Meanwhile in Russia, Spontaneous Worker Unrest is Spreading

September 8, 2014
Delays in salary payments are causing protests in Russia's regions to gain momentum. Photo: ITAR-TASS/Zamir Usmanov

Staunton, September 8 – Anyone watching Moscow television would conclude that “there is no more important news than the situation in Ukraine and the intrigues of NATO,” Olga Filina says in today’s Ogonyok, but those who follow Russia’s labor market say that “the most important news” involves the spread of protests by workers who haven’t been paid.

Although largely unnoticed by most Russians, miners, metal workers and even those employed by the government are staging strikes in a spontaneous fashion rather than under the aegis of trade unions or parties, a pattern that recalls the way in which Solidarity emerged in Poland, Filina points out.

According to the Moscow Center for Social-Labor Rights, there are now slightly more than one new strike every working day somewhere in Russia, increasingly about wage arrears and reflecting growing social dissatisfaction. The declining role of unions means that these strikes can develop in unpredictable ways.

That trend represents a departure from what had been the case between 2010 and 2013, when labor actions were “not ‘wild’ but institutionalized,’” Peter Bizyukov of the Center says. Now, workers are acting on their own and making the kind of demands for immediate recompense that their unions had often avoided.

Statistics bear this out, Filina says. In 2013, 42 percent of labor actions involved complaints about how companies were operating; in the first six months of this year, “50 percent of the protests were not coordinated by the trade unions and were in essence spontaneous protests,” up from 35 percent only 12 months ago.

The labor ministry has developed new legislation that will increase fines on those companies which owe their workers back wages, but as the Ogonyok journalist notes, “experts are not certain” that this will help or prevent more ‘Pikalyovos.’ The situation in Pikalyovo required Putin’s personal intervention, but there is no “instrument available for saving the workers of the entire country.”

Karin Kleman, director of the Collective Action Institute and a researcher at St. Petersburg State Humanities University, says that what is happening now recalls the events of the early 1990s, but there are two important differences: the trade unions established then have been destroyed, and the workers are much less patient than they were.

Biryukov says that “the dramatic nature of the situation is reflected in the fact that the authorities paradoxically are devoting less attention to information about the protests. We have no open official data on the real level of conflicts” in Russia. Rosstat, for instance, records only “actions carried out according to the law,” a tiny fraction of all labor actions.

According to the data that his center has collected, Biryukov says, the number and size of those areas in which spontaneous strikes could break out are growing rapidly and what is perhaps especially frightening is that they now involve not just workers at private companies but in government agencies and offices and in the large service sector.

As Filin notes, “Poland’s Solidarity movement began as a labor conflict and the new Russian arose at a time of the anger of miners.” That is, “unresolved ‘worker’ issues can quickly become political questions.” And that is more likely, they suggest, when people feel desperate enough to act on their own, fighting not just for wages, but for life itself.