By Simon Pirani
As Russia prepares to vote on a successor to Boris Yeltsin, who resigned as President on new year's eve, Simon Pirani reports on signs of a revival of organised labour - whose voice was hardly heard throughout the social trauma and industrial collapse of the mid-1990s.
Anton Parkansky, the newly appointed director of the Moskhimfarm pharmaceuticals factory in Moscow, brought an armed escort when he arrived to start work early one February morning. The workers, who had occupied the state-owned plant and had already barred him from entering twice, were ready once again.
He faced 100 pickets. A scuffle broke out and a woman worker's arm was broken. Parkansky, 31, a manager employed by a private medicines company, backed off and said he would not return to the factory.
"The workers were against his appointment," explained Yelena Vorobyova, of the plant's trade union committee. "The factory was occupied for two weeks." Parkansky's company, Vremya, had helped to privatise - and cut the workforce of - two other pharmaceuticals factories. The Moskhimfarm workers feared that they would be next. Now, they will be keeping a sharp eye on Mikhail Grigoriev, appointed by the economy ministry to replace Parkansky. Their case is symptomatic of a trend. Russian workers are campaigning not only against long delays in paying wages, but also for a greater say in how their workplaces are run.
Plans to privatise factories, and the arrival of owners that workers do not trust, have sparked a series of conflicts. At the Chernigovsky open-cast mine in Kemerovo, Siberia, workers locked out the new owners, declared a "people's enterprise" and clashed with riot police. A similar showdown occurred at the Lomonosov porcelain factory in St Petersburg.
The most significant battle was prompted by the privatisation in 1997 of the Vyborg cellulose plant - between St Petersburg and the Finnish border - on which the village of Sovetsky depends for its livelihood.
The factory was sold to a vodka entrepreneur, Aleksandr Sabadash, for an estimated half of one per cent of its real worth - a move not uncommon in post-Soviet Russia, where many state assets have been grossly undervalued for sale.
At first the workers did not react, even when wages went unpaid. But when Sabadash tried to replace local security guards with his own special force, triggering a rumour that he was about to lay off two-thirds of the 2,000 employees, they occupied the factory, declared it "common property" and elected their own director.
The factory soon found customers for its products, and for 18 months worked as a co-operative. Everyone received a monthly wage of 1,500 roubles - high by Russian standards. A programme of social support for the village was organised: free milk and electricity, free hairdressing and holidays for children, and financial help for pensioners.
Then, last October, the factory was raided by armed police and private security guards, trying to regain control of it for Sabadash. Two workers were wounded in a shoot-out. But the co-operative held out.
Legal challenges and negotiations followed. In January, a Sabadash company sold the factory to a British firm, Alcem. One of the co-operative leaders, Vitali Kiriakov, signed a deal with Alcem surrendering control in exchange for guarantees of pay rises, social benefits for the village and no redundancies.
Aleksandr Buzgalin, a Moscow economics professor who has collaborated with the labour movement since the late Eighties, said the Vyborg workers had taken matters into their own hands. "They tried to maintain and expand production, find buyers for their products and pay suppliers on time," he said.
"They felt that they were not lumpen hirelings, but people who work consciously, live like human beings, are paid regularly and know that the needs of their village will be cared for - people who participate in managing their enterprise." Some had opposed the final sale to Alcem, despite the favourable terms.
In general, Buzgalin pointed out: "There are many problems with ownership disputes. Sometimes two groups of businessmen, or gangsters, are trying to gain control of a workplace and the workers find themselves being manipulated."
Industrial stands such as those at Moskhimfarm and Vyborg could help foster a general revival of organised labour, say union activists. Workers are again finding their voice - stifled amid the economic and social crises of the past few years - in a new Russian era marked by the resignation of President Boris Yeltsin and the choice of a successor in an election on 26 March.
An independent workers' movement began to stir in 1989-91 as the legal right to strike and organise was re-established. But, by the mid-Nineties, it had been suppressed by the shock of hyperinflation and industrial collapse on one side, and inexperience and corruption in its own organisations on the other.
Now, a new generation of workers is pressing for a better deal - often coming up against a new, brash breed of employer. Kirill Buketov, who runs the Moscow office of the international food workers' federation, IUF, said: "The first wave of privatisation in the early Nineties was the theft of state property by those who already controlled it.
"But now, besides the multi-millionaire oligarchs who built their financial empires at that time, there are smaller financial groups with large sums to spend on buying businesses. Sabadash, who wanted to rise from the vodka business to something more solid, is typical."
Bosses like this now face confident young workers - especially in thriving sectors of the economy such as the restaurant trade. At a McDonald's food plant, where products are prepared for the company's Russian restaurants, attempts by management to discourage union membership have been defied with a stubbornness that Buketov has found "staggering". He said: "The union members there are mostly in their early or mid-twenties. They had no previous trade union experience. They joined the union and started making demands, which shook up the union as well as McDonald's."
Buketov, who in 1990 helped to found one of Russia's first workers' support groups, the Kas-kor information centre, said: "When we started, under [former Soviet president Mikhail] Gorbachev, no-one knew what a proper trade union was or how to bargain for a collective agreement. And there was no one to tell us. "We had to learn," added Buketov, now 30. "The new generation is learning much faster than we did."
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