Russian Ford workers – a beacon to the working class as a whole

Last year's strike at the Russian Ford plant marked an important turning point for the Russian labour movement. The Russian economy is growing and this has strengthened sections of the working class. With this growing strength comes a militant mood. At some point this will lead to a wider movement of the Russian working class and with it will come important political repercussions.

The recent strike of the Russian Ford workers marks an important development in the Russian labour movement. It indicates that we are entering a new period in labour relations in this country. The Ford workers in Russia have built up a model trade union organisation, which is attracting the interest of workers across Russia and internationally.

The factory meeting voting for, and beginning, the strike.
The factory meeting voting for, and beginning, the strike.

The recent strike that lasted nearly four weeks in November and December last year was the longest and hardest fought strike the Ford workers have waged so far. The reaction of management was to dig in and use the heavy hand of the state apparatus. They brought in the police and riot police against the workers, who put up stiff resistance, showing tremendous initiative, sacrifice and a flexibility to try out new tactics.

Although the strike ended inconclusively, the threat of further strikes forced management to compromise, awarding a 21% pay rise to new workers, and 16% to more experienced workers, as well as other concessions on pensions and working hours.

The success of the workers at Ford is significant because it comes after a very long difficult period for the Russian working class. Following the collapse of the USSR and the restoration of capitalism the working class was thrown backwards. This defeat was made worse by the lack of organisation, which added to the demoralisation of the workers.

All this explains the lack of a fightback on the part of the workers for such a long time under Putin. However, what we saw during the Ford strike reveals that there is tremendous combustible material that accumulated deep inside the Russian working class. This is preparing a new movement that will inevitably come to the surface in the future. The union at Ford's is an early example of this revival in the labour movement that is inspiring wide layers of the working class.

There are a number of reasons why workers at Ford form the vanguard of the labour movement in Russia at the moment. As a new factory it has not inherited a trade union bureaucracy tied to management. There is therefore less inertia holding the workers back. At the same time, given the lack of a living tradition in Russia, Ford workers in the west are a point of reference for Ford workers in Russia. The union spreads information about strike and legal victories when workers have taken the company to court and won, as was the case with Roland Leo Grenier who received $2m in compensation for asbestos related health problems.

This demonstrates that workers in the west have the same problems and the same need to fight together with their Russian brothers and sisters. And in a period when the union at Ford was isolated in Russia, the link with workers in the west strengthened their conviction that their demands and methods were right.

The fact that the Ford Focus model assembled at the factory is the most popular foreign car in Russia, with 97,000 sold last year, is also an important factor. The hefty profits the bosses are making are no secret and the workers know their demands for a greater share of the profits are justified. With the arrival of other automakers in the area, such as Toyota, whose new factory was opened by Putin last month, workers are less scared of losing their jobs since unemployment in Vsevolzhsk is almost non-existent. The high productivity, by Russian standards, also means that management is reluctant to sack them as they would have to train up new workers from scratch. This means the brigades at the Ford factory of only 2,000 workers know that they have the power to stop the conveyor.

The early successes of the union

However, these potentially more favourable conditions only became concretised because of the initiative of the workers themselves. A layer of self-sacrificing workers, led by leader Alexey Etmanov, dedicated themselves to the task of building the union, and in the process strengthened and organised this elemental potential to fight back.

To begin with the workers joined the Federation of Independent Trade Unions in Russia (FNPR), the continuation of the old Soviet trade union apparatus, which organised social insurance, healthcare and holidays for workers rather than militant leadership. Through this organisation Etmanov visited Ford workers in Brazil where he learnt how fellow Ford union organisers run their union there.

On his return from Brazil Etmanov waged an energetic recruitment campaign, and left the FNPR, which offered no support. The union based itself only on its own resources, which prepared the way in late 2005 for a series of work-to-rule strikes, which in Russian are called "Italian strikes", as well as a series of one-hour warning strikes. Powerless, management caved in and raised wages by 14% and upwards.

A new stage in the factory's history was marked in February 2007 when the workers struck for a collective agreement and further wage increases. This was the first time the workers had stopped the conveyor. They also blocked the welding equipment with chains and took complete control of the factory floor. For workers, who up until a few years ago had no experience of independent action by militant trade unions, the ease with which they could take over the factory and stop the conveyor underlined just how quick to learn and powerful ordinary workers are when they are organised. Over 70 workers joined the union at the time showing that workers support the union, especially when it demonstrates that it is defending their interests.

While the February strike was seen as a victory because for the first time the company had been forced to sign a collective agreement wages did not rise significantly in real terms, given that official inflation is actually 12%. And for workers, as for all lower income families who spend a higher proportion of their income on food, transport and utility bills, the real figure is much higher. In the recent strike the workers demanded a 30% rise but management offered only 11%. In itself this concession might sound a lot to workers in the west but it is below the official rate of inflation in Russia. Such an offer would represent a significant fall in real wages at a time when profits are at record highs.

By fighting for higher wages in Russia, Ford workers are de facto defending the interests of their brother workers in other countries. It exposes the lies of management in the west who blame the workers and the concessions they have won in the past for factory closures. The problem is not high wages in the west but the rottenness of capitalism - and the lack of a militant defence of jobs by the trade union leaders. This is an important message for union activists in the west, and was taken up by a young American worker in an article on

Instead of being divided by Ford expanding its operations to Russia, the unity of the international labour movement has been strengthened. Indeed, the strike in Russia was followed in January by a strike at the Ford factory in Genk in Belgium and at a local factory that supplies it. Workers were demanding one euro an hour wage increase. There is the possibility that Ford workers in Europe could go on strike simultaneously in the future as a result of the tremendous discontent that has accumulated in the workplace in all Ford plants.

The course of the latest strike

Following the February strike the union issued dozens of leaflets canvassing support for a strike, feeling out the mood of workers for more industrial action and compiling a list of grievances against management. The demands of the workers were voted on at workers' conferences, which were also open to non-union members. A series of such conferences were held, meaning that the union could call a number of separate strikes with separate demands. If management went to the courts and received an injunction to force the workers to stop one strike, the union could immediately call a new strike. In the event the only strike that was blocked in this way was the first warning strike on November 7. The union appealed against this injunction, which meant it could continue the strike until it received a verdict and finish the one-day warning strike as planned.

Etmanov during a picket.
Etmanov during a picket.

As management did not back down over pay the workers then went for an all-out strike, starting on November 20th. The strike began on the second shift. Management reduced the number of passes to enter the factory in a futile attempt to stop workers from controlling the factory floor but some trade unionists entered the factory with their normal passes anyway. As soon as they went on strike the initiative was in the hands of the workers and management was elbowed aside. When the workers on strike from the second shift left the factory a mass public meeting was held. Workers on strike from both shifts blocked the entrance to administrative staff, as they did for 15 minutes every morning, and then let them in because it didn't make any difference to the factory floor. However, the hesitant manner of the administrative staff when they crossed the picket line on the first day showed that they were not opposed to the strike. Ford security were left clueless. Management was floundering, unable to gather enough strike-breakers to get the factory working until the following week. But overnight, just to make sure the union controlled what would happen on the second day, groups of workers entered the factory through holes in the perimeter fence. Some of them remained inside to keep an eye on what was going on during the first week, with the support of women from the canteen who gave them food.

News of the strike, the first all-out strike in the union's history, spread like wildfire. Messages of solidarity poured in from around Russia and even from as far as Latin America. Workers in Germany took solidarity action to stop the company from importing extra consignments to cover demand. When the police announced that they were going to take in workers for illegal picketing, the workers, holding up banners declaring "A strike is not extremism" and "It's our right", answered firmly that they were striking, not picketing, and the police left them alone. The mood of the workers was one of confidence, both in their own strength and in the perspective of the company backing down.

Management's response

However, this time management did not back down. To avoid paying two thirds of their wages to workers who had declared that they were not taking part in the strike, as they are supposed to by law, management announced on Friday, November 23rd that it was closing down production over the weekend. The union responded by calling off their strike and starting a new strike in which only 300 workers officially took part. This is because the union calculated that it needed only 300 of the workers to withdraw their labour to stop the production line from working. Thus, 500 workers officially stopped strike action, ready to go back on strike in the event of management ordering them to work and cross the picket line.

Union leader Etmanov called these workers Trojans since they were bussed back into the factory where they duly announced that they were going back on strike. Judging by comments of Ford activists on the Internet this was an effective approach to spoil management's plans to bring workers in to start production. It was the first time the Ford workers had used this tactic of receiving pay during a strike and was a key factor in explaining why the union's strike fund, and the strike itself, lasted so long.

Only on Wednesday, November 28th was management able to put together a shift made up of scabs, office staff and workers either without a contract or on probation who couldn't strike. With the use of strikebreakers, who were escorted into the factory by police, the strike became more bitter and hard-fought. A police vehicle ran over a worker, who was taken to hospital, while word got round that the police were preparing to crack down on protesting workers and use plain-clothed officers to provoke a conflict. Rank and file police officers, who were sympathetic to the workers, confirmed these rumours, and the union took the decision not to organise public action on those days. However, solidarity pickets were held in cities around Russia. In Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) they were organised outside Ford dealers by the Committee for Solidarity Actions. Here Ford workers had a glimpse of the authority they have built up in the rest of society. The strike coincided with parliamentary elections, and although the main Communist Party, the CPRF, did not mobilise support nationally for the workers, the party leadership backed the strike in a series of resolutions. Following the strike Etmanov published a letter on the union's website thanking organisations for their solidarity and financial support. It was an impressive list, including the CPRF and RPRK (a smaller CP), and unions from Russia and abroad. The International Marxist Tendency, which participated in the campaign, was also mentioned.

The final stages of the strike

The strike remained solid and the mood of the workers was still confident. But management decided they had to dig in, despite the massive losses they were making. Instead of coming to a compromise, management desperately tried to get the assembly line going, with a second shift starting up towards the end of the strike. The composition of these shifts in itself demonstrates that they had very little value in terms of actually assembling cars. Office workers and newly hired workers were used who didn't know what they were supposed to be doing. There was only a small minority of out-and-out scabs, who had to do the work of what normally would require 2-3 workers. Unfortunately, from having a defeatist, cynical attitude towards the union they ended up actively backing management. 

Gennady Ziuganov
During the February strike last year, with CPRF leader Gennady Ziuganov speaking into the microphone next to Etmanov.

Getting the assembly line moving was just a propaganda gimmick that allowed management to say that they had everything under control and that the workers didn't have the power over the factory that they were claiming. But the start of the second shift actually saw an overall fall in output. However, the start of the second shift did weaken the union's position financially as it forced supporters of the strike to go back on strike officially, thus losing money. In spite of this, the management's position was still weak. After three weeks they could not find more than 500 workers to collaborate. The union's position by contrast was strong. Some of the strikebreakers even approached the union committee to complain about management paying workers different wages for the same work, according to which shift they usually worked.

It is significant that even towards the end of the strike, when it was obvious that the strike fund was nearly exhausted, and the workers would have to go back to work, the boldness and solid ranks of the union remained firm. In an interview, "The strike at Ford's: how it was" (in Russian), a union member explained how the workers openly walked into the factory and calmly talked with workers inside during the fourth week of the strike, when two shifts were running. The aim was to see what was happening inside and how the police and security would react to them. Once most of the police left one morning a group of workers, proudly wearing their red union caps, came up to security and explained that they needed to sort out some paperwork that management was messing about with. Unexpectedly, their passes gave them access. There was panic among the security guards. 30-40 workers entered unimpeded. Management was in shock. They just didn't know what was happening. Theo Streit, the plant's director, bumped into them by chance and stopped, gob-smacked. This shows the cowardice and fear of management before the workers. The bosses have to hide behind bourgeois laws and the courts, who fight their battles for them - like bullies who have to go running to the teacher when the bullied kids gang up together. When the police arrived to arrest the workers, who had by then left the factory, they refused to get involved and blamed everything on management.

A new stage in the union's development

In response to the much greater resistance that management had thrown up the workers discussed two options. One was to develop the strike intensively, relying only on their own forces in the factory. Concretely this would have meant occupying the factory. But the majority of workers felt that, in the given conditions, such a move would have been counter-productive. The workers could have taken the factory over but then they would have been isolated. They therefore chose the second option, which was to call an orderly retreat in order to spread the movement in preparation for future battles. After nearly four weeks the union's strike fund was exhausted and in a secret ballot on Friday, December 14 the workers voted to go back to work the following week, after a total of 25 days in dispute.

At the end of the strike management promised not to victimise activists. But in desperation the factory's director has moved to sack Etmanov. As an elected union official this can only happen with the agreement of the union confederation and Etmanov, who founded a new union confederation for workers in the auto sector, has blocked this. So the company threatened to take the matter to court. Ironically, in the letter Etmanov received which is published on the union's website, the grounds for "bringing disciplinary penalties in the form of dismissal" of A. Etmanov (and his deputy V Lesikov) are "statements in the press about the low quality of cars produced at the factory" during the strike. In doing this, according to the company, Etmanov had broken his contract in which he agreed not to undermine the reputation of the company. Thus, we see how under capitalism the workers are repressed for telling the truth, and the managers are rewarded with juicy wage rises for lying and misleading the public.

For management promises are made to be broken and agreements are just bits of paper to renege on at the first opportunity. On the other hand, to workers the content of any agreement, its implementation, lies in the strength and organisation of the union. Management backed down and ultimately agreed to wage rises and starting a company pension scheme because of the threat of further strike action. Management clearly took the view that the continuation of the strike would have strengthened the union still more. A high profile court case against trade unionists would have helped the union rather than breaking it. A campaign of solidarity in defence of Etmanov and his comrades would have been a catalyst to rally workers currently not active in the trade union movement. The boldness of the union in the Ford plant has become an example to other workers, who are sacked or victimised at work. Such company methods do not work when the workers are organised. There was no point in sacking Etmanov if other trade unionists were going to replace him anyway.

To stop the workers from taking further strike action, the company finally backed down and agreed to increase wages by 21% for new workers and 16% for workers who have already been with the company a few years on higher rates of pay. The company also agreed to pay employer contributions to the workers' pensions fund, reduce night-shifts, provide lunch for free and other concessions.

All this only goes to show that the company could have made these concessions months ago. The average wage is now over $1,000 a month. Far from the workers' demands being unreasonable, these demands are now presented by the company as being in the wider long-term interests of the company, as if the workers had never gone on strike and management was acting of its own free will. It is a confirmation of the need for workers to get organised and act collectively to defend their interests.

Bourgeois analysts estimate the company lost up to $100m during the strike, though this might actually understate the real figure. In a period when the market for foreign cars was going up by 61%, and Ford managers were expecting to increase their revenue from $2bn to $3bn, the number of Ford Focus cars sold fell by over 20,000. While the company cannot afford a strong union, it also cannot afford to lose millions during strikes. The workers know this and this is a source of strength and unity for the future.

The tremendous potential of the working class in Russia

The Ford strike shows that the tremendous potential for workers to organise when there is a leadership that workers have confidence in. The power of the capitalists depends on the lack of organisation of the working class. This atomization explains why the Ford workers, dockworkers, postal workers and other unions around Saint Petersburg, have gone on strike independently of the FNPR. But the point is this: if these workers can launch effective strikes without a strong union confederation backing them, imagine what would be possible if they did have a strong union confederation backing them!

This is the task that organised trade unionists have set themselves. Etmanov and the union leaders have already set up an autoworkers' union. In new factories and companies owned by western multinationals, where the FNPR is not able to reproduce its structure, the growth of new union confederations in the immediate future is set to continue.

However, most workers work in old industries. For the strike movement around Saint Petersburg to become generalised it must spread to these former Soviet enterprises. When the workers become active in these enterprises they won't have time to set up an alternative union but will simply take over the one that already exists. Instead of providing an alternative structure to workers in the FNPR, the Ford workers will provide an example for them to become organised in their own union. If it was just one or two local unions who became active, as has happened in the past, as with groups of oil workers in Siberia, the FNPR leadership can expel them easily. But the perspective is not for a steady drip of union activism, but of a sudden, explosive growth. The union leadership will not be able to maintain its control in the face of an upsurge of workers on a large scale, and will eventually be booted out.

The new strike movement has found its first outlet outside the FNPR, the main trade union confederation, due to its rotten, bureaucratic leadership. But this leadership cannot stop the inevitable. It can only delay it. Sooner or later this anger will erupt inside the FNPR itself. What was old - because the FNPR ranks were passive ‑ is precisely what will become new, with an upsurge in the FNPR developing at a certain stage. This is most likely to emerge sooner rather than later. What may contribute to prolonging this process is the weakness of the leadership and organisation of the workers. But an unexpected event could act as a catalyst to propel this process forward. The longer the movement is held back, the more explosive it will be when it does come.

Workers are practical people, and they like to have a concrete plan for what they're doing and to put it into practice. This is why the workers have so far mainly focused on what they can do themselves in their own workplaces. But as the movement grows the focus shifts from isolated workplaces to the working class as a whole. Instead of looking at the trade union movement in the light of the Ford strike, it is now becoming necessary to look at the Ford struggle in the context of the wider growth of the trade union movement.

This is what further successes at Ford depend on. But the entry of millions of workers into the FNPR will not in itself solve all the workers' problems. Spontaneity is not the solution to the FNPR bureaucracy. The entry of millions of workers from the FNPR into the class struggle must be prepared for in advance if we are to get the maximum gains out of it. We must orientate ourselves with this perspective now so that in the future, when events will change fast, we don't get caught unprepared.

The need for a programme and a party

Of course the reawakening of strike movement is still in its early beginnings. We must not exaggerate things. A sense of proportion is needed here precisely to understand how significant the growth in the movement in the future will be. The temporary circumstances that shaped the movement in its early stage will recede into the background as the mass of the working class enters the struggle. The common experience and interests of the workers will come to the surface. The political character of the labour movement will stamp its mark on Russian society. In the face of such a movement, the companies and the state will try to use the law-courts to defend their interests, as they tried to do at Ford. The parties in the Duma will also be affected by the class contradictions in society. In particular this applies to the CPRF, which despite resistance from its right wing will move closer to the trade union movement, in line with pressure from the rank and file who support workers in struggle.

Many workers are rightly suspicious of the CP leaders, who are more interested in their own careers than in the struggle of the workers. But now the party is developing in the same conditions of growing class struggle and organisation as the unions. In fact, the abstract slogans of the party leadership in the past and the dominance of nostalgia towards the USSR were linked to the passivity of the working class (both as cause and effect). Instead of basing itself on the class struggle and looking forwards, the party looked backwards. The lack of leadership of the CPRF was a factor in the long delay of the movement. But, in a process that will also affect the FNPR, now that the movement has begun independently of the party, the party itself is becoming infected with a desire to emulate the struggle of the workers. This explains why Ford workers have a lot of authority. They are probably more popular than many CP leaders. In this situation, the Ford workers could and should enter the CP and use it as a tool to further their own struggle. They could establish a trade union faction in the party and use it as a platform to reach workers in the FNPR. The workers must be united - if they are in different unions they should unite in the same party. And just as the majority of workers will move through the existing trade union organisation, in spite of its rotten leadership, so will the workers move through the CPRF at a certain stage. And if we organise now we can consciously build a genuine Bolshevik tendency in the party on this basis. This should be our task in preparation for a new October in the future.

The activity of the vanguard reflects the desire of all workers to get more from the high rates of growth than the crumbs Putin has been giving out so far. But this struggle will not satisfy the appetite of workers for improved conditions. Even when the elite is full of talk about reforms everyone can see how reluctant they are to deliver on them and increase wages. And when there are wage rises, as at Ford's, appetite will come with eating. At the same time, Russian industry is being outcompeted by imports and there is the threat of mass lay-offs even in a period of high growth. Instead of cementing a new period of reforms, as the west saw after 1945, Russia will enter into the period of ferment and sharpened class struggle that the rest of the world has already entered into. But the workers will be more confident and better organised for these future battles as a result of the re-alignment in the trade unions and the CP that is taking place now.

The struggle for reforms today is therefore preparing the way for the working class to enter the arena. Once the working class of Russia regains its confidence and moves in a decisive manner, they will return to their own glorious revolutionary traditions. They will want to nationalise industry and manage the economy under workers' control for the benefit of society as a whole and not a handful of super-rich tycoons.

TV news report: 'Give us same pay as Western workers'

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