Russian Trade Unions Seek Strength Through Merger

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From Moscow Times, 1 December 2009

In a bid to regain some power for organized labor, Boris Kravchenko, president of the All-Russia Confederation of Labor, the country’s second-largest union group, is leading his group’s 1.3 million members to a merger with another major independent group of about the same size, the Russian Labor Confederation, which is the country’s third-largest workers group. He said a unification conference, expected to take place early next year, would mark a turning point in the country’s labor movement, likening it to a famous strike by Soviet coal miners in 1989 that gave rise to independent unions.

Sitting at a desk in the basement of an old apartment building, Boris Kravchenko warmly recalled a speech that U.S. President Barack Obama delivered in September at a Labor Day picnic in Ohio, which won applause from him and thousands of other union leaders.
Obama’s lauding of organized labor and his attacks on employers’ selfishness and greed as reasons for the recession were uplifting, said Kravchenko, president of the All-Russia Confederation of Labor, the country’s second-largest union group. Speeches by Vladimir Putin, who as president signed a 2001 labor law that made strikes virtually impossible, have only drawn his applause as a matter of courtesy, the union leader said.
 
In a bid to regain some power for organized labor, Kravchenko is leading his group’s 1.3 million members to a merger with another major independent group of about the same size, the Russian Labor Confederation, which is the country’s third-largest workers group. He said a unification conference, expected to take place early next year, would mark a turning point in the country’s labor movement, likening it to a famous strike by Soviet coal miners in 1989 that gave rise to independent unions. “It will be the most serious event in the past 20 years in terms of labor organization,” Kravchenko said during a recent interview in his office, near the Tulskaya metro station, where daylight barely entered a barred window near the ceiling.
 
Some of the unions in the two confederations — such as the one at Ford Motor’s plant near St. Petersburg, which held Russia’s longest post-Soviet strike at the end of 2007 — have already proved that they can stand up for workers’ rights. By joining forces, the two groups hope to gain more bargaining power with employers and spread their influence across the slowly recovering economy, where workers remain vulnerable to job cuts.
 
The jobless rate may reach 9.6 percent of the employable population next year, the Economic Development Ministry said in its latest forecast. The figure was 7.7 percent in October, according to the latest data from the State Statistics Service. Increased clout would be especially justified in Russia because some employers here, like in many other East European countries, are not willing to talk with unions or often breech their agreements, said Dimitrina Dimitrova, an officer for Europe at the International Labor Organization’s Bureau for Workers Activities in Geneva. “My point about capital is that it sees itself as extremely powerful, therefore [company owners] do not feel compelled to negotiate,” she said. “There should be mechanisms to balance power. Unions have to work to find their place and build more muscle through national and international action. Unions have to respond.”
 
The recent economic hardship spurred the decision to unite the groups, especially as layoffs thinned union ranks in industries like coal mining and steelmaking that cut production to meet falling demand, Kravchenko said. “Unions have now fallen on hard times. People are losing jobs,” he said. “We are losing influence in serious sectors of the economy. We have realized that we need to pull together our financial and intellectual resources.”
Merging the confederations will also allow stronger unions to incorporate weaker ones from both groups in hard-hit sectors, thus posing more of a challenge to employers in the troubled industries, Kravchenko said. The large Interregional Auto Industry Workers Union could join unions in the steelmaking, transportation and machinery sectors, he said. Unions in the robust energy industry could join ranks with coal mining unions to set up a single group, he said. One of the major sectors where unions have been able to expand despite the crisis is the food industry, specifically breweries and confectionery makers, Kravchenko said.
 
The All-Russia Confederation of Labor brings together unions created by steelworkers, autoworkers, employees of the food and services industries as well as doctors and teachers. The Russian Labor Confederation largely unites transportation workers, such as seamen, air traffic controllers, pilots and railway employees.
The conference to organize the merger was initially planned for mid-October but was moved because member unions wanted time to debate the potential benefits of the change, Kravchenko said. As a distraction, there are also a lot of current issues that unions have to tackle, but the unification is unstoppable, said Igor Kovalchuk, president of the Russian Labor Confederation.“We are moving toward this firmly and steadily,” he said. “It will surely happen.”
 
Even combined, the two confederations would be dwarfed by the Federation of Independent Unions of Russia, an organization inherited from the Soviet Union with 26 million members. Kravchenko described the group as “amorphous” and less independent of the authorities, saying it relied on managing property for 70 percent of its revenue — in a country where officials are known to have enormous influence on business.
The alternative unions raise their budgets from membership fees, he said.
Companies such as General Motors, where these unions say they have to struggle for workers’ rights, did not appear concerned at the prospect of organized labor getting more powerful.“We feel absolutely calm about this,” said Sergei Lepnukhov, GM’s public relations director in Moscow. The company has a “constructive” dialog with unions, he said.
Workers at the company’s St. Petersburg plant have slowed work to stage a so-called Italian strike since Nov. 11 to demand a fixed 40-hour workweek and annual indexing of wages to inflation. The company fired the union’s leader immediately after the protest began, accusing him of an unrelated offense — skipping a workday the previous month, the union said.
 
Finances are another issue that union confederations want to address when they unite. The plan is to reroute most of the fee money from local unions to the new group’s head office in Moscow, which would enable more activity on the national level, Kravchenko said. The money would pay for lawyers, experts and campaigns to lobby for legislative changes that would make strikes easier, he said.
The larger group will also be better able to protect union leaders from government pressure, Kravchenko said. Widespread attacks on local union leaders stem from the attempts by the Kremlin, law enforcement agencies and local authorities to put union activity under control, he said. The All-Russia Confederation of Labor is putting together a complaint about the pressure to the International Labor Organization in Geneva, he said.
 
A Kremlin spokeswoman asked last week that a request for comment be faxed to Andrei Tsybulin, chief of the Kremlin’s press and information department. It went unanswered.
Unions plan to make attacks on their leaders pointless by setting up a system to replace them quickly if they run into trouble, Kravchenko said.
The united group will also work more vigorously to set up unions at companies where labor is not yet organized, including the Russian branches of multinationals like DHL and Procter & Gamble, he said.
DHL said it sought to promote an employee-friendly culture at its operations. “We foster a culture of constructive debate — both between employees and executives, and between management and employee representatives,” said Daniel McGrath, a spokesman for DHL International in Moscow. P&G did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
 
Unions have substantial potential to increase their influence, unless they meddle with politics, said Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute of Political Expertise, a political think tank. Authorities tend to listen to public groups, as was demonstrated by the recent reversal of the move to raise the base rate of the transportation tax, he said. Drivers’ groups, including the Federation of Russian Car Owners, spearheaded the campaign to have the increases — which were passed by the State Duma — recalled as they reached the Federation Council.
 
Kravchenko’s office was adorned with an international union flag that erroneously led some officials to accuse protesters last year as foreign puppets breeding discontent. Vladivostok motorists carried the white flag of the International Trade Union Confederation, which displays a large red disc, when they rallied against prohibitively high duties on imports of used Japanese cars in December. State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov later mistakenly identified the flag as Japanese, saying the protests drew their inspiration from abroad.
Unions do look abroad — to exchange ideas and experience with their counterparts, Kravchenko said. This was the purpose of his trip to a conference of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO, a group of U.S. and international labor unions. He said he was impressed to hear Obama’s speech heralding workers’ right to organize.
“I understand … American leaders, especially on big occasions, say things that people want to hear,” Kravchenko said about the speech. “But there has never been even a mention of these things in this country.”

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