“We are good corporate citizens in our communities.”
“We care for our employees and their well-being and put a strong emphasis on occupational health and safety issues.”
Tikkurila, which owns two production facilities in Saint Petersburg, is a characteristic example of how a corporate carrot can easily turn into a corporate stick.
Built in the late nineties by Finns using Finnish technology, the company’s water-based paints manufacturing plant in Petersburg (the so-called old Tikkurila plant) was long considered an oasis of humane euro-capitalism in the city. As one worker recalls, “In 1997, our salary was 500 dollars a month, and until 2007 we got annual 20-30% pay raises. Moreover, wages were automatically indexed for inflation. There was also the annual bonus. Even during the [1998 ruble] default, when there were no raw materials and sales fell, Tikkurila didn’t lay off workers, but instead shortened the workday. There were lots of different benefits – for example, company-paid medical insurance, wonderful working conditions, polite management. In short, we were absolutely satisfied and naturally didn’t think about [organizing] a trade union.”
In 2007, when Tikkurila acquired another Petersburg plant, TEKS, everything changed. For workers at the “old” Tikkurila plant, it appeared as if the “gangster-like” TEKS had squashed their peaceful communist oasis. Soon after the merger, management began introducing so-called lean manufacturing methods at the plant. As one senior manager noted with satisfaction, the company saved 35 million rubles as a result of this “breakthrough.”
The new management, which came to the Tikkurila plant from TEKS, immediately began establishing their own rules. They started to squeeze out the old managers and, later, workers, telling them to their face that they had been living high on the hog. They instituted a twelve-hour workday in place of the previous seven-hour workday, and yet wages fell approximately from 27 to 32 thousand rubles a month to 16 to 20 thousand rubles a month. They did away with inflationary indexing and extra pay for work in hazardous conditions, began paying workers by the hour, and introduced a draconian system of fines.
Working conditions at TEKS recall those described by Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England, the only difference being that this is happening now, not in the 1840s. The video secretly shot by workers on one TEKS shop floor makes an unforgettable impression: people and equipment are literally drowning in silicate dust. (For handling such materials as talc and Finntalc, bags of which are clearly visible in the video, workers are supposed to get a four-percent pay bonus – which, of course, is not paid to them.) Instead of the maximum 435 kg that a worker is allowed to move from the floor over the course of an hour [under Russian workplace regulations], Tikkurila workers are obliged to lift around 1100 kg in ten minutes, and completely for free. For the working conditions at Tikkurila are considered neither difficult nor hazardous, and that means that people are not supposed to get extra pay for such work.
Naturally, quality suffers as well. The equipment at the TEKS plant is old, often dating back to Soviet times. Production methods are similarly dated, and after the merger they were also introduced at the “old” Tikkurila plant. According to workers, cheaper substitutes are now used more and more often instead of more expensive, high-quality raw materials. In the production of whitewashes, for example, Scandinavian-made microdol-5 is no longer used. Instead, a cheaper, Turkish-made analogue is used, which makes the paints whiter, but severely reduces their covering capacity. This is “lean manufacturing” in all senses of the word.
Intimidation and Struggle
In July 2008, when management began forcing workers to sign additional clauses to their work contracts that would significantly lower wages and cut benefits, part of the workforce at the “old” Tikkurila formed an oppositional local of the Russian Chemical Workers Union (Roskhimprofsoiuz), an affiliate of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR). However, this attempt to defend their labor rights was vigorously resisted by management. Here is an abridged chronicle of what the trade union local went through during its brief albeit stormy history:
July–December 2008. Membership in the local grows to forty members.
April–May 2009. The union asks the corporate fraud investigation department to audit the company. Union leaders are subjected to baseless disciplinary sanctions and fines.
22 September 2009. As a result of the audit, Tikkurila general director Yevgeny Shupik is dismissed. Finnish manager Simo Laitala is appointed the new general director.
25 September 2009. Management attempts to force workers to provide written explanations as to why they met with union chair Sergei Kruglov and his deputy during a routine break. Workers collectively refuse to submit written statements. “Overseers” from company security are assigned to union activists.
October–November 2009. Union membership grows: 120 TEKS workers join workers from the “old” Tikkurila plant.
28 October 2009. The union begins collecting signatures on a petition in which they express their lack of confidence in company personnel director Tsinchenko and security director Kalinin. The petition is signed by seventy workers.
31 November 2009. The union is informed of the impending layoffs of fifteen workers in connection with a restructuring of production. Among the workers scheduled to be laid off, ten are trade union members.
28 January 2010. After a complaint is filed by union members Vakulenko, Abrosimov, Ramko, and Makeev, the Federal Consumer Protection Service inspects safety conditions at the TEKS plant.
30 January 2010. The electronic passes of Vakulenko, Abrosimov, Ramko, and Makeev are deactivated by company security. In order to work their shifts, the men are forced to trick their way into the plant.
February 2010. Ten of the fifteen workers scheduled for redundancy are laid off: all of them are union local members. The five non-union members are all assigned new jobs by management. By April, the union files twelve cases with the courts asking that the workers be reinstated and that disciplinary measures taken against them be rescinded. The union has already won three of these cases.
11 February 2010. Company security director Kalinin asks the police to investigate whether a criminal case should be opened against union activist Igor Ramko. He is accused of providing a counterfeited medical slip when he applied for a job at the company two and a half years earlier.
25 February 2010. The trade union committee asks the prosecutor’s office to open a criminal case against personnel director Tsinchenko for his attempt to illegally fire Ramko and Makeev retroactively “at their own behest,” although they did not in fact submit written resignations.
January–March 2010. The trade union committee initiates ten inspections by various monitoring agencies. Recertification of positions in a number of shop floors is ordered. The illegal firing of two workers (citizens of Belarus) is rescinded. Company officials are fined.
18 March 2010. The first recertification of positions in ten years is carried out at the “January 9” shop floor. Although activists of the Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (ITUA) lobbied for this inspection, they are not admitted to the inspection commission, which casts serious doubts on the objectivity of its findings.
Treason and Solidarity
Having realized that it would not be able to deal with the trade union using purely repressive measures, Tikkurila management decided to split the obstreperous union local with help from in-house strikebreakers and Roskhimprofsoiuz bureaucrats. After a stormy trade union conference on March 12, the most militant workers resigned from the FNPR-affiliated local and formed an ITUA-affiliated local at Tikkurila. A new wave of repressions immediately rained down on the “troublemakers.”
On March 24, Tikkurila general director Simo Laitala met with workers to announce the latest increase in production norms. Igor Ramko and Andrei Makeev asked Mr. Laitala how this would affect the health of workers, given that they were already subject to colossal speed-ups, leading to fainting, workplace injuries, and occupational illnesses. Three hours after this meeting, Igor Ramko was visited on the shop floor by Nikolai Cherkasov, an investigator with the Krasnogvardeisky District Economic Crimes Department. In the presence of Ramko’s coworkers, Cherkasov handed him a summons to an interrogation based on allegations that he had forged a medical permission slip. It is worth nothing that Cherkasov arrived at the Tikkurila plant in the personal car of Andrei Kiryanov, an employee of the company’s security department.
Unlike Roskhimprofsoiuz leaders, however, the ITUA does not abandon its comrades when they are in trouble. Literally the day after the new trade union local joined the ITUA, the trade union center unleashed an information campaign designed to force Tikkurila to end its coercion of activists, recognize the union, and enter into negotiations. All violations of worker rights at the company now immediately become a matter of public record. Articles about the conflict have been published in a number of online and print mass media, including the influential Russian daily Kommersant. The video about working conditions at Tikkurila is viewed by hundreds of people daily. The myth of the kind-hearted Finnish company that produces high-quality paints is collapsing like a house of cards, despite the fact that Mr. Laitala signed an order forbidding workers from having any contact with the press.
Dozens of trade union and political organizations in Russia and abroad have voiced their solidarity with Tikkurila workers. ITUA chair Alexei Etmanov and All-Russia Confederation of Labor (VKT) president Boris Kravchenko have sent official protests against management’s anti-union policies. In late April, Petersburg activists will take part in a press conference organized by Finnish trade unions. By refusing to enter into a dialogue with its own workers, Tikkurila risks finding itself in the middle of an international scandal.
However, the trade unions are capable of more than polite scolding when it comes to dialoguing with employers who have gone too far. Thus, Mr. Tsinchenko, Tikkurila’s personnel director, whose attitude to workers is particularly cynical, one evening received hundreds of text messages demanding that he cease intimidating Ramko and Makeev. Meanwhile, Mr. Levin, the company’s head lawyer, who had left a number of spiteful remarks on the trade union’s page on the Vktontatke social website, will no longer risk poking up his head there.
On April 9, the ITUA picketed the front gates of the TEKS facility at Utkin Prospekt. Aside from plant workers, the picket was attended by activists from ProfTEK, Socialist Resistance (SocSopr), the Pyotr Alexeev Resistance Movement (DSPA), the Revolutionary Communist Youth League (Bolsheviks), and other trade union and leftist organizations. As numerous agents of management, led by security department director Kalinin, looked on, the picketers unfurled banners that read “Tikkurila, what have you smoked?” [Тиккурила, что ты курила?], “Hands off Ramko and Makeev,” “Tikkurila: All the Colors of Exploitation,” and so forth. To the deafening accompaniment of whistles and improvised tam-tams, the picketers chanted such slogans as “No matter how Tikkurila pressures workers, our strength is in solidarity,” “We are capable of moving mountains: sit down to the negotiating table, TEKS!,” “Hands off the trade union if you want to avoid a scandal!,” “No to abuse by employers! A workers’ trade union for every enterprise!,” and so forth. Simultaneously, activists handed out leaflets at the nearby K-Rauta store asking shoppers not to buy Tikkurila paints.
Except for the unfriendly Mr. Kalinin, none of the other company managers had the guts to come out and talk with the picketers. According to workers inside the plant, they were threatened with fines if they left their shop floors to view the picket. On the other hand, large numbers of police officers and Krasnogvardeisky District officials were on hand from the very beginning to observe this legally permitted picket. They made absurd demands of picket organizer and trade union committee chair Sergei Kruglov and ITUA organizer and Socialist Resistance activist Ivan Ovsyannikov. The upshot of these demands was that the protesters should conduct the picket in silence. Because they knew that the arguments advanced by law enforcement officials that their plastic whistles were “amplification devices” directly contradicted the law, the protesters refused to submit to these threats. After the picket was over, Kruglov and Ovsyannikov were taken to a police precinct, where they were charged with an administrative violation. Three hours later, they were released.
The trade union has no doubts that the provocation at the picket was ordered by Tikkurila management, which enjoys especially cordial relations with law enforcement agencies. Such actions, however, only discredit the company, and it goes without saying that they frighten no one. The struggle continues.
Show your solidarity with workers at the Tikkurila facilities in Saint Petersburg by signing the petition (addressed to general director Timo Laitala) here (in Russian and English). You will be asked to provide your name [Имя], location [Город, страна] and e-mail address [адрес электронной почты]. When you have filled in this information, please hit the button marked Oтправить [send].
Please also let Tikkurila corporate management know what you think. You can contact them here.
You can also let FinnWatch, a Finnish organization dedicated to monitoring the activities of Finnish companies abroad and ensuring that they comply with the highest international standards of labor rights and other good practices, know how you feel about Tikkurila’s treatment of its Petersburg workers. Contact them here.