The Taganrog Automobile Plant (TagAZ), in the southern Rostov Region of Russia, assembles a number of Hyundai vehicles as well as its own line of cars. When you look at their website, you get a rather rosy picture of labor relations at the plant:
TagAZ takes pride in its skilled amicable personnel. At present employed are about 2 600 people including employees in the applied productions. 30 percent of them are engineering-technical staff.
Average age of the plant personnel is 25 years. About 40 percent of the staff are women. Their patience and tidiness are irreplaceable at some stages of the assembling conveyor.
At the starting period of the plant the engineer staff and young specialists were trained at automobile plants in South Korea, Europe and USA. Regular professional trainings at the leading world undertakings are part of the program of improving personnel’s skills. TagAZ collaborates with technical highest schools in employing of perspective specialists.
Socially oriented staff policy and work conditions make TagAZ the one of the most attractive employers in the labour market in the southern region of the Russia.
In fact, things are anything but rosy at TagAZ. Since August 2007, members of the TagAZ local of the Interregional Trade Union of Auto Workers (ITUA) have been struggling against a stacked deck that includes every union-busting trick in the book (including physical reprisals) to have their union recognized by plant management.
On December 10, the ITUA, the All-Russia Labor Confederation, and the Petersburg Committee for Solidarity Actions (KSD) launched a solidarity campaign in support of TagAZ-ITUA. Chtodelat News is pleased to support this campaign. We urge you to read the following interview with two TagAZ-ITUA activists. Following the interview is a translation of the solidarity appeal. It contains lots of information about how you can join the campaign. You can also help by crossposting the interview and the appeal on your blogs and websites.
There is power in the union!
An Interview with ITUA-TagAZ Activists Sergei Penchukov and Sergei Bryzgalov
This interview was conducted by Ruslan Yusifov, MGRD (Workers Action Marxist Group).
Yusifov: How many people work at your plant?
Penchukov: Right now, around seven thousand.
Yusifov: How many members are there in your union?
Penchukov: There are sixty workers in the union.
Yusifov: When was the union formed?
Penchukov: It was created on August 31, 2007.
Yusifov: You’ve been in the union from the very beginning?
Penchukov: Yes, I’ve been in it from the beginning. I was at the founding meeting and was elected chair of the local.
Yusifov: And how was your local formed?
Penchukov: Petr Zolotarev, chair of the Interregional Trade Union of Auto Workers (ITUA), visited us. He told us the brief history of the union and proposed forming a union.
Yusifov: How did he find you?
Penchukov: He has relatives in Taganrog. He came to see his relatives and to meet TAGAZ workers.
RY: How did you meet? Did he come right to the factory gate to meet you?
Penchukov: Yes, that’s how it was. He was standing at the gate and ran into my brigade. I was the brigadier then. My comrades waited for me to show up, and together we had a discussion. The next day we conducted аn organizing meeting.
Yusifov: Did he come to meet with you specifically? Did you already know each other? Or did he just show up like that?
Penchukov: No, he simply came alone and stood by the gate. He was giving out general information about the union. He was simply telling workers about the work of the union as they exited the plant. People who were interested would stop and listen.
Yusifov: Did you form an initiative group before founding the union?
Penchukov: Yes, at that moment there were thirteen people who got together, and it was these people who founded the union together.
Yusifov: What did the union do next?
Penchukov: The first thing we did, while the founding documents hadn’t been drawn up yet, was to make photocopies of a sample application for joining the union, and we began gathering the signatures of workers. By October—that is, within two months—around 150 to 200 workers joined the union. And when the founding documents arrived in October, I personally delivered them to management via the secretary of the plant’s director—notification on the formation of the local, minutes from the founding meeting, the resolution from the ITUA that our local had been accepted; in short, the necessary packet of founding documents.
The pressure tactics began immediately after this. In the first place, they put pressure on me: they tried to talk me out of it, they made threats. Of course I didn’t agree to their demands or cave in to their threats.
Yusifov: What concrete forms did this pressure take? Were you called into the director’s office?
Penchukov: Yes, I was called into the office of the assistant director for the seat production line—Sukach is his name. At first they said that our union wasn’t legitimate. “Your union was formed incorrectly.” “Who taught you how to do this?” “You won’t get away with this! We won’t let you—whatever it takes.” That was the tone of the conversations.
Yusifov: Were you personally threatened with firing?
Penchukov: Yes, of course! Like I said, I was threatened with firing. They even threatened me over the telephone: they told me I wouldn’t survive in Taganrog.
In November I was transferred to a different work site, off plant, to the recreation base that belongs to the plant—“to prepare the site for the autumn-winter period.” That is, management simply isolated me from the work collective and the other members of the union deliberately. I worked there for almost two months.
Yusifov: What sort of work did you do there?
Penchukov: I worked as an unskilled laborer. Mostly as a welder, but I also did unskilled labor.
Yusifov: What is your usual profession?
Penchukov: I’m a welder. I work on contact welders and combine that with work on semi-automatic welders.
So in December I went to the founding conference of the ITUA. But considering management’s attitude toward us, I took those days off by claiming some comp time I had saved up and time off for having donated blood; I had a donor certificate. I wrote out these requests in a single copy because—well, that was the practice. And of course I should say that at that point I lacked knowledge of certain things: I should have covered myself by making copies of my requests.
When I got back I was told that I had skipped work precisely during the days that were covered by the donor certificate. But when I gave them a copy of the donor certificate, they immediately switched the focus to my request for unpaid comp time. They said I hadn’t filed the request, it didn’t exist—they annulled it, they lost it! On this basis, they fired me for skipping work.
Yusifov: But you had a donor certificate, and by law. . .
Penchukov: They could care less about the law. As the saying goes, where there’s a law, there’s a loophole.
Yusifov: Did you try and take them to court?
Penchukov: Yes, we went to court; there were two trials. They didn’t contest the donor certificate because this was documented evidence. But the request for unpaid leave had been “lost” and that’s what they built their case on.
Yusifov: According to the donor certificate, you had been giving blood on those days?
Penchukov: No, of course not. I did everything legally; I didn’t use blood donation as a cover. I’m a donor and as such I have the legal right to two days of rest. I used these days. But I was away from work for three days, and the third was covered by my request for unpaid leave. And it was this request that they “lost.” It was this third day that they declared as absence without leave. The TAGAZ management had completely rewritten the register of incoming documents they submitted to the court! That is, instead of my requests, there were completely different documents next to those same numbers in the documents register. It was clear case of the TAGAZ management playing fast and loose with the facts by falsifying documents! Nevertheless, both courts—Taganrog Municipal Court and Rostov Regional Court—declared my firing legal.
Right after I was fired, a massive pressure campaign against the remaining members of the union began. This was in January 2008. They rooted out union members with a hit-and-miss method—that is, they also threatened people who weren’t union members. And so within a week’s time nearly everyone left the union. Only six people stayed in. Moreover, what’s interesting is that even people who had never joined the union handed in their memberships. That’s right: they also submitted “exit requests” even though they weren’t in the union. These are the crude methods that the TAGAZ management used to intimidate everyone.
After this we chose a different organizing tactic. We stopped showing our hand. That is, you could say we began operating underground. We began collecting union membership forms all over again. The make-up of the organizing committee changed almost completely, and we also increased the number of members on the committee from five to seven. And so as of today more than fifty people have joined the union. This is the result of our work over several months this year.
Yusifov: But a union with a membership of sixty or even two hundred at a factory where 7,000 people work is quite small. Why are the workers so inactive?
Penchukov: There’s a huge turnover at our plant. You haven’t even managed to meet the new workers, when they’ve already quite and been replaced by other workers. In addition, they partially defused the union by firing the chairman, and working with the collective off-plant is quite complicated. Plus, they constantly waved my example in the workers’ faces like a flag: this is what will happen to you if you work with the union.
They naturally don’t let me, the chair of the union local, into the plant, although this is a violation of law, which guarantees the right to engage in union activity. The TAGAZ management rejects all our written notifications and requests—verbally, of course. What’s more, lately they’ve stopped accepting letters from us altogether.
Yusifov: Plant management still doesn’t recognize the union as legitimate?
Penchukov: Yeah, you see, we’ve existed for over a year and a half, but we’re not legitimate! Although all the documents were drafted in accordance with the law and submitted to plant management. Management refused to accept our documents—you don’t exist and that’s that! So then we sent them notification of the formation of our union by mail. But to this day they also refuse to accept mail from us! Our letters get returned. The prosecutor’s office and the labor inspectorate don’t turn our appeals down outright, but they wrote us off, so to speak. That is, the management is doing everything correctly because you’re not legitimate and so forth.
But we continue to fight all the same. And we’ll use the courts as much as we’re able. Right now we’re in court to secure the necessary premises for the union [in the plant], to provide the union with an information stand, and to secure the right of the chairman to enter the plant.
Yusifov: Aren’t these lawsuits unwinnable from the outset? Since the union doesn’t exist and it is illegitimate, then doesn’t that mean that there are also no legal guarantees that secure the union’s right to engage in organizing?
Penchukov: That’s not all the case. There’s nothing in the law that says you have to be recognized by management for your union to be legitimate. It’s enough that the union exists, the founding documents have been drawn up, and you have members—that’s it! So our court cases should be winnable, not unwinnable. True, often the courts and the state authorities do approach things from this angle—management doesn’t recognize you, therefore there is no union. Our municipal court denied our suits, claiming that that we weren’t registered as a legal entity and therefore we had no right at all to file suits with the court and demand premises from our employer. You don’t say! We get the same answer from the prosecutor’s office and the labor inspectorate. Generally speaking, all our attempts to get our employers to come round by legal means have been unsuccessful. When our filing was reject by the local court, we appealed to the Rostov Regional Court. On November 13, that court reversed the ruling of the municipal court that had refused to consider our suit.
Yusifov: What are work conditions—work safety rules, etc.—like at the plant now?
Penchukov: As for work safety rules, of course they’re not enforced. The ventilation systems don’t work for all practical purposes, and if they are turned on, then they’re turned on all the way; if we’re talking about the welding shop, then they practically run at minimum speed. Moreover, people in most shops work twelve-hour shifts per day, although the work contract states that the workday is eight hours. This is how they force people to engage voluntarily in forced labor. Our pay consists mostly of bonuses: the base pay is around 3,000 rubles, and the other 220% is all bonuses. They play on this, threatening the workers by telling them that if they don’t work on weekends or overtime, then they’ll slash their bonus to such an extent that they won’t be able to exist.
Yusifov: So it turns out that they work 5 twelve-hour days?
Penchukov: They work 6 twelve-hour days. But now that’s no longer the case: because of the crisis, they’re getting ready to lay off between 2,000 and 3,000 people.
Yusifov: Six days is the official workweek?
Penchukov: No. The contract stipulates a workweek of five 8-hour days.
Yusifov: What is the average wage?
Penchukov: With a normal workday and normal week, the average pay is between 10,000 and 15,000 rubles. With overtime, you can make up to 20,000. But that’s no longer the case either: in the last few months, the average pay has fallen to 8,000 rubles. And it’s not clear what will happen with this after the crisis.
Yusifov: If we take the pre-crisis wage, is it a good wage for Taganrog?
Penchukov: In Taganrog, the average wage is 15,000 rubles, but there are also places where you can make significantly more for less work.
Yusifov: So TagAZ workers can find work elsewhere?
Penchukov: In principal, yes. You could say that the city has a good supply of jobs since a fairly large number of factories are located there.
Yusifov: Тhen, in the main, what kind of workers are employed at TagAZ?
Penchukov: Right now, around 50% are people from the countryside. A bus comes, takes them from the villages, and brings them to work. The plant has a categorical shortage of workers, and so ads are constantly posted, and they place ads in the newspapers and on the radio. We see all the time that the plant is advertising job openings. Nevertheless, almost the entire neighborhood has done a stint at the plant or knows what the conditions are like there, and therefore hardly anyone wants to come back. And now, again, there’s the crisis: they don’t need people anymore now. [Management] is thinking about how to get rid of them.
Yusifov: What actions has your union taken in the last six months?
Penchukov: We have conducted two pickets near the gates of the plant. We handed out leaflets that addressed such topics as recognition of our trade union, compliance with labor law, the length of the workday, and the way wages are paid—the fact that we are not given pay stubs. On the placards we made we even appealed to the prosecutor’s office—“Mr. Prosecutor, wake up! TagAZ is breaking the law!” That was one of the slogans at our picket. But they had no effect: [the local TV stations] didn’t want to do anything. We invited them to the picket, but they still didn’t show any of this [in their news broadcasts]. And we’ve made appeals to the prosecutor’s office and the labor inspectorate.
Yusifov: How many people came out for the picket?
Penchukov: Around nine people the first time, and ten people the second time, if I’m not mistaken.
Yusifov: These were mostly workers?
Penchukov: The first time it was mainly sympathizers from other trade unions. People came from the Rostov-Baltika plant. The second time, it was all workers from [our] plant. There were representatives of management at the picket, people from plant security and so on. They refused to the written list of all our demands that we had drawn up for the picket: they said they weren’t authorized to do this. Well then why did they come out to stare at us? They tried to provoke us: they’d walk right up to us and ask us who the heck we were, why were standing there, etc.
Yusifov: Has physical coercion been applied to your union?
Penchukov: Yes, every action we have done has for some reason been immediately followed by attacks, by beatings of our active members, the people who were involved in all of our union’s public actions.
Yusifov: Who, specifically, has been attacked?
Penchukov: Sergei Bryzgalov and Alexei Gramm.
Yusifov: Were they were beaten or what?
Penchukov: Both were beaten.
Yusifov: Were they beaten separately or together?
Penchukov: Separately. At different times and in different places, but near the plant.
Yusifov: What happened to Sergei? Was he attacked twice?
Penchukov: Yes, he has been attacked twice. The first time was right after our second picket. The next day, he was attacked in the place where we’d had our picket, around five in the evening as he was leaving work. What is suspicious is that he was detained at the plant entrance before the attack. Then someone gave a tacit command, which he heard, to let him go: he had just exited the plant and within two minutes or so he was beaten up. Alexei Gramm was beaten after we had met personally with management representatives and attempted to give them a document about the formation of our trade union local. He left the plant through a different gate, and he was beaten up about fifty meters away from it.
Yusifov: (A question for Sergei Bryzgalov.) Could you tell me how you were beaten up? Did one person attack you?
Sergei Bryzgalov: One person—he snuck up on me from behind. That’s how it all happened.
Yusifov: Was it one blow or several?
Bryzgalov: No, he got in several blows, but they were from behind. I was caught off guard; plus, I simply couldn’t figure out what was happening and why.
Yusifov: You didn’t manage to react?
Bryzgalov: Yes, as I was struggling with him, I was a bit unlucky. When I threw him on the ground, I fell on my back, but he fell on his hands. He hit me faster than I could react.
Yusifov: You fell on the ground together?
Bryzgalov: Yes. I got a hold of him and we fell. I fell on my back; he fell on his hands. He jumped up quicker than I did. He took a kick from me and then he ran away.
Yusifov: Аnd after this you took sick leave?
Bryzgalov: Yes, I was hospitalized for two weeks with a concussion. Then I went back to work and checked in with the head accountant. Within three days, on July 24, I was beaten up again “by coincidence.” But this time they simply were tracking me: they knew where I exited the plant and when. And only someone who had access to the central computer would know this.
Yusifov: What was the second attack like?
Bryzgalov: I was just walking home. Some guy caught up with me, asked me for the time, and that was that. . . And I was back in the hospital.
Penchukov: It was also an attack from behind.
Bryzgalov: Yes, from behind.
Yusifov: Аnd it was also somewhere near the plant?
Bryzgalov: No, it was bit further away, 200 or 300 meters from the plant.
Yusifov: How was Alexei Gramm attacked?
Penchukov: It happened the day that we went to the head accountant’s office.
Yusifov: You were attacked separately on the same day?
Penchukov: [Alexei] was attacked either the following day or two days later, if I’m not mistaken.
Yusifov: Did you file charges with the police?
Bryzgalov: I did. What was the point? There was no reaction. They took our complaints, listened to our testimony, all our explanations and then—silence.
Yusifov: So it turns out that, aside from Sergei [Penchukov], you and Alexei are the main leaders there?
Penchukov: No, there were other people there as well. According to the testimony of one of our union committee members who was with Sergei and Alexei the same week they were beaten, when he exited the central gate where Sergei was beaten he realized that he was being tailed from the plant by a suspicious looking man who resembled the person who had attacked [Sergei and Alexei?] earlier. This same guy followed another activist—Alexander is his name; he is also a member of the union committee and was also with us during all these actions. In the light of previous events, he concluded that this could be a provocation, that the guy might be planning to attack him. So he simply made a “knight’s move”: he got on the phone and told his dad he was on the bus, that he should wait for him at the stop, that he would be getting off bus number such-and-such. This suspicious guy immediately got off at the next stop.
Yusifov: What does the union mean for you? What I mean is that you’re under serious pressure, you’ve been beaten up twice. Why don’t you quit the union?
Bryzgalov: In theory, we should have laws, but in Russia there is just lawlessness. A trade union is an instrument for reestablishing the rule of law. Neither the prosecutor’s office nor the courts are engaged in doing this. That means someone has to do it. And so the workers themselves, the trade union, have to take this task upon themselves.
Yusifov: Since you’re under such pressure, you’re been attacked, wouldn’t it better to get a job at another plant?
Bryzgalov: It’s the same picture there, the same view, only from a different angle.
Penchukov: I would answer this question as follows. Why should I apply for work at another plant if I like it here? In order to have a normal existence at this plant I have organize with other workers, to simply defend my rights, to make my life better at this plant, rather than hopping from place to place.
Bryzgalov: Yeah, that’s frog tactics: it doesn’t lead to anything. When someone jumps from one plant to another, it doesn’t lead to anything.
Yusifov: What actions is the union planning now?
Bryzgalov: We have tons of plans. What should I tell you about? In terms of upcoming tasks, we have now made plans to hold a trade union week. That is, over the course of a week we’ll be constantly handing out leaflets agitating for the union struggle and unmasking management’s dirty tricks. Then we’ll see how the workers react. After we’ve given people time to think over the leaflets, we’ll begin again. That is, you have to give people time to reflect. In parallel, we’ll continue to press for an [on-site] union office through the prosecutor’s office and the courts.
But the main thing is the campaign that we discussed with you. The idea that the KSD [Committee for Solidarity Actions] has is the right one: if we manage to raise a racket throughout the country and draw people’s attention to the outrageous things happening at TagAZ, then that will be great. Otherwise, it turns out that Taganrog is this backwater hole where management can do whatever it wants.
Penchukov: Yes, the campaign is important. Your idea is just excellent. Of course we need help from the outside as well. Although I should say right off that we’re not of those unions that relies only on outside help. We’ll stand our ground on our ground and we’ll win! All of us have good heads on our shoulders. The main thing is that you have to be bold.
Yusifov: Yes, that’s the right attitude to the struggle. But you can’t really call it “outside” help. It’s solidarity.
Penchukov: I agree. That’s why it’s called a solidarity campaign. All the same, our comrades around the country should also know that we’re fighting our own fight and that we won’t surrender just like that. Naturally, when our solidarity is required, when workers at other plants end up in a bad spot, then we’ll immediately respond with assistance.
Yusifov: Who is helping you in your struggle?
Penchukov: Well, of course the ITUA is helping us. The help they provide is various. The main thing is that we know we have a strong trade union association behind us and that they won’t abandon us when things get tough. Right now we’re here for the ITUA trade union seminar. The topics we cover in seminar really help us a lot. Here what’s important is that we’re arming ourselves with knowledge that we can then apply ourselves in our own struggle. That is, it isn’t just simple assistance, something you’re given and that’s that. You have to struggle yourself. Also, in Taganrog we cooperate with the Communist Party. They help us with printing up leaflets, and they’ve given us consultations in connection with these beatings. Because their guys also have experience: they’ve also been persecuted in Taganrog.
This interview was published in Marxist No. 1 (September-November 2008), the bulletin of the MGRD. (The bulletin is available for downloading on their website.)
An Appeal from the Saint Petersburg and Leningrad Region Committee for Solidarity Actions
The All-Russia Labor Confederation (VKT), the Interregional Trade Union of Auto Workers (ITUA), and the Saint Petersburg and Leningrad Region Committee for Solidarity Actions (KSD), which unites activists from a number to trade union and social-political organizations, has begun a a campaign of solidarity with the trade union at the Taganrog Automobile Plant (ITUA-TagAZ).
Many of you are aware of the flagrant persecution of ITUA-TagAZ by plant management. They have employed threats, coercion to quit the union, unlawful dismissals, falsification of documents filed in court, and physical violence against trade union activists. TagAZ workers are forced to work overtime for miserly pay; occupational and safety norms are crudely violated at the plant. These methods of oppressing the workers and pressuring trade unions are not news to us—they are employed by many employers in Russia. But ITUA-TagAZ has become a symbol of the persecuted independent trade union movement in Russia because TagAZ management has succeeded in applying all the known means of repressing workers in a short span of time.
The situation with the trade union at TagAZ is a reflection of what is happening with the independent trade union movement in Russia. Across the entire country, working men and women who attempt to unite in independent organizations and defend their violated rights are subjected to cruel persecution. This is why for us the continued existence and growth of ITUA-TagAZ is fundamentally important.
We must show that when laborers are united by the idea of solidarity they are a powerful force and that attempts to crush the growth of the free trade union movement are doomed to failure. We can demonstrate this to our enemy if we all stand as one in defense of the workers at the Taganrog Automobile Plant and ITUA-TagAZ.
We appeal to all the workers of Russia; to trade union organizations that are independent of their employers and the authorities; to leftist political organizations and activists; and to all citizens who are on the side of the working class and understand the importance of the free trade union movement for the future of our country to join us in this solidarity campaign.
Our demands to TagAZ management:
- End your persecution of trade union activists
- Recognize ITUA-TagAZ and enter into negotiations with them
- Reach an agreement with them that allow them to organize freely and honor this agreement
- Provide the union with office space on the grounds of the plant and an info stand for posting trade union press; do not interfere with trade union meetings and other union activity on plant grounds.
You can take part in our campaign by picketing TagAZ dealerships; by sending protest letters to plant management as well as to the administration of the Rostov Region, the Russian Labor Inspectorate, and the president and government of the Russian Federation; and by other protest actions.
In order to coordinate our campaign, exchange information, and discuss protest methods, we have created a special open mailing list to which anyone can subscribe. Send your request to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll automatically sign you up.
Mailing list website: http://groups.google.ru/group/tagaz-workers
Mailing list address: email@example.com
You can find updates on the campaign on these websites (in Russian):
Ruslan Yusifov: +7 911 907-4044; kollomarksizm.info
Vadim Bolshakov: +7 911 249-7654; istprofmail.ru
Send your protest letters to the following addresses:Gennady Vasilievich Sukach
Deputy General Director, TagAZ, Inc.
Director, Taganrog Branch
Fax: +7 8634 318157
Mailing address: RUSSIA 347923, Rostov Region, Taganrog, ul. Instrumentalnaya, 2
TagAZ customer feedback: http://www.tagaz.ru/feedback/
Nikolai Dmitrievich Fedyanin, Mayor of the City of Taganrog: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cc: your e-mails to the Rostov Prosecutor’s Office: email@example.comVladimir Fedorovich Chub
Governor, Rostov Region
Address: RUSSIA, Rostov-on-Don, ul. Sotsialisticheskaya, 112
Теlephone: +7 (863) 244-1810
Fax: +7 (863) 244-1559
We request that you inform us of your solidarity actions at: firstname.lastname@example.org