Russia: A miners’ strike in Severouralsk

An example of a very militant strike in Severouralsk, one of a series in the recent period. The miners were determined but the bosses were ruthless. This experience is another indication of growing working class militancy in Russia.

On March 26, 2008, 123 miners at the "Krasnaya Shapochka" (Little Red Riding Hood) mine at the SUBR enterprise, which is part of the RUSAL Company, refused to return to the surface after their shift. In this way the fourth "underground" miners' strike began at the bauxite pit in Severouralsk. Not one of the four trade unions at SUBR took responsibility for organizing it - not the mining metal union (GMPR) that is part of the FNPR, not the Independent Union of Miners of Russia (NPGR), not the union of miners of the Urals (PGU), nor the Independent Union of the mining factory of the Urals (NPGU). The strike began spontaneously. The miners had had it up to their teeth.

SUBR has already been working for one year as part of the United Company (UC RUSAL), founded in March 2007. Rusal accounts for 12% of the world market of aluminium and 15% of bauxite. The main owner of Rusal is Oleg Deripaska, the richest Russian businessman, whose fortune the journal Finance estimates at $40bn. But for the miners working in such a dynamically developing company it's a different story. Since January 2008 in all the enterprises and organizations of the Rusal corporation the financing of social programmes planned for the first half of this year has been cut, and the investment programme frozen. Workers have lost their jobs. "The dollar is falling, and aluminium in the main is exported. The cost of electricity is growing fast and our enterprises are dependent on electricity. So we have to cut back on something so that our bauxite does not cost crazy money, so that it's competitive," explains the head of the press service of SUBR Galina Shevela. And in order to be competitive Rusal knows what to cut back on: it is selling children's holiday camps, refusing to finance sport complexes and holiday facilities and so on. Such is the optimisation of expenses.

One of the parts of this optimisation is the wages of the miners. The tariff rates of mine workers are below the minimum subsistence level. For example in October the tariff of a worker of the first qualification, who works above ground, was 2,282 roubles ($100), and of the fourth qualification 5,993 roubles. At the same time in accordance with the directive of the government of Sverdlovskaya Province from July 25, 2007 the minimum subsistence level was 9,938 roubles.

"The wages at SUBR can in practice be 27,000 roubles," explains V Zolotarev, the leader of the local NPGU trade union. "But only miners down the pits can receive this much, auxiliary workers receive much less. And also the 27,000 include weekend work. And the workers don't actually receive this much because food and travel expenses are deducted. As a result only 19-20,000 roubles remains."

The management of SUBR has one response to all the demands of the workers for higher wages: the low profitability of the Severouralsk mines in comparison with the open mines in Komi (also in Russia) and Guinea. Rusal is presented as a charitable organization, paying out of its own pocket the labour of "unprofitable" miners. So here straight away a question arises: why did the managers of SUBR panic so much when the miners at Krasnaya Shapochka announced their strike? Where did their nervousness come from and their attempt to create an information vacuum around the striking workers, which went to the lengths of confiscating an issue of a local paper? Wouldn't it have been easier under the excuse of the strike just to close the mine? But no, the administration of SUBR starts to put pressure on workers, threatening them with the closure of "the unprofitable mine." Here, by way of example, is an extract from a statement of the press service of the company:

"What can the workers of SUBR and their families hope for if the mines close? 6,000 workers will lose their jobs, their children will not be able to go on holiday in the company holiday camps, 67 women with children up to 3 years old will lose their monthly maternity allowance, the pensioners (3,900 people) will lose their monthly company pension money, as well as the opportunity to travel for free to sanatoriums and other benefits, and the region will lose 1.8bn roubles in taxes which SUBR pays annually."

Something here is not right - either Rusal and its subdivision SUBR are not a capitalist enterprise, not working in order to make a profit but some kind of a non-commercial organization, taking care of women with babies and old people, standing on the verge of the grave, or the Severouralsk mines are not so unprofitable as the company would like us to think.

The miners and their demands

The striking miners at "Krasnaya Shapochka" put forward the following demands:

  1. For the participation of an official representative of UC Rusal in order to start negotiations on implementing the demands put forward by the workers;
  2. An increase of the tariff rates for all professions by 50% with the same conditions for premiums;
  3. To end weekend work;
  4. In drawing up the collective bargaining agreement to elect a delegate from the workforce in order to report back to the workers when they take a decision on the collective agreement at a workers' conference;
  5. In the company SUBR-Stroi (the company's building subdivision, TR) to apply a local coefficient of 1:3;
  6. In article 3.13 of the collective agreement to introduce an amendment: the time of enforced stoppages that take place through no fault of the worker should be paid at the average rate of the workers' income;
  7. To re-commence the financing of the building of the "Cheremukhovskaya Glubokaya" mine;
  8. To include in the commission on safety and investigations into accidents at work the technical inspector A.T. Kalugin from the NPGU union;
  9. Time spent underground going to and from work to be counted as working time, with the pay of a qualified worker;
  10. To end the ban on holding trade union meetings and consultations with the workforce in the break between shifts;
  11. Not to carry out repressive measures on the workers participating in and supporting the strike.

These demands were discussed at general meetings of the workforce of the mine "Krasnaya Shapochka." These demands are serious and reasonable. Increasing the tariff by 50% is an increase from 18,000 (the average wage at SUBR) to 27,000, which is the wage the company claims to be paying, only by over-fulfilling the plan and overtime at weekends. Ending weekend work is fixed in our Labour Code. Renewing the financing of the building of the "Cheremukhovskaya Glubokaya" mine is a demand looking ahead to the future because the mine is the life-blood of the town.

There is a reason why the workers put forward these demands before the existing collective agreement runs out. As a rule, collective agreements in Russian companies represent only a repetition of separate articles from the Labour Code and nothing more. They are developed in the framework of social partnership by the representatives of the biggest trade union (which usually is part of the FNPR) and the employer. This is why the workers do not consider the collective agreement to be a document of any significance. And its implementation is made dependent on the existence of funds, which, as a rule, are not found at the necessary moment. Exceptions you can count on the fingers of one hand - the collective agreement of the Ford workers or the Saint Petersburg dockers, for example.

The demands of the miners at "Krasnaya Shapochka" were supported by the miners at "Kal'inskaya." In answer to this Rusal closed all the mines of Severouralsk, evidently in order that the "strike infection" should not spread. In other words they declared a lock-out. This was intended to be a blunt warning to the workers to learn their lesson. But in paying the workers only 2/3 of their tariff the company broke the law. In not allowing workers to their workplace due to the fault of the employer the company should pay workers 100% of their average wage.

The whole of Severouralsk supported the strike. In the town (of 20,000) meetings with thousands of people took place. Everybody took to the streets: school children, teenagers, those on benefits and pensioners. In the Bogoslovsky and Krasnoyarsk aluminium plants of Rusal work carried on only within the framework of the absolute minimum, which means it was basically stopped.

Significantly, the spontaneous strike of the miners was immediately declared to be a provocative plot of 3 of the 4 unions at SUBR because it wasn't registered according to the laws, and it was carried out at the wrong time, and the demands are extremist. As though it were possible within the framework of Russian legislation to carry out a legal "correct" strike! Nothing of the kind comes to mind except, perhaps, the autumn demonstrations of teachers two years ago in the framework of a bureaucratic action of the FNPR. The only exception was the Independent Union of Miners of Russia (NPGR) and then only in the person of the leader of its Severouralsk organization V. Zolotarev, who not only in words but in deeds supported the strikers, was with them in the mine and later in their hunger-strike. Admittedly, afterwards the trade union bosses changed their tune and stopped sharply criticizing the workers, but that happened only much later and only under the pressure of the rank and file masses.

At first the miners planned to begin negotiations with the employer on their own territory - underground ‑ but Rusal set the condition that in order to hold talks the miners should come to the surface, promising not to carry out "repressive" measures against the strikers.

On April 4 the miners, trusting the promises of the administration of SUBR, came up from the pit-face and began to compose lists of their representatives from each of their mines for the conciliation commission for the talks on the workers' demands. And almost immediately the talks were brought to a standstill: the representatives of SUBR expressed doubt in the legitimacy of the election of the delegates. Instead of the copies of the protocols of the meetings, management demanded the protocols themselves and outright rejected discussing an increase in wages. And this is not surprising. This is the widely publicized position that the management of Rusal came to the negotiations with the workers with:

"The action of a group of workers at the 'Krasnaya Shapochka' mine is illegal. The act of this group resulted in the loss of a significant part of the wages of all the workers of the company. The running of SUBR will be re-established according to a decision by management."

A representative of Rusal, SV Filippov, managing director of the Bratsky aluminium factory, announced the position of the company in negotiations with the workers' representatives:

"The company will not give in to blackmail trying to compel it with any, including illegal, means to violate the conditions of the existing collective agreement at SUBR. If today the company agrees to concessions and increases wages in an economically unjustified way, then in a few years' time that will seem to you to be too little and the mines will rise again. In order to increase wages it is necessary to change your attitude to labour, to reduce costs, to set effective production going and to raise our middle class - of highly qualified miners. And in this case, a highly organized, law-abiding and loyal to the company, member of staff who doesn't violate the production technology, the laws of industrial safety and who doesn't allow others to do this, will be able to earn 50,000 roubles and more. But for this it is necessary to work hard."

At the same time the administration of SUBR took legal action, calling for the strike to be ruled illegal. How does this respect the agreement not to use "repressive measures" against the strikers?

In response to the destructive position of the administration on the 13th of April the miners began a hunger strike, in which at various times from 60 to 217 people took part. The demand of the hunger strikers was stated by V Zolotarev: "We demand to assert at the meeting of the workforce the 16 demands that were put forward earlier by the striking workers, including an increase in wages."

However, the administration of SUBR, the security forces and the local authorities in every way they could, tried to prevent the meeting from being held. They cancelled bus journeys to the mines. Workers who wanted to take part in the meeting were threatened with the sack directly by representatives of the administration, and V Zolotarev himself was arrested on April 15. He was intimidated and told that, for continuing with the hunger strike, the union would be fined a figure up to 200 times the minimum wage.

On April 15 a general meeting of the workers was held which discussed the proposals of Rusal, which agreed to fulfil in one way or another all the demands of those protesting, except for the increase in wages. Regarding wages, the proposal was to increase them by 5% for the May holidays and by a further 10% in the course of the coming year. At the meeting new demands to the employer were also set forward, which were developed by members of the working group of miners, which included:

  • Workers of the transport and interleaving sections to increase their existing tariffs by 100% with the maintenance of their existing system of premiums;
  • Not to allow a fall or stop to the financing of capital workers for all objects and to guarantee mine builders the preservation of their existing jobs;
  • To establish a level of monthly compensation payments for pensioners of not less than 1,000 roubles;
  • To look into the question of changing the system of wages according to time worked, with the preservation of premiums, and to come to a decision on this question by 1.01.2009.

The updated demands were sent to SUBR but the employer refused to look at them without the approval of a meeting of the workforce. At the meeting of April 15 there wasn't a quorum. The next attempt to hold a meeting was on April 19 at 11.00 at the "Kal'inskaya" mine, and this met with success.

On April 16 all the mines of Severouralsk, with the exception of "Krasnaya Shapochka", where the workers were continuing with their hunger strike, went back to work. Soon the hunger strike finished too. People in the town nevertheless were left with nothing to eat as during the strike the price of bread rose 1.5 times. The majority of miners considered that the strike at the present moment has exhausted itself. But, in a common opinion, the strike will kick off again if the promised increase in wages does not materialise in May. And then all the mines of Severouralsk will come out.

Was the recent strike successful? Very likely, yes. It was successful and useful as a test of strength. As one more experience of struggle, which clearly demonstrated the extent to which success depends on unity of action and unity of leadership. Four different unions in one mine - a swan, a lobster and a pike... that's the story when there's no unity among comrades. But are they comrades, the trade union organizations of SUBR? And if they're comrades, then whose? Maybe some of them are just social partners in business?


PS: In the meantime the bankers of Severouralsk are preparing court cases against the strikers. Many of the strikers had credits and due to the events were not able to make their credit repayments. But the bankers are ready to give a discount to those workers who immediately after the end of the lock-out called by the bosses went back to work. But towards those who carried on the struggle the bankers are ruthless. So, the bourgeois have class solidarity, but do we?


[Translation by Tom Rollings; Source: 28.04.08]

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