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Valentin Urusov Wins Arthur Svensson Prize for Trade Union Rights

The Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights 2013 is awarded to the Russian Valentin Urusov  

Valentin Urusov 2

Falsely imprisoned for leading a strike in Russia

The Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights for 2013 is awarded to Russian trade union leader Valentin Urusov. He was falsely imprisoned after leading a strike against dangerous working conditions in the diamond industry.

“Urusov has become symbolic of the struggle for workers’ rights and freedom of association in Russia,” says Leif Sande, committee chair and head of the LO trade union Industri Energi.

The Arthur Svensson prize is a prize from a broad Norwegian trade union movement. This year’s prize goes to fearless trade union leader Valentin Urusov, who has been falsely imprisoned for many years. As the leader of the trade union Profsvoboda at Alrosa, the world’s second largest diamond mining company, he led a hunger strike with more than one thousand workers against inhumane working conditions and low pay.

The prize committee:

Leif Sande, Committee Chair (Industri Energi), former LO presidents Gerd-Liv Valla and Yngve Hågensen, Randi Bjørgen (former President of the Confederation of Vocational Unions), Helga Hjetland (former President of the Union of Education Norway), Finn Erik Thoresen (Board Leader of Norwegian People’s Aid) and Liv Tørres (General Secretary of Norwegian People’s Aid).

A forced confession

After the strike, Urusov was arrested, beaten up and his life was threatened. He was forced to sign a confession admitting possession of drugs. The police had brought an executive from Alrosa along as a witness, an example of how the company controls courts and the police in the republic.

“He was imprisoned on what were clearly false accusations, and both the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Russian and international trade union organisations have been involved in trying to get him released,” says Leif Sande, committee chair and head of the LO trade union Industri Energi, which took the initiative for the prize.

Released, but not free

Urusov was released in March of this year after it became known that he had been nominated for the Svensson prize. The rest of his five year prison sentence has been converted into a fine demanding 15% of his income throughout the remainder of his sentence. In addition, he is not permitted to leave the country.

The imprisonment and harassment of Urusov has become symbolic of the struggle for workers’ rights and freedom of association in Russia.

The committee alludes to the fact that he has full support from all the Russian trade unions, and that he was nominated for the prize by a number of trade union organisations throughout Europe. The international trade union movement, led by the International Trade Union Confederation, has been highly involved in his case.

“The Arthur Svensson international prize is first and foremost a helping hand – and an acknowledgment – to union officials and trade unionists around the world fighting for workers’ rights under dangerous conditions,” says Sande. We thank this year’s recipient of the prize, Valentin Urusov, for his courage in the fight against poor working conditions in the Russian diamond industry.

The committee expresses concern

In their citation, the committee write that they are concerned about the workers’ rights situation in Russia. The right of free association, right to collective bargaining and right to strike have long been under pressure, and it may appear that conditions are deteriorating further under Putin’s current regime. Thus, the prize is also being awarded to bring these conditions into focus, and in support of Russian workers.

For more information about the prize: www.svenssonprize.com

The Arthur Svensson International Prize

The Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights is awarded to individuals who, or organisations which, have made noteworthy efforts to promote the work of trade unions and workers’ rights nationally and internationally. Last year’s prize went to the Cambodian trade union the Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Workers Democratic Union, C.CAWDU. The prize is NOK 500,000 and is awarded annually. The prize is named for the former leader of the Norwegian Union of Chemical Industry Workers, Arthur Svensson, who was especially engaged in international solidarity.

This year, the prize will be awarded during a formal ceremony held at Folkets Hus on 19 June.

Photo by Aleskey Maishev

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Turn Off the News: Tikkurila Is Lying

Turn Off the News: Tikkurila Is Lying

What would you think if you saw a news report on TV claiming that Citizen A. was engaged in a “dirty campaign” against Citizen B., who in turn was presented as an utterly honest man, but the evidence against Citizen A. took the form of quotations from anonymous sources? If a report like that were shown on Russian TV, any viewer with an ounce of common sense would deem it the product of the “black PR” techniques common in our country and would suspect that the journalists who filed it had sold out. Although they rightly do not trust their own mass media, Russian citizens customarily believe that the mass media in western countries are independent. Reporters at the Finnish channel MTV3 have managed to discredit that opinion.

“A Strange War”

On October 13, viewers of the MTV3 news and analysis program 45 minuuttia (“45 Minutes”) were told about a “strange war” being carried about “by a tiny group of [Russian] activists” against the Finnish company Tikkurila. According to the report, Tikkurila management is perplexed by the “dirty campaign” that has been organized against it and informs the Finnish audience that other Finnish firms have been “attacked” in this same strange manner. Viewers are told that that fourteen lawsuits are currently under review in the courts in connection with this campaign, a video detailing the horrible working conditions at the company’s Petersburg facilities has been uploaded to the Internet, and numerous negative articles have been published in newspapers. However, “according to Tikkurila management, the unpleasant video is for the most part fabricated. The shop floor [in question] was shut down half a year ago, and now it looks like this [we are shown a pleasant picture].” Sergei Kruglov, chair of the trade union committee at Tikkurila Petersburg, tells viewers that management is pressuring the union. Tikkurila Petersburg’s managing director, Simo Laitala, comments on Kruglov’s remarks: “It would be interesting to know what pressure he’s talking about. At our company, one can freely join a trade union or leave it.” This is followed by a brief prehistory of the conflict as interpreted by management: “The problems began when Tikkurila purchased TEKS [a similar paint-manufacturing plant in Petersburg] in 2006. A portion of the jobs at the plant was eliminated after production was automated. Later, problems began with a small local of the ITUA [Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers], which complains of harsh working conditions, bad wages, and bad management.”

All that the Finnish audience is told about the trade union is that it is small and “marginal,” but that it has a “large leadership”: “When it was founded, all ten members were appointed either chairs or vice chairs.” “In practice, this means they’re all protected by the law, that none of them can be fired,” comments Mr. Laitala. In its protests, the trade union “has gone surprisingly far,” says Mirja Tiri of the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce: “Trade union activists have carried out actions against Tikkurila products at retail outlets. This is not normal trade union activity, but something else… The motives for such actions are not clear; we do not know who is behind them and on what principles this trade union operates. It is not known who is financing them.” Simo Laitala again comments: “I first learned about their demands through the media. They’re constantly demanding the dismissal of two people – the personnel manager and the head of security. And that the pressure against them be stopped. But outsiders cannot hire or fine anyone… There has been no pressure [on the union] on the part of company management.”

Viewers are then treated to excerpts from comments given by anonymous “experts,” “who did not consent to appear on camera.”

A representative of the Finnish Foreign Ministry: “There have been protests at certain foreign firms [operating in Russia], but there are no clear demands for improvements. The organizers [of these protests] might come from the outside or this activity might have been commissioned from outside ‘consulting companies.’”

General director of a Finnish company: “I’ve also heard that when the protesters were asked why they were participating in pickets, they replied that they didn’t know, that they’d been paid to do it.”

An employee of a Finnish company who is in charge of operations in Russia: “In Russia, there are two types of trade union organizations – those that sincerely try to improve working conditions, and those that create the problems themselves and then offer to solve them.”

Potemkin Villages

Before we evaluate this report, we have to discuss how it was filmed. In late September, ITUA activists were contacted by a group of Finnish TV journalists interested in the conflict at Tikkurila’s Petersburg facilities. The reporters simultaneously asked company management permission to film at the company’s plants. On September 28 and 30, a TV crew visited the production facilities in Obukhovo (the “old” Tikkurila plant) and on Utkin Prospect (the former TEKS plant). However, Sergei Kruglov, chair of the ITUA Tikkurila local, was able to accompany the TV crew only at the Obukhovo facility. None of the trade union’s activists was admitted into the former TEKS facility along with the TV crew. In fact, there were no other workers at the plant, either, because an inventory check had been (accidentally?) scheduled for the day shooting took place. Journalists were shown empty, ideally clean shop floors.

At the Obukhovo facility, Ms. Rennblad, director for production, proudly demonstrated to her guests a showcase shop floor that had been outfitted with recently purchased, up-to-date equipment. However, the toxic warning labels on the containers used to store harmful raw materials had been removed beforehand. Sergei Kruglov’s attempts to lead the “tourists” away from the management-approved route were peremptorily nipped in the bud. Ms. Rennblad thus categorically refused to show the journalists Shop Floor No. 1, where, according to the trade union, occupational safety rules are crudely violated (the quantity of hazardous substances present there surpasses all imaginable norms, there are no exhaust fans, etc.)

Along with detailed commentary, trade union activists supplied the journalists with a number of documents backing their accusations against Tikkurila. However, as the broadcast report shows us, all this evidence was ignored.

Lie No. 1: “A Conspiracy against Finnish Companies”

Tikkurila management declares that not only has it fallen victim to a “strange attack,” but “other Finnish firms” have been attacked as well. The anonymous spokesman for the Finnish Foreign Ministry claims that “there have been protests at certain foreign firms” without clear demands; moreover, “this activity” has been commissioned by outside forces. That is, there is a certain conspiracy against Finnish or foreign entrepreneurs in Saint Petersburg, and the ITUA’s campaign at Tikkurila is part of this conspiracy.

In reality, these claims are absolutely groundless. Tikkurila is the only Finnish company in Saint Petersburg (and, as far as we known, in all of Russia) that has sparked protests this year in connection with its violations of labor rights. The pickets held this past summer at the building supply supermarkets in the K-Rauta chain (a subsidiary of the Finnish concern Kesko) were meant to inform consumers about the exploitation of workers at Tikkurila’s Petersburg facilities and the persecution of the trade union local at the plants. It goes without saying that no complaints were directed against K-Rauta or Kesko. We requested only thing from the management of these supermarkets: that they express their displeasure over what is happening at the plants to Tikkurila management. We held exactly the same pickets outside supermarkets in the French chain Leroy Merlin. Whether a company is Finnish- or foreign-owned has never made any difference to us. We do not divide workers by nationality or race, nor do we divide employers in this way either.

When we held pickets outside the Finnish consulate in Saint Petersburg and the local office of the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce, we submitted written appeals in which we asked them to put pressure on Tikkurila management. In these letters, we invariably underscored the fact that the vicious practice of repressing trade unionists harmed the reputation in Russia of the Finnish business community, which has traditionally been considered socially responsible.

Aside from Tikkurila, the ITUA has a local only at one other Finnish production facility in Saint Petersburg, Nokian Tires. In addition, there is an independent trade union at Fazer Amico (which operates cafeterias); like the ITUA, this trade union is a member of the Russian Labor Confederation (KTR). It would be wrong to say that the situation with the observance of trade right union rights is trouble-free at either of these companies, but neither the ITUA or anyone else is engaged in protest or informational campaigns against management there. Or could it be that Mr. Laitala and the anonymous commentators who support him view the very fact of a trade union being organized as a declaration of war? If that is so, then in Finland itself, with its strong, massive trade union movement, this “strange war” has already been going on for many decades.

Lie No. 2: The “Fabricated Video”

Mr. Laitala claims that the video showing the horrible working conditions in the No. 2 water-based paints manufacturing shop floor at the Utkin Prospect facility is “for the most part fabricated, [and] the shop floor was shut down half a year ago.” Tikkurila Petersburg’s managing director is lying; moreover, his lie is amateurish. As he accuses the ITUA of fabricating the video, he does not explain to a curious TV audience what exactly was fabricated and what he means by “for the most part.” Perhaps the “unpleasant video” was shot at some other company’s production facility, not at Tikkurila? Perhaps it is not Shop Floor No. 2 we see in the video, but something else? Then why does Mr. Laitala try to justify himself by claiming that the shop floor was closed half a year ago? Or are we dealing here with a clever editing job in which real footage has been mixed with faked footage? We would not advise Mr. Laitala to make such a claim, because the ITUA has the original footage in its possession and we are prepared to hand it over to independent experts for verification. Or, when he says that the shop floor was closed, is Mr. Laitala trying to accuse us of covering up certain facts?

The facts, however, are as follows: a trade union activist shot the video in question on a mobile phone on January 29. At that moment, the ITUA was fighting to have a workplace safety inspection carried out at the plant and conditions there declared hazardous; it had asked the State Labor Inspectorate and other monitoring agencies to inspect the company’s facilities. This, apparently, was the main reason why Shop Floor No. 2 was closed in February 2010. The video was edited in March, when the ITUA had launched a campaign to get fired activists reinstated to their jobs. (This is when subtitles and music were added to the documentary footage.) This is quite easy to verify because the text accompanying the video ends with the following phrase: “Since February 2010, the shop floor has been closed, and the equipment shut down […] but not disassembled. Operations in the shop floor can be resumed at any moment […] and the modern, hi-tech production process at the plant will start up once more.” That is, what Mr. Laitala claims in the given instance was something we never questioned. However, the head of Tikkurila Petersburg is merely trying to pass off one of the ITUA’s victories as evidence of the humaneness of his company, which allegedly improves the conditions of its workers of its own free will. And he tries to use this fact to discredit his opponents. Very clever!

If we had been in the shoes of the Finnish journalists, we would have asked Mr. Laitala tougher questions. For example, is it true that Tikkurila employees work with ethylene glycol, a substance that can cause severe poisoning whose symptoms include loss of consciousness, respiratory problems, and convulsions? And what about the other toxic materials used at the Petersburg facilities, such as dibutyl phthalate (whose fumes damage the mucous membranes in the gastrointestinal tract and the liver), preventol (headache, stomach pains, nausea, vomiting, rapid pulse), Dowanol (headache, dizziness, weakness, palpitations, eye irritation, watery eyes), and Varsol 40 (which, besides causing dizziness, a feeling of intoxication, weakness, eye irritation, coughing, and itchiness, is also potentially explosive)? Do workers at Tikkurila receive the required extra pay for hazardous work? Have work-safety inspections been carried out at the plants? Are workers informed about risk factors?

The most amazing thing is that the Finnish TV journalists could have asked all these questions: ITUA activists presented them with the draft of an occupational safety instruction manual that was compiled in 2008 by V.K. Vasilenko, head of the laboratory at Tikkurila, but which company management did not sign off on. However, for some reason the journalists did not ask these questions. Why didn’t they?

Lie No. 3: “Freedom”

“It would be interesting to know what pressure he’s talking about. At our company, one can freely join a trade union or leave it,” Simo Laitala cynically declares. In this case, why has practically the entire core of ITUA activists at Tikkurila been thrown out on the street, while those who remain employed at the company are being blackmailed by management into quitting the ITUA? Why has trade union committee chair Sergei Kruglov been on forced downtime since February and making only two thirds of his normal wage? Why was Igor Ramko fired as the result of a criminal investigation that began with a “tip-off” from Tikkurila and reinstated to his job (by court order) only four months later? Why is management trying to instigate a similar case (involving an allegedly faked medical certificate) against another union member, Nikolai Chuvilin? Why have five of the six disciplinary actions taken against members of the trade union committee been thrown out by the courts as unfounded? Why was Igor Tyabin forced to quit the trade union after management threatened to hold him liable for damages in the amount of 300,000 rubles? Why was Alexander Kalnyuk, a top-grade specialist and presidential medal winner who has trained more than one generation of young workers, among those who were laid off? We could continue this list of questions ad infinitum.

Of course, Tikkurila dreams up the most varied excuses to rid itself of undesirable employees. However, Mr. Laitala amusingly lets the cat out of the bag when he says, “When [the ITUA Tikkurila local] was founded, all ten members were appointed either chairs or vice chairs. […] In practice, this means they’re all protected by the law, that none of them can be fired.” Actually, if you were to take on faith Laitala’s assertion that trade union members at Tikkurila are in no way threatened, then such precautions would seem utterly superfluous. But then why have all those members except for local chair Sergei Kruglov been fired? The answer is simple: because the precautions taken by the trade union committee were not superfluous but too late. Amendments introduced late last year to the Russian Labor Code have abolished the “immunity” of elected trade union officers. Employers are now required to get approval from senior trade union officials only when they want to fire chairs of local trade union committees.

How things stand with “rights and freedoms” at Tikkurila is vividly demonstrated by an order that Mr. Laitala issued on March 22, a photocopy of which is in our possession. It reads as follows: “I hereby order that: 1.  Operating procedure (no. 2) for employees be followed in cases where requests are made to publicly comment in the mass media on events/news at the company. 2. All employees must promptly (within one working day) report requests made by journalists/media representatives to the communications director of Tikkurila, Ltd., at his work phone/mobile phone, as well as by e-mail. 3. It be considered inadmissible for employees to make public comments on corporate events/news (that have not been approved by the communications director).” Mr. Laitala might also call this document a fabrication, of course. But should we believe people who instigate fabricated criminal cases against trade union activists?

Lie No. 4: “The Trade Union Doesn’t Want Dialogue”

Simo Laitala has on more than occasion stated that he found out about the trade union’s demands from the mass media, that the trade union rejects dialogue with management, etc. Our Pinocchio is lying once again. The ITUA issued its first request for negotiations on March 30. In his reply, dated April 12, Mr. Laitala thanked the trade union and apologized for the delay in replying due to a business trip abroad. He also informed the ITUA that he would “read [our] letter and tender a reply in the near future.” Unfortunately, we never got that reply. On April 16, Boris Kravchenko, president of the All-Russia Confederation of Labor, sent an official letter to Tikkurila management, but this was likewise met with no response. On August 6, after Mr. Laitala stated in an interview with a Finnish business publication that the ITUA showed no desire to deal with company management, we sent him another appeal for negotiations. Our copy of the letter contains a notation that the letter was received at 3:20 p.m. on August 9, and recorded in the registry under No. 78 by a secretary, Ms. Suldina. Are you not ashamed, Mr. LIEtala?

Lie No. 5: “Non-Trade Union Methods”

“Trade union activists have carried out actions against Tikkurila products at retail outlets. This is not normal trade union activity, but something else,” says Mirja Tiri from the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce. Ms. Tiri’s comments might make one think that she is talking about “terrorist strikes” organized by the trade union or deliberate damage inflicted on the company’s products. In reality, the “actions against Tikkurila products” were peaceful, officially permitted pickets outside shopping centers during which activists handed leaflets to shoppers asking them to boycott Tikkurila paint products until the demands of workers were met. In order to express their solidarity with the trade union’s struggle, leftist youth groups drew graffiti and distributed stickers criticizing Tikkurila. Commenting on these actions, the ITUA has invariably stated that it uses only legal methods.

If Ms. Tiri believes that pickets outside retail outlets are “not normal trade union activity, but something else,” then she is either deliberately distorting reality or she does not know what she is talking about. Trade unions all over the world resort to public boycotts against the products of companies that crudely violate the rights of workers. Examples include the boycotts against Coca Cola, Unilever, Nestle, and many other transnational corporations initiated by global trade unions. Nor is it a secret that many trade unions, including in Western Europe, resort to the radical methods of civil disobedience, which often escalate into violent confrontations with the police. It suffices to look at French and Greek trade unionists, whose radicalism the ITUA still has a very long way to go to match. But Ms. Tiri has apparently been transformed into a lowbrow Russian bureaucrat and thus approves only the style of trade union activity exemplified by “yellow,” management-run pseudo trade unions.

Lie No. 6: “Someone Is Behind” the ITUA

Ms. Tiri’s complaints to the effect that the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce does not know “who is behind” the ITUA, what principles it operates on, and who finances it are hypocritical, to say the least. If the leadership of the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce wanted to find out more about the work and principles of the ITUA, then there was nothing preventing them from contacting us: the trade union’s contact information is a matter of public record. However, the Chamber has done everything possible to insure that such contact has not taken place. On September 8, we held a picket outside the Petersburg office of this organization in order to draw the attention of the Finnish business community to the problems at Tikkurila. Before the picket, we sent a letter addressed to the head of this organization, Mr. Tiirikainen, requesting that he meet with the picketers, consider our appeal, and bring his influence to bear on Tikkurila management. Instead of this, however, we were confronted with the Chamber’s pointed unwillingness to engage in any dialogue whatsoever. A day before the picket, the ITUA was informed that the Chamber “cannot intervene in the activities of other commercial entities” and “is not empowered to receive official petitions” (which directly contradicted the information posted on the Chamber’s official web site). By a strange coincidence, the directors of the Petersburg office had gone on holiday the day before the picket, and we arrived to find the doors firmly locked during the height of a working day. Only after lengthy negotiations by telephone with Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly deputy Vladimir Fyodorov did Mr. Garevsky, the chamber’s legal consultant, come out to meet with the picketers. He took our letter and promised to pass it on to his superiors.

It is telling how Ms. Tiri frames the question: “We do not know who is behind [the trade union].” Apparently, she has no doubt that, aside from its dues-paying members, there is someone else behind the ITUA. In polite society, it is customary to provide proof for such claims. But because there is no proof whatsoever, the libelous accusation is disguised as hypocritical bewilderment.

The anonymous commentators from Finnish companies and the Finnish Foreign Ministry continue the relay race of brazen insinuations. One of them claims that activists from the ITUA and organizations in solidarity with it are paid for their participation in pickets. Another commentator suggests that the ITUA local at Tikkurila “create[s] the problems [itself] and then offer[s] to solve them,” while a third alludes to certain “consulting companies” who, allegedly, were commissioned to organize the “war” against Tikkurila. It is beneath our dignity to refute such insinuations. We will ask our anonymous commentators only one question: what are you afraid of? Is the ITUA really such an ominous organization that you fear for your life or your wallet? Or maybe it is a lot simpler, and you hid your faces so that you could lie with impunity?

Unprofessionalism or Corruption?

So let us summarize. On October 13, MTV3 broadcast a flagrantly biased report based wholly on statements made by Simo Laitala, Tikkurila Petersburg’s managing director; Mirja Tiri, a spokesperson for the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce (which serves the interests of Finnish companies); two anonymous businessmen; and an anonymous bureaucrat from the Finnish Foreign Ministry. What guided the journalist who filed this report, Mirja Sipinen, in her choice of experts? Why didn’t she include the leaders of the ITUA and other independent trade unions, independent analysts, and, finally, rank-and-file workers? What was the decisive factor here? The absence of elementary notions of journalistic ethics? Unprofessionalism? Gullibility? Class prejudices? Or was it something else, say, a direct payoff from Tikkurila?

We are no longer surprised when we see “socially responsible” European employers adopting the worst traits of “wild” Russian capitalism. But when the democratic Finnish mass media begin adopting the mores of the corrupt and subordinated Russian press, it is shocking. However, isn’t information really just a commodity like paint? Doesn’t freedom of speech just boil down to free trade? You paint one person black, the other person, white. Everything is done to please the client – the portly gentleman puffing a cigar and wearing a top hat marked with a dollar sign.

Editor’s Note. The original Russian text of this article was provided to us by the ITUA. We have translated  and published it in solidarity with their campaign.

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Finlandization: Maximum-Security Tikkurila (Saint Petersburg)

“We are good corporate citizens in our communities.”

Source: http://www.tikkurilagroup.com/responsibility

“We care for our employees and their well-being and put a strong emphasis on occupational health and safety issues.”

Source: http://www.tikkurilagroup.com/responsibility/personnel/

Maximum-Security Tikkurila

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.

Maximum-Security Tikkurila

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.


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Free Valentin Urusov!

The campaign to free Valentin Urusov has a Facebook page that you can access here. Our friends at The Commune have also put together leaflets that you can download here and here. Please send word of your protests and other actions to the Institute for Collective Action, at info@ikd.ru and to the London campaign group at free.urusov@googlemail.com.

http://thecommune.wordpress.com/2009/12/23/num-says-free-valentin-urusov/

This article appeared in The Miner, December 2009, page 5

The National Union of Mineworkers national officials are supporting an international campaign for the release of Valentin Urusov, a Russian miner framed up and imprisoned after recruiting workmates to a union.

Ian Lavery, NUM President, has written to Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian President, and urged him to intervene to get Urusov freed from jail. Urusov, an employee of Alrosa, a diamond mining company, is serving six years’ hard labour for an obviously fabricated offence (possession of drugs). Urusov was singled out for attention after an industrial dispute in July last year at Alrosa’s mine in Udachny, in Yakutiya, eastern Siberia.

Mineworkers staged a protest hunger strike over poor working conditions and set up a new union organisation. Urusov acted as their spokesman. In response, the mine management set up a bi-partisan negotiating committee.

The committee started work, but on 3 September 2008, two days before it was due to report, Urusov was arrested. He was detained at home, illegally and forcibly taken 60 kilometres away, and threatened with a firearm.

Officers searched his home when he was in detention, and “found” drugs there. On 26 December 2008, Urusov was convicted and sentenced by the Mirinsky district court in Yakutiya.

The main owner of Alrosa is the local government of Yakutiya, a huge east Siberian province with big resources of gold, diamonds, coal and oil. Urusov’s lawyers say the local government influenced the court.

When Urusov was first jailed, protests were sent to Yakutiya by trade unionists from all over the world. On 12 May 2009, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Yakutia overturned the conviction on procedural grounds and released Urusov on bail – a rare victory.

The illegal and flawed nature of the prosecution case was widely publicised. Criminal proceedings were begun against the officer who headed the investigation.

Despite all this, on 26 June this year, the case was returned to the Mirinsky court (that’s the standard procedure in Russia) – and it confirmed the original conviction and six-year sentence.

Russian trade union activists face many types of victimisation, including workplace harassment, sackings and beatings by company thugs. But this is the first time in recent years that trade union activity has been “punished” with a lengthy jail sentence.

A coalition of Russian trade union organisations and human rights campaigners are campaigning for Urusov’s release. They have called on trade unionists internationally to protest to the government.

NUM President Ian Lavery, Vice President Keith Stanley and Secretary Chris Kitchen met recently with representatives of a campaign group set up in the UK to support Urusov. The group brings together trade union activists, the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and others.

Ian Lavery said: “We have a long record of solidarity with miners in Russia and Ukraine. And we will never forget the support they have given us.

“We will not stand by when any mineworker, anywhere in the world, is imprisoned for trying to organise his workmates into a union. We hope that the whole UK labour movement will join us in asking the Russian president to review this case.”

What you can do:
* Write to the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, demanding Urusov’s release (model letter below);
* Urge your MP to write to President Medvedev;
* Ask your trade union, trades council, campaign group, etc, to support the campaign;
* Tell Chris Kitchen, NUM Secretary, and the campaign group at free.urusov@googlemail.com, about your protests.

MODEL LETTER
Dmitry Medvedev,
President of the Russian Federation,
Ilyinka Street No. 23,
103132 Moscow,
Russia.

Dear Dmitry Anatolyevich,
I write on behalf of […] to urge you to intervene in the case of Valentin Urusov, the trade union activist, and to secure his immediate release from imprisonment.

Mr Urusov, a mineworker employed by Alrosa diamond mining company, was convicted for possession of drugs, and sentenced, on 26 December 2008 by the Mirinsky district court in Yakutia. On 12 May 2009, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Yakutia overturned the conviction, and Mr Urusov was released on bail. The illegal and flawed nature of the prosecution case was widely publicised. Nevertheless, on 26 June 2009, the Mirinsky court confirmed the original conviction and sentence of six years’ hard labour.

We have no doubt that the case against Mr Urusov is fabricated and could not be sustained in any just court hearing. We believe that Mr Urusov – who was active in recruiting his fellow mineworkers to a trade union organisation and sought to represent their interests – is the victim of a witch-hunt against trade unionists.

Mr Urusov’s imprisonment is a denial of his human rights, a stain on the record of the Russian legal system, and a dangerous precedent.
Yours sincerely, […]

Note. You can post the letter to the address given. If you want to email the Russian president, you have to fill in a form on this internet page: http://eng.kremlin.ru/articles/send_letter_Eng1a.shtml.

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Filed under open letters, manifestos, appeals, trade unions

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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Filed under open letters, manifestos, appeals, political repression, trade unions