people are rereading the history of the revolution that brought forth the very first worker’s state in history. Since 1991, however, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics no longer exists. The former USSR has splintered into 15 independent capitalist states. The Russian Federation is now the largest capitalist country in the world in area, occupying one-seventh of the earth’s surface, with a population in January 2017 of 146,428,420.

While Russia and President Vladimir Putin have been continually in the U.S. news media since Trump won the White House, there is very little information about working-class struggles throughout the Russian Federation today. The left should not be caught up in the Democrats’ excuses for their loss of the election or the Republicans’ fear of Trump’s relationship with Russian oligarchs. We must not ignore the struggles of the working classes of the Russian Federation and the former Soviet republics, which deserve our solidarity.

In the U.S. the top 10 percent of the population earns about 47% of the total income. In Russia, similarly, the top 10 percent income share is 45% of the total, while they control a staggering 86% of the country’s wealth. “Russia and the U.S. are probably the two most unequal countries in the world,” according to Gabriel Zucman, economist at the University of California at Berkeley and author of a recent study on the subject. “Those are the two leaders when it comes to extreme income and wealth inequality.”

Zucman points out that the Soviet government was able to drastically reduce income inequality. The top 1 percent’s share of income fell from 18 percent in 1905 to 4 percent after 1922.

Now, however, President Vladimir Putin has become one of the world’s richest men, as control over natural resources has been transferred from public lands to government loyalists, giving a small group of oligarchs control over gas, oil, and timber—the major sector’s of the Russian economy. Zucman’s study shows that offshore wealth is about 75 percent of the national income of Russia. The privatization has been called by some “controlled looting.”

Unions are attacked

The massive income inequality means that a great many Russian workers struggle to survive. Observers estimate that half their income is spent on food. But there have been few strikes, as workers in Russia experience increasing repression.

Mark Galeotti, with the Institute of International Relations in Prague, recalls that a member of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) told a reporter, “My job is to make sure that no Lech Walesa emerges in my oblast (province).” This was a reference to the Polish worker (and later politician) who led protests and strikes against the government in 1970 at the Gdansk Shipyard in Poland.

Strikes in Russia are generally very short wildcat actions. Most trade unions are state controlled, and independent unions are the target of attacks.

A short but widespread series of wildcat strikes took place in April 2015, mainly to protest cutbacks and unpaid back wages. Teachers and construction workers in Siberia, metal workers in the Ural Mountains region, and autoworkers in St. Petersburg took part. In response to the pressure, Putin personally intervened to see that the workers got paid. Since then, strikes have been sporadic. Hundreds of construction workers, for example, have staged strikes in recent months to protest abusive working conditions at work sites for the 2018 World Cup.

Repression against the labor movement is also widespread in other countries that formerly were part of the USSR. In Belarus, in August, there was a major attack on the Independent Union of the Radio-Electronics industry (IURI) and the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of the Republic (CTUB). Police broke into their offices and removed computers. They arrested Gennadii Fedynich, the president of IURI, and Alexander Yaroshyuk, head of CTUB.

These trade unions led large protests earlier in the year against the “Tax on Parasites” after the government had announced a new tax on the poor and the unemployed. Several thousand protesters marched on Minsk, and riot police and water cannons were deployed. Anyone with a sign was subject to being arrested, and when relatives showed up to demand their release, they were arrested as well.

In Kazakhstan, attacks on unions escalated this year against over 400 trade-union organizations. In August, Larisa Kharkova, head of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, was sentenced to a four-year suspended sentence, a five-year ban on trade union activities and 100 hours of public work. Her crime officially was “misuse of power,” but the trial was actually for her public support for a hunger strike of 700 oil workers in Mangystau in January. In May, the leader of the oil workers’ protest, Amina Yeleusinova, was sentenced to two years in prison. LabourStart has launched an international campaign demanding an end to anti-union repression in Belarus and Kazakhstan.

“Anti-Corruption Marches” throughout Russia

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) reported from Russia that illegal mass protests, called Anti-Corruption Marches, took place in March in around 100 cities that started in the far east in Vladivostok and moved across Russia, including 6000 in cities in Siberia and 2000 in the Volga region. Protesters showed up in small cities where they were not expected in the north, and there were even protests in Simferopol and Sevastepol, Crimea’s two major cities.

The largest actions were in St. Petersburg, where 15,000 poured into the Winter Palace courtyard and then marched down the Nevskii Prospect. Police reports showed that 130 were arrested. In Moscow 15,000 filled Tverskoi Prospect and marched towards the Kremlin; over 1000 were arrested. This included reporters and photographers, including Alec Luhn, a British Guardian reporter. Luhn reported that 136 of the 800 detained were under 18 years old.

Five years ago, the Anti-Corruption Marches were first called by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and centered only in Moscow. The issues of the march this year went beyond anti-corruption to demanding a national minimum wage and issues like education and health care. While Navalny is described as a pro-capitalist neoliberal, he has been attacked by other opposition neoliberal groups for including issues of workers’ rights. Now that the demonstrations have expanded outside Moscow, Navalny says that he will be making direct appeals to the working class with further economic demands.

The election will be next year. The leader of Crimea stated that the best thing for Russia would be a tsar. He quickly corrected himself and said that Putin would be the “best tsar.”

Recent reports are that the Kremlin will not allow Navalny to be a candidate in the election. He clearly is not a working-class leader, but the growing turnout for mass action throughout the whole country is an encouraging development within Russia, where the most common protest that is sometimes allowed is what is a called a single person picket.