Pavel Lisyansky, founder of the Eastern Human Rights Group and lawyer for workers in eastern Ukraine, gives his view of efforts to strengthen the labour movement at a time of military conflict and attacks on workers’ rights.
In 2015 breaches of Ukrainians’ social, economic and labour rights are becoming sharper and sharper. Politicians from oligarchic clans have started shouting about a social and economic revolution. And really, we have had two political revolutions – the “Orange revolution” [of 2004] and the “revolution of dignity” [of 2014] – but there has been no social and economic revolution.
In Ukraine there is a huge potential for protest, due to the widespread breaches of labour rights. There is a great need for new trade union and working-class organisations. Since Soviet times the trade union movement has not modernised itself. Trade unions have remained as they were: “distributors of holiday vouchers” and “lobbyists for the employers” in workplace collectives.
[Translator’s note. During the Soviet period, up to 1991, workplace trade union organisations functioned as a branch of management, ensuring collaboration with labour discipline. Workers appreciated them only for distributing vouchers for holiday trips and canteen meals, and other minor benefits.]
So far, the grass-roots trade union organisations are not numerous, and can not offer the sort of resistance to the oligarchs that is needed.
And there is an attack on workers’ rights along all fronts: the adoption of anew labour code, an increase in communal tariffs [for rent, electricity, gas, water, housing repairs, etc], and a mass of illegal sackings and lay-offs. To resist this offensive needs a new algorithm of trade union and workers’ struggle.
The most difficult situation with regard to working people’s rights is in the east of the country where the military conflict is going on. There, working-class resistance is completely absent. If employers don’t pay wages, they say: “there’s a war on. What the hell do you want?” But it’s exactly in eastern Ukraine that new trade union organisations are being formed, among workers who have lost all hope of anyone helping them, who are compelled towards self-organisation in order to defend their rights. (In Svetlodarsk, for example.)
If those who are ready to defend workers’ rights work systematically, there is a very good chance that the east of the country could become one of the bases of a new workers’ and trade union movement.
Meanwhile, the trade union leaders are an object of great interest for premier-league politicians. But this is not driven by any intention of defending working people’s rights, but as an instrument of getting power.
The workers’ and trade union movement itself is going through the first stage of a new, young formation. In Ukraine there is a process by which young politicians are appearing and old ones are leaving the scene, and there’s a corresponding process in the unions. But the trade unions’ “old guard” doesn’t want to leave its “place in the sun”, and so it is offering all kinds of resistance to initiatives from young activists. A gigantic amount of energy is used up fighting these internal battles, and the defence of labour rights gets forgotten.
The younger generation’s lack of trade union experience is a problem. In the grass-roots organisations, 80% of the young activists don’t have experience of the ins and outs of working class and trade union struggle. And that’s in the first place on account of the failures of the older trade union leaders, who are afraid of competition and – motivated by jealousy, greed and cowardice – “get rid of” their younger competitors. All this serves to knock the workers’ movement in Ukraine off course.
This is the time to hammer out new methods of struggle for working people’s rights. Time doesn’t stand still. New information and other technologies develop. It’s time to use the potential of young activists to counter the oligarchic clans.
Translated from Russian by Gideon Levy, 28 September 2015.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.