Russian workers begin to organize fight back against capitalism

We have received a very interesting interview with A. Etmanov, the leader of the trade union of Ford (Saint Petersburg). This reveals many things, not just about the Ford strike but about the state of the Russian workers' movement, the struggle of the trade unions and their attitude towards capitalism and the political parties.

The conflict between the workers of the "Ford -Vsevolojsk" plant with management has ended. This included strikes, mass meetings and pickets, the blocking of entrances against strikebreakers, threats of prosecution and so forth. The following interview with the leader of Ford trade union Aleksey Etmanov has been sent to us by the comrades in Saint Petersburg.

The management of the Ford -Vsevolojsk plant only partially satisfied the demands of the trade union. Why did the strike cease?

Aleksey EtmanovEtmanov: Yes, we were demanding an increase in wages of 30 percent. But we originally overstated our requirements. Therefore the increase of 16 - 21% (depending on the categories of worker), which we managed to attain thanks to the strike, was, under the circumstances, what we wanted. Naturally, if we had originally put forward that demand, then we would have got less.

Although everyone, especially the bosses, look more at the percentages, in absolute values the increase in wages appears as follows: if earlier people obtained from 15 to 26 thousand rubles maximum, then now the minimum wage is equal to 19 thousand and 26 thousand. This is now not the maximum wage, but the average wage. I.e., a worker on the average gets 24-25 thousand rubles.

By the way, in Ford Vsevolozhske we now have the highest wage in Russia for this branch of industry. If it had not been for our strikes, then this would not be the case.

But on from the part of plant management were there any repressive actions against the activists of the trade union?

Etmanov: They were. Twenty people were disciplined for the fact that they voted for continuing the strike. But we will protest all these actions, if necessary, through the law courts.

The Ford management previously attempted to create a "pocket" trade union - the council of workers -. What was its fate, and have there been any new attempts by the employers to create trade union "from the top"?

Etmanov: But the workers themselves at the first meeting dissolved the council of workers. As for the attempts to create a new "pocket" trade union - let them try it! It will be voted down in the entire plant. That is all there is to it.

What will be your next fight?

Etmanov: Now we are preparing to work on the mechanism of wage increases and its inclusion in collective agreements. So that it will not be necessary for each future increase to be prized out from the administration with an iron bar.

Many your critics frequently say that strikes, wage demands will mean only that that western investors will simply stop building plants in Russia, and you will all become unemployed again...

Etmanov: That is all nonsense. Our plant has already been shut down four times. But, as you see, everything works, and our demands were nevertheless granted.. Anywhere these western companies will not leave Russia. The market for automobiles is doubling every year. Certainly, the cost of labour is an essential factor for investment, but it is not always the determining factor. There are other factors in the market, like the price of energy, which not are no less important. They will not be going anywhere. In fact, they will build even more plant...

How do you relate to the "official" trade unions: to the federation of the independent trade unions and, in particular, to the federation of the trade unions of Saint Petersburg and Leningrad region? In your opinion can they do anything for the workers?

Etmanov: The trade union of the workers of the Ford -Vsevolojsk plant was originally a member organization of the regional trade union of machine builders, and part of the federation of the trade unions of the city and region. But then our parted, because the trade union of machine builders works badly, it does very little for the protection of its members. Also we did not like the fact that even the managing director of the company can be a member of the trade union according to the rules of the FNPR. But we do not need the membership dues of the managing director. What we need are normal trade unionists and workers activists, but not employers.

But I want to say that also in FNPR there are militant trade unions, which have got real results. If this whole enormous machine was run properly, then it would be possible to win very big results. At one time we also collaborated with "sotsprofom" in Khramov. In the media the information even appeared, that Khramov had direct links to the Ford strike. So here is the truth: Khramov neither had, nor will ever have any link to any strikes.

What prospects, in your view, does today's trade-union movement in Russia have?

Etmanov: The creation of trade unions will increase. Even now there is simply a wave of new trade unions appearing. Today in our trade union there are approximately 1000 people, this is half of the workers of plant. In Taganrog the works manager hides in order not to obtain information about the creation of the trade union. Certainly, the pressure everywhere is being stepped up, and repression from the side of employers is increasing, they are sacking activists. Nowhere do the employers want to live according to the law (including Russia) but we are fighting back. In Toyota in the Petersburg area the manager, who, by the way, went there from "Ford", is himself putting the workers in such conditions that we are confident, that very soon there will a trade union there too.

We are actively participating in the setting up of new trade unions in other factories of our industry, and we are developing inter-district unions of the Russian automobile industry, which, according to our plans, will be linked up as members of an organization covering all the car factories of the country, and we think we can do this towards the middle of next year. The Ford trade unionists are the most experienced elements in this association, and without us, probably the association would not have appeared. But all over the world the car workers trade unions are the strongest. The joint-combine committee draws nearer...

It is clear that the strength of the union is not only in the individual enterprise but is also in all the surrounding workplaces. Therefore we want to be combined with other trade unions, both with the Russian and in other countries. In particular, we closely collaborate with the international association of metalworkers. Now our interests can also be represented abroad. For example, when we struck, our American friends came to examine the headquarters of company "Ford" in Detroit...

In the beginning of the ХХ century was there created the trade union "Industrial Workers of the World". As a result this organization entered into the history books. But not only because of the active defence of workers rights, but also because of its politicization: its sympathies with the anarchists and the Bolsheviks at the same time, its support for the October Revolution. In your opinion in Russia, will our trade unions in the near future present any effective political force and, if so, what will its colouration be?

Etmanov: I am confident, that we, trade unionists, will move towards politics. Sooner or later, the very logic of life will force us to do this. In the entire world the trade unions one way or another are connected with political parties, in some countries more, in some less, as is natural... Yes, even now we are not isolated from politics. We have been helped by The Communist Party of the Russian Federation and personally by Gennadi Zyuganov. They wrote protests against the repression in connection with our activists, and asked questions in parliament about the Prosecutor's Office. I personally am non-party, but at the forthcoming presidential elections I will vote for Gennadi Andreevich Zyuganov, and this I do not hide. The RKRP (Russian Communist Workers' Party) also rendered assistance. Moreover without asking anything in return. We are joining the Committee of Solidarity Actions, where many left-wing organizations are present.

But it is possible to comment the negative statements of the leader of the St. Petersburg city committee of The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the deputy of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly, Vladimir Fedorov, apropos of the last strike in Ford?

Etmanov: Vladimir Fedorov, in my view, should pay more attention to the programmatic statements of the KPRF and to the central leadership of the Party, as well as what Zyuganov says. By the way, as far as politicians are concerned, they were also attempts from the side of "United Russia" to collaborate with us. Naturally nothing good came out of this. Ivanova, the Duma Deputy from United Russia came to see us especially, when we went on strike. She came swanking with her deputy and Party cronies, saying that now she would settle everything, stepped into the bosses' office --- and then it went no further... Apparently, in this way the Party in power attempted to regulate the conflict without kicking up too much fuss in order to keep our trade union isolated at the level of one enterprise. But this did not come about, not only because the plant management is concerned about its interests, and not about the interests of "United Russia", but also because we originally planned to carry matters to the interregional level.

As the representative of workers, what do you think about the problem of illegal immigration and "guest workers"? Indeed many people are now saying that the visitors from the countries of neighbouring states first of all hit the pockets of local workers, bringing down the price of labour-power, increasing competition between workers. But if they are sent back to the native land, then wages will become considerably higher.

Etmanov: The "guest workers" is just a slave trade, --- all this is only profitable to the employers. Here what is needed is to organize worker- migrants, since, beating up guest workers will not solve anything. It is necessary to organize them so that they will obtain normal wages. Then the employers' interest in bringing in a mass of imported labour immediately falls by the wayside, and no-one will drag down anybody's wages. But in the present situation that has been created in the country, of course, it is more advantageous to the owners to hire a Tadzhik, ready to work for 200 dollars, because in his native land he will not get more than 100. (That is why there are university professors from these countries working on our building sites.) In this case the employer is interested in making all workers quarrel, dividing them up and setting Tadzhiks, Russians and Ukrainians against each other, not allowing them to be organized so that they would fight with each other, and not with the boss. On this question we are not nationalists, we stand for the organization of all workers.

In the Marxist doctrine the working class is assigned the main role in the reconstruction of contemporary society. But is the present-day Russian working class ready to assume the role of the grave-digger of capital? And should the trade-union movement share this idea?

Etmanov: It was precisely Marx who discovered the laws governing the relations between the workers and the employers under capitalism. Yes, this is Marxism, and I see nothing bad in this. And it is completely natural that the left wing and Communist Parties are our closest allies among the political organizations. But as far as revolutionary character, the Bolshevism of present-day Russian workers are concerned, here I can give you an example: in our trade-union organization: we have people who voted for "United Russia", and also supporters of the CPRF. There are those who are inclined to be more radical, Bolsheviks so to speak, Now the polarization in society is too great, and from those structures, which stand above us, they oppress us, and attempt to crush us. Therefore, for us today the main thing is to stick together.

But how do you relate to the policy of turning the screw, the limitation of political freedoms, that is being carried by the Kremlin? Must the trade unions somehow participate in the opposition to this? For example, should they support the "marches of disagreement"?

Etmanov: The trade union of "Ford" frequently participates in different political actions, like mass meetings, including actions in support of political freedoms. In the "marches of disagreement" I myself participated personally, as a private individual, even in the first marches, the most interesting, merriest and lively ones. But in this movement there are some things, which cannot be imposed on us... Just as with the "Russian marches", to which we are not very close --- I repeat once more: we are not nationalists. It is possible that in the next "Marsh of disagreement" we will be present, but we shall go there in separate columns with our own slogans and demands.

Are there any other things you are planning to do soon?

Etmanov: Yes, we plan to organize a trade-union association ("korporativ"), dedicated to the successful ending of the strike.

Will it only be open to those, who went out on strike?

Etmanov: No, not only those who struck. We will invite all members of the trade union to join. For it is necessary to get organized, to strengthen the association.

But why precisely on 1 March? Is it some anniversary?

Etmanov: It is simply because it's a Saturday...

Interview conducted by Besedoval Yevgenii Utkin

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