Talk Firmly to the Boss

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-St. Petersburg, 24-05-13, Tessa Marsman- They almost all skipped their obligatory Saturday at the factory to attend the course. Sixteen brand new MPRA union activists showed up for an intense weekend on Bargaining Collective Agreements. Shy smiles and evasive looks turned into strong words and firm backs over the weekend.

It are rare hot days in May in the northern Russian city of Saint Petersburg as sixteen automotive factory workers step in the small conference room rented by the MPRA and TIE. They had to be working this Saturday, like all Saturdays. This was one of the issues they wanted to address with the management. But the management never responds.

“Here you don’t sit and listen”, explains the discussion leader, TIE-Moscow union trainer. The Russia based Brazilian is experienced in training union activists. Her career started during the dictatorship in Brazil in the eighties. As a typical Brazilian union activist she preaches participation in her classes. “We will interact”, Gezilda says smiling. “That way you will practice to defend your demands.”

Until now foreign car producers would not listen to any complaints of their workers. Factories of Ford, Antolin, Nissan, Volkswagen and others tolerate hazardous working conditions for example; they don’t pay the obligatory yearly inflation raise. Also the canteen food gives many of the workers stomach aches and work pressure is sometimes untenable.

But standing up to the boss it difficult and is certainly not the tradition in Russia. For decades hierarchical power was almost absolute and unions were merely extensions of factory-management.

But now abuses at the foreign car factories get out of hand and no one of the management was prepared to listen. Helena, a woman in her forties comments during a cigarette break in the sun outside the building: “last summer the temperatures were unbearable at the plant, but complaining did not help. The management said the buildings were not designed to put air-conditioning”.  Only on the day the labour inspection came by, windows were opened. No complaint was made against the company.

That was the moment a group of workers of the mainly female workforce at the painting department of Antolin had enough. They wrote a letter to the labour inspection explaining what had happened, but no action was taken. Inspired by prior successful actions of the workers at the Ford factory, they decided to join one of the few democratic unions in Russia, the MPRA. Antolin is a Spanish car components producer.

“After one year of working in the heat we were so fed up! A colleague of Helena adds.”Two of our colleagues read about the successful actions in the Ford factory on the internet”, says Irina. She stubs out her cigarette and lights another one.

After joining the MPRA, the group of Antolin women was invited for the workshop on negotiating with their management. Just in time. They have to negotiate with their bosses soon. Within three days they have to set the agenda for further negotiations on collective agreements.

“But I am not afraid of my boss”, says Irina firmly. “Let them be afraid of me!. Everyone knows me and they know I don’t back down.”  Irina is eager to learn in the course. She wants to control her emotions when talking to her boss, she mentions in the beginning of the course. The doesn’t want to start shouting anymore, because that is how they know her now. “I will surprise them all”.

During the course participants learn something new by the hour. They are asked to think about strategies of the union and of their bosses and do role-playing games. Also they are challenged to formulate demands and to accept critique on their behaviour . The shy smiles and evasive looks on Saturday morning disappear slowly but steadily.

At the end of Sunday afternoon a beginning of a change in attitude was made.”I am more confused than when I started the course”, Irina says. “ I thought I had to leave being verbally aggressive, but now it turns out I have to learn many other characteristics. I feel like I will become a whole new person. I start with that today.”

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