Russia: An interview with striking train drivers, summing up their experience

We provide an interesting interview with Moscow train drivers who were recently on strike, that reveals the terrible conditions imposed on the workers but also the militant mood of the organizers.

On Tuesday, April 29, at 00:00 the strike of the Moscow train drivers came to an end. Just under 400 drivers took part in it: two shifts, roughly of 130 in each, together with separate locomotive brigades on other lines. The main strikes took place at the Zheleznodorozhnoye depot (on the Gor'kov line) and the Pushkinskoe depot (on the Yaroslav' line). The strike was also partially supported by the Domodedovo depot (on the Paveletsky line) and the Il'ich depot (on the Belarus line). Notably, not only members of RPLBZ (Russian Trade union of Locomotive Brigades of Train drivers) took part - almost half of the strikers aren't members of the union, including some members of the FNPR confederation's union. But the management of railways didn't agree to any concessions and refused even to negotiate. This is why it is not ruled out that we will see a continuation of the strike.

In the last hours of the strike, as they did for the whole day, striking workers from the Zheleznodorozhnoye depot stood outside Kurskii train station in Moscow, surrounded by riot police. In the morning there was even a scuffle with the riot police but then the situation stabilized a little. There we were able to get to hear about the strike from the strikers themselves:

"In 2002 we organized a strike at our depot "Zheleznodorozhnoye." Then it was just our depot. We were able to increase our pay by 5,000 roubles, and that was all. Since then our wages haven't changed. To be more precise they were indexed with about 1.6% increases every year. For 6 years we gave them a head start. All that time we called for negotiations with management but without success. At that time our wages in reality were halved (in terms of purchasing power). I can't pay my council rates from such a wage.

"We were losing out all that time and we decided to strike. Do you know that we wanted to go on strike on November 27? We made a mistake. When we went to court and the case went to the Supreme Court, we were told: lads, your strike cannot be declared illegal since you haven't yet gone on strike. You have the full right to strike. But we took pity on Putin, Medvedev, on all of that ... So this time we decided to strike and to do it suddenly. So what happened - we told everyone, those who don't want to go on strike can take a certificate of ill health. On the night of Sunday to Monday morning so many drivers suddenly were taken ill that the supervisor on duty had to call the head of the Dolgachev depot and bring in instructors to replace us. If it weren't for that then today a minimum of 300,000 people would not have made it into work in Moscow. All the same all the lines (with trains from the Zheleznodorozhnoye line) were disrupted, except for one siding where a train run by strikebreakers went out. That train went at an interval of one every hour when usually one goes every seven minutes. In this way the strike reduced the capacity of the system of the Gorkov line by 10 times; on the Yaroslav line by even more. There management wasn't able to respond so quickly and organize replacements for the strikers.

"We began the strike at 4am at Zheleznodorozhoye. We just didn't leave the depot. Immediately there were tensions with the police, with the magistrate: your strike is "illegal." Now in the depot people with important stripes are having a go at us..."

RD: Why didn't other branches of the union support the strike?

"Because they were gobbled up! There are branches but a tremendous pressure is applied on people. But they came out: in Pushkin, some of the men at Domodedovo, at Il'ich. In Pushkin at first they said that they were afraid to strike. We basically initially wanted to come out on strike by ourselves just to show once again: we are capable of doing this. We, the Zheleznodorozhnoye depot, are the only ones who achieved anything, our premiums now only represent 5%, maximum 10%, of our salary, while in other depots premiums can be up to 50%, or complete tyranny, it can be even up to 100%. But in 2002 we were able to make sure that they didn't touch us."

RD: What about the situation when on the Yaroslav' line because of the lack of a conductor in the last carriage, when the driver couldn't prevent in time a dangerous situation because he couldn't see that back of the train, and a passenger was caught by the closing doors. A person died and the driver who was blameless was taken to court. Do your drivers face such problems?

"Yes. One of the demands of the strike was to bring back conductors for the last carriage for safety reasons. In the past we used to have conductors in the last carriages. They cleaned windows in the cabin of the locomotive, at stations they looked out for the safety of passengers getting on and off the train, and they gave the driver the signal to start the train. But then in order to economise management cut back on this position. If we now had conductors the windows would be clean and not broken, and there would be far fewer accidents. You see, if the tracks on the platform are curved, and the trains have 12 carriages, the driver just cannot physically see what is going on at the tail of the train.

"We also had demands on pay. And we also demand a healthy attitude towards workers from management. But they don't want to speak with us. In 2002 they said: "we'll put a monkey in your place and it will drive the train." Then they called us cattle, and in 2005 they called us slaves."

RD: And during the strike in your place are there qualified people?

"Maybe they are qualified but they aren't used to the line, they don't know the profile of the tracks of the line. Usually, when you bring over a new driver to the line, he should have a 2-week probation period as an observer at the driver's shoulder, and then he should sit an exam. Only after that, when he has already studied the profile of the line can he drive himself. If this doesn't happen the chances of a crash or an accident are high. The management of the railways in replacing us with inexperienced people have consciously multiplied the risk on rail journeys. These strikebreakers, simply from not knowing the profile of the tracks, could catch people in the doors on curved stations and so on. But nothing would happen to them in such an event. But if the same thing happened to us we'd be taken to court. A sensible person would refuse to work, would say, I don't know the profile of the tracks and wouldn't go. But these people..."

RD: Did you have problems with being pressured by the authorities or management?

"Yes. We have lads at work who are from Orel and Kursk. They live in the hostel. At first many of them joined the union. But the management of the railways evicted them from the hostel because of their membership of the union. Many left the union - they had to survive. Some say that they will re-join when they find accommodation in Moscow. Morally they are with us and support our actions. Another driver and member of the RPLBZ studied at evening courses. When management found out they promised to organize "merry examinations" for him.

RD: How does the official FNPR union view the strike?

"Their trade union bosses phoned us and swore at us very rudely...

[At this point another striker joined the discussion]

"You know that the governing body of the Russian Railways Company stated that the pay of a driver of the highest category should be 112,000 roubles, and his assistant 60,000. But our drivers are paid 4 times less (between 25-30,000 roubles), and assistants 3 times less (about 20,000). That's how they thieve money."

RD: And who among you gets 50,000?

"We have 7 such drivers. Not all of them deserve it. Not all of them are excellent specialists. They were chosen at random, just for the sake of form ‑ and also to divide the collective. Those 7 aren't supporting the strike.

RD: And what is going to happen now?

"Today at we are out until 00:00, then we will stop the strike. And then... If management doesn't respond to our demands it is not ruled out that there could be a further strike."

RD: With the same depots or will other depots join you?

That's not ruled out.

[Translation by Tom Rollings; Source of original Russian text:]

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