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