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Living, working and organizing in Russia

category russia / ukraine / belarus | workplace struggles | interview author Thursday November 11, 2010 19:45author by Mikael Altemark - SAC Report this post to the editors

Interview with a member of the SKT

In connection to the SAC's 100th anniversary in the summer of 2010, Stockholm was visited by a delegation of 4 activists from the SKT, the Siberian Workers' Confederation. The SKT organizes workers in western Siberia and continues to be an independent union in a Russia becoming all the more uniform. Arbetaren Zenit met and had a chat with Valerija Gudz, a 25-year-old syndicalist from Omsk. [Italiano] [Français]

Living, working and organizing in Russia

Interview with a member of the SKT

How did you come to be interested in union organizing and why did you end up in the SKT?

My basic conviction has been that a good citizen should form her own opinion about society and fight for her rights. Before I joined the SKT I had experience of various leftist movements, authoritarian ones. In the "left parties" you would always find a leader who only wanted more power and who in the end would find give up their ideals once they managed to acquire some influence. I hated their strict hierarchies and thirst for power, so I decided to subject myself to terms like these. Two years later I met two members from the SKT who had similar ideas. I liked their structure - all members are equal and no one strives for centralization of power.

During your stay in Sweden you have been asked many questions about how it is to live, work and organize in the Russia of today. How would you sum up life and work life in Siberia?

Right now the Russian working class is dragged down by very conformist views. During the 1990s and for a while during the first years of the 21th century workers were able to proclaim strikes and organize public meetings or pickets in order to fight for their rights. Autonomous unions were constituted from below. Today it is not possible to form any new unions at workplaces. You cannot attack an employer for missing wages, heavy workloads or crimes against the labor law. The working class is beginning to consider these things as something only the state has the power to set right.

The siloviks [people with background in security services now in high state positions], the police and local administrations are constantly putting pressure on the odd independent unions like the SKT, the RKAS in Moscow (Revolutionary Anarcho-syndicalist Confederation), the union at the Ford factories and the independent locomotive brigades, among others.

What kind of pressure?

They follow a well worked out procedure. They begin with threats of the sack in order to frighten activists in the production lines. Then, if there is no support in labor law for termination, the pressure is expanded beyond the workplace. They show up at the home of the activist, say that his wife risks her job, that they won't allow their kids finish their studies. Furthermore the activist is threatened with being listed as an "extremist" and subsequent conviction.

Do you have any real-life examples?

The latest events surrounding the conflict at the Raspadskaya mine* is a clear-cut example of how this procedure can break the build-up of worker protests - the attempts at organizing an independent union there was considered a crime in the form of "extremist activity". The people most active in the protests there are being sentenced for such crimes right now. These measures hamper the activities of all independent unions. They are simply classified as illegal.

What about the other unions?

A serious problem for us is that the yellow unions have succeeded in corrupting the very meaning of the word "union". They do not see it as part of their job to defend even basic rights guaranteed in law. SKT agitate for creation of real - independent - unions. With the level of exploitation of the Russian worker, there is a huge need for them. 12-14 hour workdays are not uncommon, the workplace accident prevention plans are total wrecks and we face an average wage of 200-300 euro a month.

Unfortunately, the straining workplace climate in itself does not give rise to protests - on the contrary, it generates fear of losing your job and becoming unable to pay back your huge debts. Here, the challenge for us is showing that these harsh conditions can be changed for the better only through united struggle - for example channeled into the creation of syndicalist unions.

What have you been talking about at the meetings with libertarian socialists in Sweden?

Our meetings with the SAC and SUF have revolved much around ourselves, what the situation for SKT has turned out to be these last few years. A short answer to that question is that we've suffered a serious loss of membership. This is largely accounted for by the bankcruptcy of companies where we had many members. We have also explained the workings of the state repression of union activists and different forms of harassment. In addition, we have had a number of political murders in Russia. Generally speaking all leftist activist of today are in the sights of the state machinery and fall victims to its repression.

The youth syndicalists wanted much to know about fascism in our country. We shocked some listeners by describing attacks on paperless non-Russian workers, anti-fascists and the judicial system. Fascists do not seem to present as large a burden to society here in Sweden - the extent of their cruelty is not as widespread. The powers that be is handle things differently too. The Russian state apparatus consider leftists extremists. Fascists are just considered hooligans and fascist criminals face very short jail terms.

So what is your impression of this country, after union meetings in four Swedish cities?

First and foremost, we got a very good impression of Swedish citizens. People are very compassionate, generally nice and cultivated. We were surprised by the total safety in public life. It bears witness that there is an existing civil society in Sweden. You feel it at once. Local syndicalists recieved us and arranged helpful meetings with Swedish activists in all the beautiful cities we visited. We were surprised by the large numbers of young, active and serious supporters of the SAC. We like their methods, the extensive self-organizing and the high ideological consciousness.

[In her hometown of Omsk, Valerija Guz was a part of creating the anarcho-syndicalist youth movement SAM (Movement of Autonomous Youth), which is close to the SKT.]

What does the SAM do and who do you organize?

We organize all youth. Student, workers or unemployed. SAM works in two main directions. Firstly, we organize open seminars, discussions, with the goal of drawing more young people union organising. Secondly, we organize different forms of direct action. These often constitute campaigns against abuse of power from the police, antifascist campaigns and defence of the social rights of people. SAM also initiates independent actions in the education sector and agitate for ideas of self-organizing through student unions.

The Raspadskaya accident

In May this year [2010] two powerful explosions killed 90 workers in the Raspardskaya coal mine. In 1991, it became the first soviet mining company to be reformed into a "co-worker joint stock company". In 1993 the privatization was complete. Today the majority of the shares are owned by the London-oligarch Roman Abramovitj, together with two local oligarchs who call themselves the "founding fathers" of the company.

The local community in the mining city Mezdjuretjensk demanded better security, a rise in wages by 200 per cent and recognition of the independent union at the mining site. After local protests were crushed by riot police a state commission was initiated, with Putin as chairman. The profitable company now has to pay compensations to the relatives of the dead and many of them also get charter trips to Greece paid for by the party United Russia. This while the people who formed the independent union now are going to be prosecuted as extremists.

Linus Valtersson

Translation: Mikael Altemark
Published in SAC weekly Arbetaren Zenit

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