Tag Archives: ITUA

Mattia Gallo: Interview with a Russian Comrade

The following interview with our comrade Ilya Matveev was made by Mattia Gallo and originally published in Italian as “La Russia ai tempi di Occupy.” Our thanks to her and Ilya for their permission to republish it in English here.

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What is the Russian Socialist Movement? When were you founded? Who are its members?

The Russian Socialist Movement (RSM) is the product of a merger between two far-left groups: Vpered (Forward) and Socialist Resistance. It was founded in March 2011. Both groups were heirs to the Trotskyist tradition. Vpered was affiliated with the Mandelist USFI. However, the RSM is not explicitly Trotskyist: it was modeled as a broad leftist force capable of uniting the non-sectarian far left into the nucleus of a future radical mass party. In part, it was modeled on the French Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), although obviously on a smaller scale.

Currently, we have several organizations in different Russian cities. The largest RSM groups are in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Kaluga. We have a smaller presence in Novosibirsk, Samara, and other places, as well as an affiliated group in Perm. Overall, we have some two hundred to three hundred members.

The Kaluga group is probably the strongest and most coherent. There is an industrial cluster in this city, and it harbors a rare thing in Russia, an independent trade union, in this case, a local of the Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (the ITUA, which is also present in Petersburg and the Petersburg area). Our members in Kaluga are union organizers, autoworkers, and radical youth. The RSM have taken part in strikes and in worker self-organization in Kaluga. In Petersburg, RSM also consists of union workers and activists, but its ranks also include radical intellectuals and artists. In Moscow, the RSM is mostly made up of intellectuals, and it has become increasingly popular in radical artistic circles.

Generally, despite some internal problems, RSM is slowly becoming a rallying point for the radical left in Russia, due to its open, non-sectarian character and strong intellectual foundations. We try and play a role in the trade union movement and various social movements, to bring radical politics into these milieux, not, however in typical sectarian “entryist” fashion, but by really working with people, talking to them, getting to know them. We are also working on developing a coherent leftist theory for our situation. Obviously, our success is limited, but at least that is what we recognize as our goal.

In today’s very difficult circumstances, the RSM is very much focused on defending political prisoners in Russia. One of them, Konstantin Lebedev, is a member of our organization. Another RSM member, Filipp Dolbunov (Galtsov), is currently seeking political asylum in Ukraine. The RSM is a driving force behind the international solidarity campaign against political persecution in Russia.

Apart from that major concern, we also work with independent unions and social movements, especially against neoliberal policies in education and health care, and in the environmental and feminist movements, as well as the anti-fascist movement. We organize various cultural activities, in part through our affiliated independent publisher, the Free Marxist Press. We publish a newspaper called the Socialist, and run a web site

When and how did Occupy Moscow begin? What things happened in Moscow? What demands did its activists make, and what difficulties did they face?

On May 6, 2012, a mass opposition rally in Moscow was brutally dispersed by riot police. The police violence was unprecedented, and in a twisted Stalinist move our government afterwards started arresting people for taking part in a “riot,” thus setting the stage for a latter political show trial. Still, after the events at the rally, a minority of the marchers, around a thousand people, refused to go home and began a game of “catch me if you can” with the police on the streets of Moscow. This group of protesters moved around the city, trying to outmaneuver the police. This lasted for two or three days. Finally, the group settled in a kind of permanent camp near the monument to the Kazakh poet Abay on a small square in downtown Moscow. People kept coming, and the police didn’t disperse the camp, probably because the new protest tactics disoriented them. That is how Occupy Moscow or Occupy Abay began.

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It should be noted that some leftist activists had tried to import Occupy tactics before these events, organizing small “assemblies.” The Spanish Indignados and the American OWS were of course important and inspiring for us. However, we didn’t really believe something like that could happen in Moscow—and yet it happened.

Occupy Abay was an OWS-style camp on a small square, with a thousand to two thousand people in attendance daily, and some fifty to a hundred people staying on site in sleeping bags overnight. It was such a fresh experience of self-organization beyond traditional leftist and social scenes! Leftists, including RSM members, and anarchists were truly energized by what was happening right before their eyes. Leftist activists grouped in a European-style “info point” on the square with literature and leaflets. We organized a series of workshops for camp participants on unions, social movements, and leftist politics. The RSM began publishing a daily Occupy Abay leaflet, which quickly became a kind of official newspaper for the camp. Other self-organized activities included a kitchen and cleaning shifts. The square was so immaculately clean that the authorities had to fabricate evidence to present the camp as a nuisance to the neighborhood. However, the most important self-organized activity was the general assembly.

From the beginning, there was tension in the camp (just as in the Russian protest movement as a whole) between rank-and-file participants and self-proclaimed “leaders.” Some established opposition personalities tried to name one person “governor” of the camp, but of course the people ignored them. The left presented an alternative—participatory democracy in the form of the general assembly. The process was very difficult in the beginning, but eventually the assembly became the real voice of the camp. The climax of this self-governing process was, perhaps, an episode during the final hours of the camp’s existence, when the police ordered people to go home. Opposition leaders asked to speak to the crowd. But they had to wait their turn in a queue, just like other regular participants. When their turn came, they made their case—to comply with police orders—but the assembly rejected their proposal. In retrospect, it was the correct decision, since the police didn’t disperse the camp for another day.

The whole history of Occupy Abay/Occupy Barrikadnaya/Occupy Arbat (the last two are subsequent names for Occupy Moscow, reflecting the sites it briefly occupied after Abay was broken up) didn’t last more than several days, but it was an incredibly rich period of improvisation, self-organization, political struggle, and agitation. It injected the ideas of participatory democracy and horizontal structures into the protest movement, which had almost completely lacked such ideas before. We are still reflecting on the political and social significance of this event.

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The major difference between Occupy Moscow and OWS, the Indignados, etc., is that the Moscow camp was not leftist as a whole. It wasn’t organized around social issues; rather, it was the temporary form that the opposition movement in Russia, mostly liberal, took in Moscow in May 2012. Therefore, the participants were not only leftists, but also liberals, even people from the far right (which was rather humble and didn’t cause trouble, being in a weak political position). However, only the left in Russia practices self-organization, self-government, and participatory democracy. Therefore, the left quickly became an essential force driving the camp and its activities.

Talking about civil liberties in Russia, the Pussy Riot case and the anti-gay laws enacted in several Russian regions and now proposed in the national parliament are emblematic in the eyes of the world. You wrote an article last November, “A Police Story (What Happened to Filipp Dolbunov),” about a Russian student abducted by the police. Can you tell us what happened? What is your analysis of civil liberties in Russia?

Well, I wrote about a specific case of police repression against one activist. Currently Filipp, who is my comrade, is seeking political asylum. He is in Ukraine, but this country isn’t safe for him, as the case of another activist, Leonid Razvozzhayev, shows: Leonid was kidnapped in Kyiv by Russian security forces, tortured, and brought back to Moscow.

The situation with civil liberties in Russia is outrageous and rapidly becoming more and more catastrophic. More than twenty people are awaiting trial for taking part in the May 6 “riot” (i.e., the brutal attack on a legal, sanctioned rally by riot police). Most of them are in jail. Hundreds of detectives are working day and night to conjure a case out of nothing. One of the arrested confessed and was sent to prison for four and half years. On January 17, while facing similar charges and imminent deportation from the Netherlands back to Russia, Alexander Dolmatov took his own life.

The police have merged the May 6 “riot” case with the Sergei Udaltsov case. Udaltsov is one of the few public opposition leaders from the left. He has been charged with “organizing the unrest” on ”evidence” presented to the entire country during a special broadcast on Russian state-controlled TV. Udaltsov and two other people, one of them, Konstantin Lebedev, an RSM member, are now accused of being the “organizers” of the “riot” that took place on May 6. There is an endless chain of fabricated evidence and trumped-up charges that is directed against the Russian opposition, but mainly the left.

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I was on Bolotnaya: arrest me!

Another group that suffers disproportionately from state repression are anti-fascists. Some of them have been sentenced to prison, while others have been arrested and awaiting trial for months on end.

Please read our appeal for solidarity to learn the details about the recent crackdown in Russia. The RSM and other left groups are in desperate need of solidarity, so any actions of support are most welcome.

Another article of yours, “The ‘Welfare’ State Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This,” talks about the situation of the “welfare state,” a term that in Italian and Russian translates to the “social state.” What is your analysis in this article? What are the social and economic problems in your country?

My basic point in this article is that Russia is not a welfare state, despite the fact that it’s called a “social state” in the Constitution. It lacks a minimum wage (which is set below official subsistence level, i.e., this minimum wage is not enough to avoid dying from starvation). Strikes are almost completely prohibited. The situation with housing, education, health care, childcare, science, and cultural institutions is scandalous, and it’s getting worse day by day.

Even though we now have more than 130 dollar billionaires and one of the world’s largest money reserves, teachers and university professors in some Russian regions are paid the equivalent of 150-250 euros a month, just like doctors and other public employees. Wealth inequality, according to some sources, is the greatest in the world.

Oil and gas-driven growth has not brought prosperity or a meaningful economic future to Russia. It is a country ruled by a parasitic, uncontrollable elite. And their answer to all problems is more neoliberalism, more deregulation. They are currently implementing neoliberal reforms in education, health care, and science and culture, just like in Europe. For example, schoolteachers are forced to compete for wage bonuses, just as schools are forced to compete for pupils. This deliberate introduction of market logic in fields completely alien to it, such as education, health care, and culture, is a basic sign of neoliberalism. And the result is European-style “budget cuts” in a situation where there’s nothing to cut to begin with. The social, scientific, and cultural institutions of the Soviet state are in shambles, and now they are being terrorized yet again by this new neoliberal assault.

What are the problems of universities in Russia? Is the education system under attack by neoliberal policies undertaken by the Putin government? What are the main changes and differences between the education systems in USSR and Russia today?

University teachers have been underpaid for decades in Russia. Average wages are 200-500 euros per month even for those who have degrees. In general, the share of educational spending in the federal budget is very low both in absolute and relative terms. Education amounts to about 4.5 percent of Russian GDP, lower than the OECD average—despite the fact that it needs to be rebuilt, not just maintained.

Another problem is university bureaucracy. The institutions of collegial self-government and university autonomy do not function. Both professors and students are subjugated to the will of the administration.

Some problems, such as the lack of autonomy, are inherited from the USSR; some are new.

For example, the authorities have embarked on a program of university reform. It is basically a neoliberal policy, which identifies “ineffective” institutions of higher learning and closes them or merges them with others. Students, professors, and society as a whole have no say in this.

Still, there are some encouraging signs. The atmosphere in Russia has changed since the protests began in 2011. It is not such an apathetic, depoliticized society as before. And university staff are becoming angry, too: when the education minister blamed them, in an interview, for their incompetence (which, he said, explained their low salaries), more than a thousand professors signed a letter of protest. A new independent university teachers’ union is being created. Just a few days ago, an activist at Moscow State University, Mikhail Lobanov, successfully avoided being fired after a strong campaign of solidarity on his behalf. This might be a small success, but it inspires hope: students are becoming more aware of their potential, and professors are, too. There is an incredible amount of work to be done, but it is much easier now to believe in our eventual success.

Photos taken from the Facebook pages European Revolution, OccupyAbay, and Elena Rostunova without permission but with much gratitude.

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Leftist Activist Andrei Bitkov Kidnapped by Authorities in Kaluga

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Kaluga authorities continue to take revenge on leftist activists who helped organize a strike at the Benteler Automotive plant.  Today, May 22, Andrei Bitkov, a member of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD), was seized on the street by men in plain clothes and forcibly taken to the assembly point of the local military enlistment center, after which contact with him was lost.

The Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (ITUA/MPRA) believes that such actions, which blatantly violate the laws of the Russian Federation, are linked to the successful strike carried out by the ITUA at the Benteler Automotive plant in March–April 2012, a strike Bitkov helped organize.

Despite the fact that Bitkov is not eligible for the draft due to health reasons and was planning to appeal the actions of the draft board in court in a hearing scheduled for May 29, the “competent” authorities have not given up their attempts to send the leftist activist to the army. Thus, on May 17, Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”) officers descended on the Kaluga offices of the ITUA, where both trade union and RSD members were located at the time. They tried to illegally detain Bitkov, but the workers present prevented them from doing this.  A month earlier, immediately after the strike at Benteler Automotive, Center “E” officers had served Bitkov with a summons to the draft board.

Earlier, on April 18, another RSD activist, Daniil Pyatov, was kidnapped by officers of the security services directly at the university where he is a student. They attempted to threaten him into cooperating with them.

The ITUA and RSD regards these events as forms of political and anti-trade union repression provoked by the growth of worker self-organization in the Kaluga automotive production cluster.

Currently, Andrei Bitkov is presumably located at the draft board assembly point at ul. Michurina, 38a, in Kaluga; tel.: +7 (4842) 54-29-06. His comrades urge all concerned citizens to call this number and demand his immediate release.

For more information, contact Dmitry Kozhnev, ITUA Kaluga coordinator, at +7 (903) 800-3696.

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Alexei Etmanov: An Appeal for Solidarity with Russian Auto Workers

The following solidarity appeal by Alexei Etmanov, co-chair of Russia’s Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (ITUA), to Jyrki Raina, general secretary of the International Metalworkers’ Federation, was published on the ITUA website yesterday. You can read the original text in Russian here, as well as download the English translation (which we have reproduced below) for redistribution and reposting.  The IMF has previously expressed their solidarity with the ITUA. You can read more about that here.


Jyrki Raina
General Secretary
International Metalworkers’ Federation
Geneva, Switzerland 

Dear Brother,

More than once did Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (ITUA) receive brotherly support and solidarity from the IMF and its affiliates. However, worsening situation with basic labour rights in Russia forces us to turn to IMF again.

Recently ITUA shop floor organizations and their members have faced increasing pressure from government authorities, particularly from the local Departments for the Prevention of Extremism created by the Investigative Committee at the Public Prosecutor’s Office, local Prosecutor’s Offices themselves and from the Departments of Internal Affairs. Pressure from employers has also increased. It is our view that this pressure is aimed at suppressing ITUA activities at the national level and destroying shop floor organizations created by workers.

We would like to draw your attention to the following facts.

What raises special concern is the fact that a number of leaflets issued and distributed by the activists of the ITUA union at Tsentrosvarmash plant in Tver, Russia were included in the ‘Federal List of Extremist Materials’, composed by the Ministry of Justice. [Editor’s note: these materials are indeed on the list under nos. 439, 441—444, 446—447.] The materials were deemed ‘extremist’ by Zavolzhsky District Court in Tver on August 28, 2009, but ITUA representatives were not informed of that case. Union members learned about the court ruling only after the ‘List of Extremist Materials’ had been published on the official web page of the Ministry of Justice. To date, union activists still haven’t been able to get hold of the court ruling – that’s why they can’t challenge it in court. As for the leaflets, they solely deal with labour rights protection: creating shop floor organization, demanding fair payment for night work, union’s anti-crisis programme, and fight against precarious employment.

Federal Security Service (FSS), a Russian special service, considered initiating a case against Dmitry Kozhnev, chairman of the Tsentrosvarmash union, under item 1 of article 280 (‘Public call for extremist activity’) of the Russian Criminal Code. This didn’t happen. However, in April and June Kozhnev was summoned by FSS for ‘interviews’. FSS officials didn’t give him the case materials, but asked him to sign post factum about ten official notices on the dismissal of a criminal case.

Instead of protecting the union from rights violations and employer’s repressions, Tver Prosecutor’s Offices themselves put pressure on union activists who create shop floor organizations. Thus, in November 2009 activists of the unions at Tver Wagon Building plant and Tsentrosvarmash V. Kornilov, D. Kozhnev, E. Vinogradov, V. Sergeev and V. Kremko were summoned by Zavolzhsky District Prosecutor’s Office for giving testimony (the summons were given by employers). Activists were asked questions about the procedure of creating shop floor organizations, their activities, number and names of their members, preparing and distributing union materials, union leaders’ travels and meetings.

In October 2009 ITUA co-chairman and the chairman of the union at AvtoVAZ plant in Togliatti, Russia Petr Zolotarev was twice summoned by the Department for the Prevention of Extremism (so‑called Center ‘E’) prior to the mass protests organized by the union. Center ‘E’ officials questioned Zolotarev about the union’s planned activities. They also asked who will take part in those activities, what demands will be made and who will address the protesters. In July 2009 Zolotarev was returning by train from a union meeting in Moscow. When the train approached the station ‘Zhigulevskoe More’, several Center ‘E’ officials joined Zolotarev in his compartment. They questioned him about his trip and meetings in Moscow. Zolotarev feels that he’s been under surveillance all the time.

In February 2009 chairman of ITUA union at GM Auto plant in Saint-Petersburg, Russia Evgeny Ivanov was also summoned by Center ‘E’, where the officers tried to induce him to ‘cooperate’. For them ‘cooperation’ meant informing Center ‘E’ about the work of the plant and the activities of the unions in the city and the surrounding area. The same offer was made to ITUA co-chairman and the chairman of the union at Ford MC plant in Vsevolozhsk, Russia Alexei Etmanov.

In the meantime, union members and activists face ongoing pressure from employers. After the union organized so-called ‘Italian strikes’ (work-by-the-rules) on October 21 and November 11-20 at GM Auto plant in Saint-Petersburg (the demands were: switching premiums for the increases in guaranteed pay, pay increases, more freedom in using holiday time, abolishment of summarized annual recording of the working time and introduction of 40-hour work week), chairman of the union at the plant Evgeny Ivanov and union activist O. Shafikova were fired. Union activists A. Tsaregorodsev and I. Dorosevich face increasing pressure (the administration forced them to combine tasks without additional payment, moved them to unfamiliar work site and took disciplinary action against them). Management representatives propagandize against the union at shop floors.

Prosecutor’s Offices and other authorities don’t take any action regarding employers’ illegal activities. Over a year ago many ITUA leaders and shop floor activists were physically assaulted, but the investigation still hasn’t resulted in anything at all.

All these facts raise serious concern about the fate of ITUA, its shop floor organizations, activists and members. All-Russian Confederation of Labour (ACL) has prepared a detailed report based on the evidence of trade union rights violations, ITUA cases included. A complaint to ILO against Russian Federation is being prepared. However, the situation changes very fast, and in the unfavorable direction. This is why we turn to the IMF, asking to look for an effective response to the attack against its affiliate. We ask IMF to launch a global campaign of solidarity with ITUA.

Help and support from the international labour movement, particularly from our brotherly unions welded together by the IMF can secure the survival of our organization and the personal safety of its members and activists today.

We are ready to answer any questions regarding the facts mentioned above and render to IMF all the additional materials we have on this case.

In Solidarity,

Alexei Etmanov,
Co-Chairman, ITUA

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“Greetings from the Trade Union!”: GM Petersburg Union Leader Yevgeny Ivanov Assaulted

6_2Called the “godfather” of the plant by St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko during the event for his early involvement in the project, Medvedev talked about taking part in the groundbreaking ceremony for the plant as first deputy prime minister in 2006.

“I was given a shovel as a souvenir, which I still keep at my dacha with other gardening tools,” Medvedev, a St. Petersburg native, said before inspecting the interior of a Chevy Captiva midsize SUV presumably right off the assembly line.

“Medvedev Warms Up at GM Plant Opening,” Moscow Times November 10, 2008

Because we were busy reporting on the murders of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, we didn’t get round to summarizing or translating this bulletin, which was posted on the website of the Institute for Collective Action on January 25. To tell the truth, we hoped that the threats made against GM Saint Petersburg trade union leader Yevgeny Ivanov wouldn’t come true. 

In January, Ivanov went public with the fact that persons unknown had been calling him and making threats. He informed the RIA Novosti news agency that someone had called him and said, “You made a mistake when you announced the formation of a trade union. It seems like you don’t care about your family.”

The formation of the trade union at the GM Petersburg plant (located in the suburb of Shushary) was announced in mid-January. The union is an affiliate of the Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (ITUA). Seventy of the plant’s nine hundred workers joined the new union, whose stated goal is to obtain regular wage increases for workers through a collective bargaining agreement.

Even before the creation of the new union was announced, however, Ivanov began receiving threats. Although Ivanov reported these incidents to the police, they refused to open a criminal investigation. Meanwhile, his comrades at the ITUA collected money so that Ivanov could get his family out of the city.

Now Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty) has reported that Ivanov was attacked today (February 8, 2009) near the entrance to his house. The two assailants, according to Ivanov, said, “Greetings from the trade union!” before hitting him in the face several times. Doctors who treated Ivanov after the incident determined that he has suffered a concussion. 

Like attacks against other social and political activists, assaults against trade union leaders have become all too common in Russia in recent months. We have already reported the two attacks against Ford-Vsevolozhsk union leader Alexei Etmanov, in November of last year, as well as attacks on Sergei Bryzgalov and Alexei Gramm, activists in the ITUA-affiliated union at the TagAZ plant in Taganrog, in southern Russia.

UPDATE: Fontanka.Ru has just reported more details of the assault on Ivanov. They quote him as saying, “I was going to the store. As I came out of the entrance of my building I took several professional blows to the face. There were two of them: one held the door of the entryway wide open, while the other stood around the corner. It was so unexpected that I fell over, and when I was getting up I heard one of them say, ‘Greetings from the trade union.’” 
Ivanov was attacked in Kolpino, a southern suburb of Saint Petersburg.
Ironically, just two days ago, the International Metalworkers’ Federation called on Russian authorities to thoroughly investigate the continuing attacks on union activists and to find and punish the wrongdoers. Their appeal specifically mentions the threats made to Yevgeny Ivanov. As today’s attack has shown, their concern was fully warranted.

 

 

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Russia: Stop Attacks on Auto Workers Union

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Russia: Stop attacks on auto workers union

Alexei Etmanov.Alexei Etmanov (pictured), the leader of the Ford-Vsevelozhsk trade union and co-chairman of Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (ITUA) has been the target of two brutal attacks on November 8 and 13. An anonymous caller following the first assault contacted the union and warned Etmanov to stop his union activities or “we will take away your life,” the caller said. No one has been charged for the crimes and an investigation has been suspended. Other members of ITUA have been assaulted, including the leaders of the local trade union organisation of Taganrog automobile plant, Alexei Gramm and Sergei Brizgalov. Those incidents were not investigated either. 

The International Metalworkers Federation is carrying out a campaign to protect the leaders of ITUA, demanding that the Russian authorities conduct a complete investigation of all cases of the assaults and to punish the guilty ones – both those that took part and those who ordered the crimes to be committed.

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Please follow the link at the top of this message to sign the petition in support of Russian auto industry unionists.

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