"First I`ll quit the independent trade union and then join it again"
In late 2011, several hundreds of workers of the Republic's Unitary Production Enterprise (RUPE) "Granit" located in the town of Mikashevichi and engaged in extraction of rocks for construction voiced an intention to set up an independent trade union. The administration and the authorities responded by a wave of layoffs of activists and pressure on independent trade union organizations at other enterprises.
The trade union organization from the "Granit" was registered by the Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BNP). Its Chairman Nikolai Zimin says that the situation at the "Granit" is a vivid example of the situation with independent trade unions:
Nikolai Zimin :
"At the 'Granit', people themselves wanted to create a union. We have registered their primary organization; however, the authorities have failed to do it so far, because the organization has no legal address. We have repeatedly appealed to the Ministry of Architecture and the 'Granit' representative. They have no procedure. They don't know. This is a sort of legal vacuum, which neither we nor they can overcome."
"This is a good will of the employer – to give a legal address or not. And now we can't register this organization. Now, the BNP has addressed its official letter to the Ministry of Justice, asking to explain how we could create a trade union organization at a state-owned enterprise and to receive a legal address there. We are waiting for an answer. At the meeting of the leaders of independent trade unions, which took place in the office of the BNP in Soligorsk, the guys from 'Granit' – Oleg Stakhaevich and Nikolai Karyshev – were welcomed as heroes."
According to Oleg Stakhaevich, the prospects are "most promising." "We hope for ourselves, for the people, for the BNP and for the NPG (Independent Trade Union of Miners, – Editor). We see concrete support," he said.
Indeed, both the BNP and the NPG are supporting the independent trade union at the "Granit". More than once international trade union associations and trade unions from other enterprises have spoken in their support. But it is clear that the initiative should originate from the workers of the enterprise. Although Stakhaevich himself understands that "there'll be no leaders without Indians," however he cannot predict how exactly the today's workers of the "Granit" will participate in the independent trade union.
The last meeting was attended by 17 persons. Among them, according to Stakhaevich, 13 wrote applications asking to transfer their membership fees to the BNP.
"The guys see that for four and a half months nothing has been made by the official trade unions and by the administration – they are ready to rush into battle again."
Why are local authorities and enterprise administrations so afraid of independent trade unions?
Yuri Shvets is the leader of the BNP primary organization at the Mozyr Oil Refinery. He is now 48 years old. He is a native of Mozyr. He worked as a welder at the Refinery and joined the trade union 20 years ago:
"In Soviet times, trade unionists were a sort of 'histrions' – they were engaged in football, organized concerts, solemn retirement ceremonies, gave money for funerals and distributing beds in dormitories. They were the director's right hand."
According to his story, the current "official" trade unions have largely inherited the Soviet system. Yuri Shvets says: "They now have the director a member of the union. How can this be?"
Nikolai Zimin asserts that an independent trade union is a sort of a buffer between the employer and the worker. Nobody from the administration can be a friend. This attitude allows them to remain independent for many years and protect workers' interests.
The main document, for which trade unions are fighting, is the collective bargaining agreement. While there were no independent unions, nobody had ever mentioned it. This agreement is concluded by the workers of a particular enterprise with their employer. One single worker, who is standing at a machine tool, or "turns a steering wheel", cannot compel his employer to change the working conditions, raise wages, control whether his vacation days were correctly calculated and whether his work clothes are OK. It is all made by the trade union.
But even if one is not a union member, he will still receive the salary that was won from the employer by the trade union. Yuri Shvets calls such people "industrial hares":
"We tell them: you have your labour contract in hand. Why don't you go to director – each of you – to discuss your problems with him, and not to use our collective bargaining agreement? But director just wouldn't even talk to you. Why should he solve everyone's problems: how much to pay and what clothes to wear? And if you start walking from office to office – you'll be just sacked, because you must work and not go around offices."
Most of the independent trade union activists – are full-day union workers. They receive their salaries from the union membership fees. Now, union members pay 1 percent of their salary as membership fees. Thus, the union itself is interested in higher wages.
Thus, the Mozyr Oil Refinery has the average salary of about six million roubles; they have 1089 members of the union (about 37 percent of the total number of workers). The "Belaruskali" has more than 4000 union members. And although Sergey Cherkasov, the chairman of the miners' independent trade union there, refused to talk about the average salary, we can assume that with so many union members the local trade union is not a beggar.
The BNP is proud of the fact that, despite all the trials, remains the most financially secure organization. Yuri Shvets emphasizes that it is through the independent trade union that people get higher wages from the employer; and people understand it. Sergey Cherkasov from the "Belaruskali" says that while 20 years ago the company had low wages, and people worked in appalling conditions, now the situation has changed. This is confirmed by other union leaders: the company is stable and has good working conditions. The main thing is to rightly divide the profits.
Yuri Shvets: "Not always we were at war with the administration. We found contact with the official trade union and the administration. The war began after 2008 – when ideologists appeared at our enterprise. The administration climbed up the barricades. In my view, ideology is obedience to the laws. But here ideology means imposing one's morals and principles in exchange for the law."
The official (pro-governmental) trade unions, assisted by ideologists, have quite different working conditions at enterprises.
Yuri Shvets: "The official trade unions are mainly doing what the administration tells them to do. Ideologists are rendered assistance. Their first mission is to liquidate us; because we are breaking their tandem with the administration. The director and workers will never have the same goal. But the outcomes of the work – sharing the revenues – should be considered together."
Independent trade unions are suppressed in different ways.
Ivan Svyatokho , chairman of the primary organization of the independent trade union at the "Naftan" (Oil Refinery in the city of Novopolotsk): "I had applications from union members like 'I quitted the independent trade union under the pressure of the administration.' I brought together these applications and sent them to the prosecutor. An answer came: facts were partially confirmed. What does this mean? They were half-pressed, or what? We now have 360 members, while earlier we had 1200. For three years we have been pressed on. First, they pressed us at 'Grodno-Azot', then at 'Naftan'. They call one by one and threaten: 'If you don't quit the BNP, you'll fail your qualification exam; your contract won't be extended; your child won't get into kindergarten.' They have thousands of methods. And if someone has a fault, they tell him: 'Quit the union, and you'll stay working. I once even had production foremen in the union; and now you see how few are left. But these guys are firm and tough, sure, we'll succeed."
Mikhail Ustinovich, the "Belshina" (tire-maker): "Young people are moving, but they are just pushed back by all means. For example, a guy wrote an application to enter the independent trade union. Then he asked for a permission to be absent at work for a day; he wrote an application, his foreman signed it, and the guy left. Then, he receives a call: why are you absent at work? He asks the foreman: where's my application? He answered 'The factory ideologist took it away.' The ideologist says: 'There's no application – you have truancy.' Finally the guy said: 'Lt me now quit the union, and then I'll join it again.'"
Natalia Mihnyukevich is the leader of the regional BNP organization in Soligorsk; she talks about the trade union of entrepreneurs in the marketplace "Oktiabrskiy": "We had a meeting with Rymashevskiy, the head of the city executive committee, we wanted to register our organization, and asked for a room and a legal address. But he said that there was no room. And he added: 'If you remove Kuchinskaya (the chair of the primary organization, – Editor), then, we'll work with you.' I told him that it was not I who elected her – the members of the trade union of the 'Oktiabrskiy' and meat market traders did... As to strikes of entrepreneurs – half of them closed their kiosks and went on strike, other continued trading – what would you do of that."
Sergei Cherkasov (NPG) and Natalia Mihnyukevich
Yuri Shvets, "What is happening with the independent trade unions is an indicator of the situation with human and workers' rights in Belarus. If we were some forbidden or paramilitary organization – it's all right. But we have same registration certificates as others. Why the state refuses to perceive us as such – this is a question to the state. Citizens have rights guaranteed by the Constitution. But people here are easily influenced. I've seen enough within my 20 years. People are afraid to stand even for one's personal rights. They spend more time studying currency exchange rates and car prices. But it's all up to a point – once everything will concentrate on finance and on earnings. Then, they remember about trade unions."
The BNP Chairman Nikolai Zimin is confident: "We are all difficult to ban, because people may respond negatively. There will be desperate people who will protest. To wage an open conflict with a non-political force, but with a trade union, is impossible for the administration."
Meanwhile, a delegation of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FPB) arrived in Mikashevichi.
Oleg Stakhaevich: "Six persons settled in the premises of the local executive committee and will receive all the willing citizens. All our problems were announced: dismissals, disagreements with the employer, legal consultations." There is no exact data confirming that "hundreds" of workers are dismissed from the "Granit". Oleg Stakhaevich believes that "if still people are talking about it, most of all, it's true. When people are sacked, they give away their work clothes. I've seen myself a huge pile of robes at the warehouse. However, there are no ads that the "Granit" invites workers. Nikolai (Nikolai Karyshev, an activist of the independent trade union, was fired from the "Granit"), visited his shift yesterday. He said that two facilities for shipping crushed stone were closed; and nobody was hired instead of him."
Those who are sacked go to work in Russia. Not once, they also offered employment there to Stakhaevich. But he says: "There's no sense to leave; we need to create our trade union and fairly distribute the revenues that people earn. If in Russia they pay 1000 US dollars for the same job, and here – some 200-300, then what's the problem? Are they selling their gravel higher? We have the united market."
The BNP is ready to support the trade union at the "Granit" by all means. They will again apply for a rally in Mikashevichi. However, it is still unknown whether the independent unions will withstand the fight with the officials and the pressure from the administration.