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Labour Focus 66

from Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, No. 66, 2000

David Mandel

Trade Unions in Ukraine: A Case Study

The events described below are an example of a spontaneous "revolution" that initiated a process of reform in a local union, the Union of Auto and Agricultural Machine-Building Workers of Ukraine (henceforth ASM Union). This is a rare case in Ukraine, which is probably in the deepest and most prolonged depression in the modern peacetime history of any major country. But it shows that even in the worst "objective" circumstances, an independent, union-building strategy is feasible and can yield gains for workers. It also illustrates the positive role that a progressive national union strategy (also a great rarity in Ukraine) can play in promoting reform "from below" by creating a space within the union for such initiatives.

Conditions in the factory
The Vinnitsa Ball-Bearing Factory is located in a regional capital of central Ukraine with a population of 380,000. At its high point, the plant employed 9,000 people and produced upwards of 60 million bearings a year for the ASM sector. It has undergone incorporation but is still mostly state-owned, though the state does not play any perceptible role in the economic activity of the enterprise. Since the start of  "reforms", the work force has declined by over a half, due mostly to "voluntary" departures but partly also to permanent layoffs. In 1999, about 3300 were officially employed at the plant, but about half of these were either women on childcare leave or workers temporary laid off  for lack of work. On any given day, only 1500 people are actually working, and stoppages are not uncommon.    
There was no significant movement, labour or nationalist, at the plant during the Perestroika period and the first years of independence. Management and the union remained largely unchanged. Except for its administering various social benefits, the union was irrelevant to workers, most of whom had only the vaguest idea that a new Ukrainian ASM Union had been founded in 1991. While shop committee presidents regularly received copies of the national union paper, most were not conscientious about distributing it to members, who, in any case, were often absent because of production stoppages. When workers had a problem, they went to management, ignoring the union. Problems rarely became collective. And when they did, they remained confined to the individual shop.    
There was one partial exception to this picture, the polishing and assembly shop, which in 1992 elected as union shop president Pavel Tyutyunov, a young brigade leader with a strong sense of dignity and social justice. One of the few union-led protests before the 1998 "uprising", possibly the only one, occurred in this shop over a health-and-safety issue. A contaminated liquid coolant gave off noxious fumes that made workers cough and their eyes water. When Tyutyunov complained to the shop superintendent, he promised to take measures. But it happened again, and a third time. A shop meeting supported Tyutyunov's proposal to strike and demonstrate in the square in front of the administration building.
However, when it came time to go out, Tyutyunov had to resort to shaming and cursing: "How am I supposed to defend you, when you hide behind your machines!" As he explained, the workers found it less threatening simply to down tools spontaneously. After letting off steam and squeezing some promises out of management, they could return to work as if there had never been a strike. But an organised, union-led strike and demonstration meant a formal affront to management, something they had never dared to do.

Protests against non-payment of wages  
It was the non-payment of wages, which became chronic in 1996, that sparked the first really serious, but still entirely spontaneous, protests. The most militant were the workers in the metal-processing shop, who are strategically placed at the start of the production process to paralyse the entire plant. Their relatively small numbers (300) and their relative social homogeneity (mostly skilled male machinists and adjusters, these two professions often combined in the same person) also made it easier for them to act together. The example of this shop was soon taken up by others, but the various shops never linked up.    
These wildcat strikes usually occurred only after several months had already gone by without wages. The workers would come to work and ask the shop superintendent when they would be paid. Failing to get a definite answer, they would hold an informal discussion and decide, without voting, not to work. Within a few minutes, the general director or one of his aides would come running, usually accompanied by the union president. The director would hear out the workers and then launch into a long explanation of the objective causes for the lack of money, placing the blame mainly on the government in Kiev. He would then detail his heroic efforts to resolve the problem and promised  results soon. Sometimes he would order small sums paid to the workers that same day. In the end, the workers returned to work, and within a few months the scene would repeat itself.    
Towards the end of 1996, with the spontaneous strikes growing increasingly frequent, a member of the plant's union committee suggested the committee formulate a unified set of demands for all the whole plant and present them to management. According to one of the participant of the meeting, this "revolutionary" suggestion caused confusion and fear. "Who will present them?" someone asked. As no one volunteered, the proposal was not supported. According to Tyutyunov, the union had always been a subordinate helper to management and the psychological barrier to shifting to a confrontational mode was just too great.  
This went on for two years. Then in 1998, after a two-months production stoppage, the workers came to the plant only to hear from management that it had no idea when wages would be paid. Again, the metal-processing shop refused to work. But this time they decided to rally the other shops. Soon the entire mass of workers had gathered at the main gates. Tyutyunov suggested they hold a meeting in the factory's club. When the general director arrived, flanked by top officials of the ASM Union's regional committee, he offered the usual explanations. But they had no effect.

Plant elects new union leader  
The plant did not have a union president at this time, as the last one had become vice president of the union's regional committee. The search for a replacement - which had to have management's blessing - had gone on for three months. But all the prospective candidates refused to place their heads in the lion's jaws: given the level of mobilisation, the union could not hope to play its traditional role of  "buffer"; on the other hand, none of the candidates wanted to confront management at the head of the workers.    
Some of his pals from the polishing and assembly shop wanted Tyutyunov to take the job. Tyutyunov was a clean-cut, non-drinking, 35-year-old adjuster (one of the "younger" workers), who had been employed at the plant since the age of seventeen. He graduated from its technical school  with a "red diploma". A highly skilled worker who genuinely loves machinery - he repairs electronic equipment on the side and has also filled in as electrician and machinist at the plant - he had no reason to be frightened at the prospect of being fired, since he could easily find better-paying work elsewhere. Before being elected shop president, he was, in his own words, "a typical worker, distant from everything".  But there was one difference: his developed sense of dignity (rare among post-Soviet workers) and deep sense of justice periodically drew him into public life. If he chose to remain at the plant while so many other skilled workers left in search of a more decent steadier income, it was because of this commitment to social justice and a sense of loyalty to his "native factory."    
But Tyutyunov did not want to be plant union president. The scope of the responsibility frightened him and he was not sure he could gain a sufficient grasp of the economic issues to deal as an equal with management. All the same, his colleagues passed up a note up to the praesidium, proposing him for the post. Tyutyunov was obviously not a good choice in the view of the regional president of the ASM Union and the plant's director. The former read the note out and told the meeting that several candidates were being considered and that the plant committee would finally choose one.
This response so shocked the workers that they began to stamp their feet and whistle. One shouted: "The entire collective is here, and you want to leave the choice to the committee!?" The director was also categorically opposed to the proposal, explaining that it would be illegal for the meeting to usurp the powers of the plant committee. This comment really set the workers going: "They just don't want the guy! We're damn well going to elect him!"  
Tyutyunov took the microphone to restore some order. But the director was adamant. He suggested the union president be chosen that very day, but by the plant committee. Since most of the committee's members had been elected with management's overt or tacit approval, there was at least  a good chance they would not choose Tyutyunov. But Tyutyunov, who was still not eager for the job, suggested the meeting adopt the director's proposal. It was accepted, and the workers returned to work, having obtained a promise that wages would be partially paid the next day. However, when the committee members assembled that afternoon, they found the room packed to overflowing with rank-and-file members. And so, despite the secret ballot and the hostility of most of the committee members to Tyutyunov's candidacy, they had no choice but to elect him.

Rank-and-file attitudes  
A month after this, the metal-processing shop was on a wildcat strike again over non-payment of wages. Tyutyunov went to the shop and asked the workers why they had not come to the union. One of the workers remarked: "Look, another boss has come!" But Tyutyunov pointed the futility of unorganised, isolated actions, that yielded no tangible results. He told them that he had not come to dissuade them from striking, but to consult with them and organise. A union meeting was held in the shop that adopted Tyutyunov's proposal to go through the legal grievance procedure and do it in the name of the entire factory.    
According to Tyutyunov, his main reason for insisting on the legal procedure was to build rank-and-file support for the union: "I wanted to show them that if they didn't get their wages, it wasn't for the union's lack of trying. The economic situation really was bad, and I wanted to put a stop to their opposing themselves to the union, which they saw as part of management." But he also admitted that he was afraid that if the government came after the union for an illegal strike, as it had done not so long before, in the case of the miners, whose leaders had been arrested, he could not count on the support of the membership. "In sum, the membership did not have much confidence in the leadership, and the leadership did not believe in the support of the membership."  
Following this decision, meetings were held in all the shops and a common set of demands was formulated. Upon receiving them in writing, the director was genuinely shocked to hear that he was legally bound to sit down with the union and negotiate. He asked the plant's lawyer to check the Labour Code. "Until then, management had always decided on its own when, with whom, and on what tone it would talk. They hoped to pacify the workers with the help of the local government and the higher trade union body. They were convinced they were blameless and expected the ministry or someone to solve the plant's problems."  
The union demanded payment of current wages at once and gradual repayment of arrears by giving workers at the plant free food and paying their rent and communal services. During the negotiations, the union kept up the pressure with meetings and demonstrations and organised a campaign of lawsuits (which can only be individual) against the management to obtain owed wages. An enraged management posted the names of these workers on the "black" board and blamed the "greedy" workers for the non-payment of the wages of the "calm" ones. But the lists were torn down. The talks ended without tangible results, except for the distribution of some food by the plant, for which workers were forced to wait in line a whole day in sweltering summer heat. The plant then shut down again for two months.    
On returning to work, the workers again gathered at the gate and demanded the director explain the situation. This time he did not appear. There were calls to block the highway, to go for pitchforks. On the second day of the strike, the union committee met in enlarged session with over 100 people and decided to invoke article 45 of the Ukrainian Labour Code: the union's right to demand dismissal of  the director for violations of the Labour Code. This was approved the next day at an extraordinary union conference, which decided to demand immediate arbitration.

The union's national and regional leadership
This move brought in the government, which was the principal stockholder and therefore the employer. The union requested that Vladimir Zlenko, then national president of the ASM Union, be included on its side. He was someone the union could count on to pressure the government and neutralise the union's regional committee, which was not enthusiastic about the confrontation.  
Zlenko's position was clear: The union had to hold management responsible, whatever the "objective" circumstances. "The workers  were hired to produce ball bearings and they do that skilfully. The board of directors and management's job is to make sure the plant is well supplied and sells its products. Though they are incapable of doing that, management nevertheless claims high salaries for itself, more shares in the company, personal cars and other benefits. They blame everything on the workers and the government, on anyone but themselves." Before the arbitration began, Zlenko made a point of personally meeting with the workers in all the shops. The entire conflict was later written up in the union's national paper (the only national union paper in Ukraine).  
Under the circumstances, the union's regional leaders could hardly side with management against their own local union - a not so unusual phenomenon in the ex-USSR - but they were uncomfortable with this first ever union-organised labour conflict in their jurisdiction. After his election, they took pains to advise Tyutyunov to be less "emotional", not "go overboard", and regularly to attend managerial production meetings: "After all, a union leader has to understand the economic situation of his enterprise."    
The union conference that had voted for arbitration, also decided that nothing would be signed unless it was submitted first to the membership. The union negotiators went back four times to consult the membership. In the end the union had to step back from some of its demands, but "this was not," as Tyutyunov observed, "the decision of the union committee, but of the whole union." Such genuine rank-and-file involvement is decision-making is extremely rare in Ukrainian and Russian unions.    
Wages began to be paid more regularly, though only half in cash, the rest in food and services. The arrears were also gradually paid by the plant through its assuming workers' debts for rent and utilities. The general director was replaced. The new one arrived clearly understanding that "the union at the Vinnitsa Ball-Bearing Plant is not a Soviet-type trade union, not a 'transmission belt' that turns in whatever direction management points. He knows that it is an independent organisation of workers, and management's attitude to the workers and the union have totally changed."

The shop committees and the rank-and-file base of the unions  
But there is still a long way to go for the union to become an organisation of workers rather than a leadership acting on behalf of mistrustful, passive workers. Spontaneous revolts often do not result in deep, lasting changes in union practice because the formal or informal leaders that they bring to the fore fail to appreciate the importance of consolidating the active base of the union.
At the Kiev Motorcycle Factory, for example (also the ASM Union), a spontaneous rank-and-file movement in 1997 over unpaid wage also ousted the union president and the director. But the new union president, O. Onoprienko, until then a rank-and-file worker, saw his main priority in obtaining credits and orders for the factory. This really was a condition for the factory's continued existence and its ability to pay wages. But Onprienko was soon spending much more time with the new director and in government offices than in the plant's shops. When wages were not paid, he would join management in explaining the objective difficulties. Rumours (false, as it turned out) began to circulate about favours he was receiving from management. Criticism at union meetings became increasingly harsh, as former allies and supporters turned against him. Twice Zlenko had to persuade Onoprienko to retract his resignation.    
Zlenko himself refused Onoprienko's requests to accompany him in his lobbying efforts for credits. According to Zlenko, that was management's job; the union's job was to pressure management on behalf of the workers to provide work and decent wages and conditions. Zlenko did not doubt Onoprienko's good faith, but he saw a link between his readiness to fill in for an inactive management and his strong Ukrainian nationalism. However that may be, what happened at the Kiev Motorcycle Factory has been repeated at other Ukrainian and Russian plants.  
Tyutyunov, on the other hand, made consolidation of active rank-and-file support for the union his top priority. He did not find any easy solution. On the one hand, the struggles had changed the workers: "It is very clear that the worker today is not the same as five years ago. He is afraid, passive, but not the same. He understands certain matters; he feels that he can defend himself, at least in that spontaneous way." But Tyutyunov was bothered by the workers' continued tendency to bypass the union in resolving their problems with management.  
This had a lot to do with the inactivity of the shop committees, the weak middle link in most unions, that is supposed to be in constant daily contact with the rank and file. Tyutyunov held the traditional  weekly "seminars" with the shop presidents, but these did not give him a clear picture of the mood and concerns of the workers in the shops. Nor did the information he presented find its way back to the rank and file.  "My goal is to inform the workers through our union organisation  about what the union is doing about work, wages, conditions. But I know this does not happen even now. The shop committees aren't functioning. It's as if they are not there. I've suggested that the shop presidents meet on their own to discuss common problems, but nothing happens.  I've asked them why they don't hold union meetings in their shops after work or during the lunch break. Their members could mandate them to raise issues with me, or else I could attend the meetings, anytime. But I can't get them to change. And the workers still prefer to stop work spontaneously and discuss things informally among themselves, rather than to meet with the shop committee and work through the union."  
Tyutyunov did force the shop presidents to hold genuine accounting and election meetings. In the past these had often been mere formalities, with the superintendent picking a new union shop president when that was necessary. Tyutyunov made his own presence at these meetings obligatory. He also planned a series of meetings in the plant's club with the workers of the different shops. "It turns out that I'm doing the work of the shop presidents. But these meetings are important. At the big union conference people are often hesitant to speak out or ask questions. In the shop, people are more open. And the questions can be very sharp and catch you off guard. But I come knowing the problems are complex and the discussion will be tough." Another reason for his wanting to attend the shop meetings was to influence the choice of representatives in the plant committee (new elections were held at the end of 1999), most of whom had been hostile to his election.    
Despite some progress with the rank and file, the efforts to revive the union committees have not yielded much results. According to Tyutyunov, in the end it is really up to the workers themselves. The few shop presidents, like the one in the metal-processing shop, that do enjoy the confidence of the workers do not necessarily have special qualities. But they are under constant pressure from the workers. Tyutyunov rejects the claim of the alternative unions (formed after 1990 and usually tiny) that say the very structure of the old unions are bad and thus justify their splitting off. "It's the active involvement of the workers that breathes life into the structures. That is my deep conviction. Sure, those in leadership positions have to organise, inform, lead. But in the end, you can't force workers to be active. It depends on themselves." In addition, the alternative unions have no political clout because of their isolation and small size.    
Besides attending shop meetings, Tyutyunov has tried to strengthen the direct flow of information between the plant committee and the rank and file. He negotiated with management the acquisition of a photocopier in partial payment for dues owed the union. Although a regular bulletin is financially out of reach, Tyutyunov adopted the practice of dealing with management as far as possible through written documents, copies of which are posted in the shops.  
At the meetings in the shops, Tyutyunov has fought against the workers' traditional view of the union as an alien body financed out of their wages but for which they themselves bear no responsibility. "You elected me plant president," he would tell them, "but do you really think I can solve your wage problems for you by myself? What should I do - take the director by the scruff of his neck and bang his head against the wall a couple of times? Do you think that will make him pay up?" "That throws them into confusion," Tyutyutonv explained, "and gets them thinking: 'Yeah, how can one person do it?' I tell them that I do have a certain role as elected leader, but they are many and don't want to do anything. When I see they've digested that, I move on to suggest that at least they could get together to write a formal request to the union detailing their problems. Why ask for that in writing? Because when the director sees me aggressively pursuing some issue, he has the impression that I'm the sole cause of his trouble. Get rid of me - as he tried to do in the last elections - and things will quiet down. At most there will be spontaneous strikes, which management finds easy to deal with: make a speech, promise something and walk away. Sure, wildcats are not exactly fun for them, but it's better than organised resistance. If I have something in writing from the workers, I can just put it down on his table for him to read."  
This approach has begun to pay off. Tyutyunov tries to include all the workers in the collective agreement campaign, which used to pass unnoticed by the workers. Now, the union posts a copy of the branch agreement (which sets minimum standards) in all the shops, along with the plant committee's proposals for the local collective agreement, and ask for suggestions from the workers. One of the unions proposals, a concession to the plant's financial troubles, was to raise the wages at the plant to the level of the branch agreement in three stages, rather than at one go. This prompted a letter from one of the shops, addressed to "the union" in general, complaining of "conciliationism" and laying out the workers' dissatisfaction on a series of issues, including the union's failure to organise any protest against recent rise in the price of bread, the staple. Even more unusual than the letter itself was the fact that the workers had dared to sign it individually, something that could not have happened two years ago.

Weak managers but weaker unions  
Tyutyunov took the letter as criticism of his own work, but he nevertheless let the director read it to show him the pressure he was under from his membership. The director was so stunned by the letter that, by his own admission, he did not sleep for two nights. "That was the effect of one signed letter from workers. A strike couldn't have made that impression." This may seem rather strange to a Western reader, but it illustrates the striking situation in Ukraine, where extremely weak managers and owners wield almost absolute power over workers, only because their weakness is surpassed by the workers disunity and sense of impotence.  
Things are thus beginning to change at this plant: workers are beginning to identify with the union, to take an active and personal interest in it. Tyutyunov invited representatives of the shops to discuss the letter and learnt that its authors did not have him in mind, since they realised the local union's power to affect the situation was limited. They were especially critical of the union at the regional and national levels and of the Federation of Trade Unions for failing to organise effective resistance against the government.  
The letter also served to open up debate in the regional committee, whose composition had changed as a result of a resolution of the union's Central Committee that half the members of regional committees be rank-and-file workers. The aim was to end the practice of regional committees made up exclusively of full-timers. When the letter was mentioned at one of the regional committee meetings, the president of another local proposed that it be read out loud. One of the new worker delegates made the suggestion that the regional committee endorse the letter and send it to the higher levels. This proposal did not gather a majority, though the letter was sent to the national union and the regional and national federations with the request that it be published.    
This incident shows how reform from below can create pressure for change at higher levels of the union movement. The problem is - and this is Zlenko's tragedy as national leader - that unions like that at the Vinnitsa Ball-Bearing Factory are few and far between. The changes that have occurred in the union are a combined result of far-sighted, principled, courageous leadership, a relatively active membership that has been transformed through struggle, and the support of a progressive national leadership. Zlenko made a point of inviting Tyutyunov to the few educational activities (for lack of resources) the national union was able to organise.    
But otherwise the local union is isolated. The regional leadership views Tyutyunov as an emotional troublemaker who puts them in the uncomfortable position of having to confront directors and, in general, causes them a lot of extra work. When management tried to get rid of Tyutyunov during the union elections at the end of 1999, and Tyutyunov asked for the support of the regional leaders, the only reply was: "Whatever happens will happen." When the regional president had a chance to send a union activist on an educational visit to Canada, he chose a Soviet-style plant vice president who was about to retire and had never even dreamt of conflict with management. "If a local union is doing its job," remarked Tyutyunov, "then the regional leaders are forced to confront management. That's why they constantly advise me to take management's situation into account. But if the union shows understanding to management, who is left to show understanding for the workers' situation?"  
The union's gains are modest when viewed against the workers' needs. But they are nevertheless significant in the general context of Ukraine. In 2000 the in-kind part of wages was reduced to 40 per cent. Stoppages were paid at 60 per cent of the wage. But the union's main achievement was fostering of the workers independence vis-à-vis management, their sense of dignity as workers and their potential to influence their conditions when they act together. These are gains that will show their true value when (and if?) conditions in Ukraine start to improve.    .