#5 - JRL 7038
RFE/RL Business Watch
Vol. 3, No. 3, 28 January 2003
Edited by Daniel Kimmage (DK).
Yegor Gaidar, who stood at the tumultuous center of Russian economic reform in 1992-94, recently noted a curious feature of the economy he helped to create: "We've hardly had any strikes since 2000. The number of striking workers isn't in the millions or the thousands, but in the hundreds. That's why everyone thought the air-traffic controllers were a sensation. They went on strike! But it's the elite that went on strike. They understand that the airlines earn good money on their work. It was ordinary bargaining," he said, according to "Konservator" of 24 January.
Ordinary as the bargaining might have been, the strike tended more toward the original. After failing to reach a compromise on a pay rise with their employer -- the State Corporation for the Organization of Air Traffic -- the Federation of Air-Traffic Controllers Unions (FPAD) opted to strike on 30 November. Their employers promptly obtained a court ruling forbidding the strike on the basis of Russia's Aviation Code. Undeterred, air-traffic controllers switched tactics -- they stopped eating. By 1 January, the union had inked an agreement that included provisions for gradual pay increases.
Despite a clause in the agreement intended to protect protestors from sanctions, local prosecutors are still pressing for disciplinary measures, "Kommersant" reported on 18 January. With air-traffic controllers alleging that reprisal firings have taken place in Omsk and Novosibirsk, more strife could be in the offing.
Air-traffic controllers are not the only restive members of the Russian "elite." Aeroflot employees reached a collective-bargaining agreement with management on 29 November that left the hot-button issues of salary increases and overtime pay to a conciliation commission, gazeta.ru reported on 21 January. The conciliation commission ended its work on 28 December amid charges from some union representatives that management had aborted the process. By late January, the dispute had bogged down, with technicians' and flight attendants' unions holding out the possibility of a strike, "The Moscow Times" reported on 22 January. For its part, management claimed a strike would be illegal. Article 410 of the Russian Labor Code requires that, for a strike to be legal, two-thirds of an enterprise's employees must meet, and half of those present must vote in favor of a strike. Viktor Kleshchenkov, who heads an association of three Aeroflot unions representing 5,000 of the airline's staff of 15,000, gave management until the end of January to come up with new proposals to avert a strike, RIA-Novosti reported on 22 January.
The mere threat of a strike at Norilsk Nickel's arctic division, which accounts for 20 percent of world nickel production, was enough to affect world markets. The conflict began in late December when unions asked to have workers' monthly pay raised from 24,000 ($755) to 28,000 rubles. With the conflict still unresolved on 24 January, nickel prices surged to a two-year high of $8,550 per ton, "Kommersant" reported on 25 January. A conciliation commission began meeting on 27 Monday, RIA-Novosti reported the same day, for what could be a week's worth of talks to keep the division's 60,000 workers on the job.
These recent flare-ups garner attention against a backdrop of startlingly placid labor relations. The picture that emerges is richer in irony than protest: Despite pervasive dissatisfaction over low wages among Russian workers and frequent wage arrears throughout much of the 1990s, the country was remarkably calm. Oberlin College's Stephen Crowley examines this baffling quiescence in a spring 2002 article in "Demokratizatsiya" titled "Comprehending the Weakness of Russia's Unions." For the period from 1992 to 1999, he writes, "Even by generous estimates the number of strikers and protestors represents only 1 or 2 percent of all Russian workers, and also an extraordinarily small percentage of workers owed wages." A common joke in the 1990s had a presidential adviser rushing in to ask the chief executive about a group of unpaid workers: "What should we do? They haven't been paid in months and they keep coming to work." The president shakes his head and muses aloud, "Maybe we should charge them admission."
Strikes broke out, of course. The most famous protests of the 1990s featured teachers and miners trying desperately to collect unpaid back wages. Crowley notes, however, that both groups are part of the so-called "budget" sector -- workers who receive their salaries from the state budget. Since strikes involving "budget" workers represent an attempt to wrest extra resources from Moscow, they often enjoyed the support and encouragement of management and the local authorities. The privatized sector has seen far less activity.
The dominance of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR), Russia's largest labor federation, is one reason for the eerie quiet. While the FNPR claims 38 million members on its website (http://www.fnpr.org.ru), making it the largest nongovernmental organization in Russia, it remains beholden to the legacy of the Soviet unions from which it emerged. Under the Soviet system, unions functioned as a division of management and acted primarily to organize the distribution of such social benefits as vacation tours and children's summer camps. Strikes were for the decadent West -- when workers had the bourgeois effrontery to strike in the city of Novocherkassk in 1962 over wage cuts and price increases, the state moved brutally to suppress them with soldiers and tanks, killing at least 20 people.
The FNPR is today deeply enmeshed in power politics at the highest level. For example, FNPR Deputy Chairman Andrei Isaev is also the head of pro-government party Unity's General Council, as well as a deputy in the State Duma. The result is timidity. "The FNPR is pathologically afraid of nationwide strikes, as this would mean a clash not only with employers, but with the authorities," a 19 January article in "Novoe vremya" remarked. At enterprises where independent unions have arisen to challenge the FNPR, representational quotas in the Labor Code make it even more difficult to conduct a legal strike.
The ongoing disputes noted here confirm that strikes are still a weapon, no matter how rarely used, when management and labor lock horns. With wages drifting upward in a period of relative stability, air-traffic controllers, Aeroflot, and Norilsk Nickel might provide some indication of whether a whiff of prosperity in the air serves more to whet workers' appetite for conflict or to stimulate their desire for conciliation. DK