Russia: workers’ bravery against state repression
The repression of the working class is a feature of all capitalist regimes, whether ‘democratic' or ‘dictatorial'. The bourgeois class uses terror to impose its social order on the exploited. In Russia, the overtly criminal nature of the social, economic and political system explains the permanence of state repression against the working class. The whole economy is in the hands of clans of oligarchs who control the major companies and the regional and national governments. The sole aim of economic life is to line the pockets of this mafia that is the ruling class. Most of the bosses and state bureaucrats, ex-KGB or out and out gangsters, know that they could easily lose their positions tomorrow because of the endless factional warfare, which is why they aim to make the maximum amount of cash in the shortest possible time. Hence they need to suck as much profit as possible from the working class, using all available means, from the legalism of the ‘right to work' revised in 2001 in order to make virtually any strike longer than 24 hours illegal and the systematic condemnation of strikes by the courts, to the violence of the police or armed militias against militant workers.
Greetings to the workers' response!
Braving this repression, the workers' struggles which have arisen in the recent period have shattered the media myth of a contented population united behind an adored Putin. "If the month of December is to be remembered for anything, it won't be for the electoral campaign or the political intrigues in the Kremlin, but because of the upsurge of workers' struggles" (Moscow Times, 6.12.07).
A wave of strikes, the first major expression of working class militancy for nearly a decade, has, since last spring, swept through the country from eastern Siberia to the Caucasus, involving numerous sectors such as the oil region of Khanty-Mansiysk in the far north, building sites in Chechnya, a wood processing factory in Novgorod, a hospital in the Tchita region, housing maintenance services in Saratov, fast-food outlets in Irkutsk, the General Motors-Avto VAZ car factory owned by Togliatti, or a large metallurgical factory in Karelia. The strengthening of repressive measures during the summer, aimed at holding back the tide of struggles, had little effect.
In November, the dockers of the port of Tuapse in the Black Sea (4-7 November), then those at the port of Saint-Petersburg (13-17 November) went on strike, while on 26 October the postal workers came out for the first time since 2001, as well as the workers of GouP TIK (energy sector). The railway drivers (RZH) threatened to strike for the first time since 1988 "the big wave of strikes unfolding in Russia has not slowed down. From one enterprise to another, work stoppages have been succeeded by blockades while other strikes threaten to break out in enterprises still working...The autumn of 2007, with the regime, in the campaign for elections to the legislature, talking about the achievement of an era of stability and prosperity, has been marked by a powerful rise of ‘proletarian consciousness'" (Vremia Novostiei, cited by Courrier International no, 892).
If for the moment the strikes remain limited to particular enterprises or regions, they still express the response of the working class to the galloping deterioration of its living conditions. The unbearable inequalities in society, the insolent luxury exhibited by the oligarchs and the company managers when the majority of workers are hardly able to eat three meals a day, is exacerbating the discontent. Above all, if the question of wages has been at the heart of these struggles, it's because wages are being devoured by the dramatic rise in inflation, with 50-70% rises in food prices, and another 50% rise envisaged this winter.
In the face of this situation, the Russian Federation of Independent Unions, the heir of the old Soviet confederation, pro-government and hostile to any struggle, has been too discredited to play the role of containing the proletarian struggle in the interests of the ruling class. It is even seen as the "most energetic adversary of the movement of the workers" (Moscow Times, 29.11.07). This is why, with the aid of the western trade unions, a part of the Russian bourgeoisie is trying to exploit the Russian workers' illusions in the idea of ‘free' trade unions, ‘class struggle' trade unions, setting up new structures like the RPLBJ railway union, the Zachita Truda federation or the Interregional Union of Automobile Workers, founded on the initiative of the Ford union committee and regrouping the independent unions of several large enterprises.
We've seen the latter at work in the strike at the Ford factory in Saint-Petersburg in November-December, where the majority of the 2200 workers came out for a 30% wage rise (average wage 550 euros). This struggle has helped to break the black-out on workers' struggles in Russia.
The management initially organised a lock-out with the aid of the anti-riot police (the OMON). Under the impulsion of the trade union, the workers came in their hundreds every day to picket the factory gates, with no perspective other than to ‘hold out' in the face of a management that rejected any negotiation. After a month, with the strike running out of steam, the exhausted workers had to go back without winning anything, conceding the management's conditions: no negotiations till the strike was over.
By isolating the workers in ‘their' factory and limiting solidarity from other sectors to messages of sympathy and financial support, the independent unions inflicted this heavy defeat on the workers.
The whole experience of the working class for decades shows that there is no form of trade unionism that operates in favour of the workers, that it is a weapon of the ruling class. The trade unions are organs of the capitalist state whose function is to block the need for unity, solidarity, extension, and, in the future, internationalisation of the workers' struggle. What matters to the working class is not to reconstruct new unions. Its future lies in developing confidence in its own strength and its own means of struggle such as the control of the struggle through general assemblies and its extension to other sectors of the working class.