[Marxism] Russian Workers Take Aim at Putin as Economy Exacts Its Toll

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 21 11:08:16 MDT 2015


NY Times, Apr. 21 2015
Russian Workers Take Aim at Putin as Economy Exacts Its Toll
By ANDREW E. KRAMER

MOSCOW — In the far east, the teachers went on strike. In central 
Russia, it was the employees of a metallurgical plant. In St. 
Petersburg, autoworkers laid down their tools. And at a remote 
construction site in Siberia, laborers painted their complaints in 
gigantic white letters on the roofs of their dormitories.

“Dear Putin, V.V.,” the message said. “Four months without pay.”

After months of frustration with an economy sagging under the weight of 
international sanctions and falling energy prices, workers across Russia 
are starting to protest against unpaid wages and go on strike, in the 
first nationwide backlash against President Vladimir V. Putin’s economic 
policies.

Russian companies tend to avoid laying off workers in a downturn to 
limit severance payments — or to evade the wrath of officials trying to 
minimize unemployment in their districts. So with the Russian economy 
expected to contract this year and next, many workers are going unpaid 
or being sent away from their factories for a few days at a time of 
unwanted “vacations.”

Unpaid wages, or wage arrears, an old scourge in Russia, rose on April 1 
to 2.9 billion rubles, or about $56 million, according to the Russian 
statistical service. That is a 15 percent increase over a year earlier, 
but experts say that still does not capture the scope of the diminished 
pay of workers involuntarily idled during the slowdown.

Discontent over unpaid wages was tamped down for a while by a surge in 
national pride after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine a year ago, 
and by repeated messages on state television that the hardship is an 
unavoidable price to pay for standing up for Russia’s interests. The 
strikes, in any case, have not been widely publicized in state news media.

Yet the strikes and protests in the hinterlands — like the huge graffiti 
addressed to the president — are posing a new challenge to Mr. Putin’s 
government, which presided over an energy-driven economic expansion for 
most of the past 15 years.

During that time, most high-profile antigovernment protests, including 
the so-called White Ribbon movement in Moscow in 2011, promulgated 
political causes rather than economic ones. Those were met with 
corresponding political measures by the Kremlin such as arrests and 
stricter laws on staging rallies. A further chill fell over the liberal 
political opposition this winter after the assassination of a prominent 
leader, Boris Y. Nemtsov.

But the labor actions are putting forward financial demands, and are 
being staged in Russian rust belt towns where the government is unlikely 
to find easy economic solutions to resolve the grievances so long as the 
recession lasts and oil prices remain low.

Regional newspapers described the teachers’ strike this month, in 
Zabaikal Province bordering China, as the first such labor action by 
teachers in Russia in years. The strike went ahead even though a 
regional governor had implored the teachers to work unpaid for patriotic 
reasons, which suggested some waning of the nationalistic pride over the 
Crimean annexation.

“Yes, it is serious when salaries are not paid, but not serious enough 
not to come to work,” the governor, Konstantin Ilkovsky, had insisted. 
Mr. Ilkovksy said the federal government had delayed transferring tax 
revenue to the region, causing the delay in payments.

In the Ural Mountains, workers at the Kachkanarsk metallurgical plant 
that enriches vanadium, an alloy of steel, went on a work-to-rule strike 
in March over layoffs.

In the nearby city of Chelyabinsk, managers at the Chelyabinsk Tractor 
Factory, which has a rich and storied history as a showcase of industry 
in the Communist era, sent workers home on mandatory vacations for one 
day a week, presumably to spend in their apartments in the wintertime.

And not far from the Estonian border, automobile workers at a Ford 
assembly plant went on strike to protest cutbacks brought on by the 
dismal automotive market in Russia.

The actions fall in line with economists’ predictions that the recession 
caused by the Ukraine crisis and falling oil prices will bite Russia 
hardest in rural areas and single-industry towns.

In those places, public-sector employees like teachers and postal 
workers, whose salaries are capped under austerity measures this year, 
make up a larger percentage of the population than they do in cities, 
according to Vladimir Tikhomirov, the chief economist at BCS Financial 
Group.

Russia’s one-factory towns, called monotowns, barely tread water 
economically in the best of times. After the collapse of the ruble in 
December, the rising cost of imported parts hurt manufacturers such as 
automotive assembly plants.

“If they are not laid off, workers could be sent on unpaid vacation 
because of falling demand,” Mr. Tikhomirov said.

The construction worker protest in Siberia was all the more remarkable 
for coming at a highly prestigious site, the new national space center, 
the Vostochny Cosmodrome. There, deep in a coniferous forest off a spur 
of the Trans-Siberian Railway, laborers laid concrete and built gigantic 
hangars for rockets long after salaries stopped being paid in December.

“We haven’t seen a kopek since December,” Anton I. Tyurishev, an 
engineer, said in a telephone interview. Some people walked away, but he 
stayed on his job burrowing tunnels through the frozen soil for 
communications wires near the launchpad, hoping to be paid. “The company 
should have laid people off if they didn’t have enough money.”

In all, 1,123 employees of a main subcontractor, the Pacific 
Bridge-Building Company, have not been paid since December. Most work 
stopped on March 1, though dozens of employees stayed at the site to 
guard equipment. Their labor protest took the form of writing the giant 
message to President Putin on the roofs of their dormitories.

In a rare twist for Russia’s unpaid workers, somebody finally noticed 
this time.

After the message appeared, a Russian state television crew showed up to 
ask the workers to appear on a televised call-in show with Mr. Putin on 
Thursday. Hours before the show, the general contractor paid about 80 
percent of the salaries to the 70 or so employees who remained at the 
space center, Mr. Tyurishev said. The contractor, Spetsstroy, earlier 
paid a portion of back wages for all employees for December.

“Because of the indifference toward us, we just despaired, and decided 
on this original means to appeal directly to you,” Mr. Tyurishev told 
Mr. Putin on the call-in show, referring to the sign the workers had 
painted. “So you saw us, and helped in our situation, to resolve our 
problem.”

Mr. Putin said he would ensure the whole group was paid in full.

“It is one of the most important construction projects in the country,” 
he said of the new space center. “Not because I initiated the project, 
but because the country needs a new launchpad.”

Before the show, a boss had asked the remaining workers to paint over 
their message, to show that this dispute, at least, was resolved.

Mr. Tyurishev said no, not until all the employees had been paid in 
full. But in a compromise, he agreed to update it to read, “Three months 
without pay.”




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