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Protest and coercion

Class struggle and class exploitation remain invisible topics in Ukraine, largely ignored by journalists, major political parties and official trade unions. According to the «Protest and coercion in Ukraine» monitoring, in the last two years four out of five labor protest events were led by workers themselves without the support of any other agents. There is often a lack of long-term strategic vision and proactive demands, as most protests are a reaction to wage arrears or lay-offs. Solidarity between workers at different enterprises or in different branches of industry is also extremely rare.

This summer with the support of Rosa Luxemburg Foundation a group of young scholars, journalists and activists from the project «Labor and the labor movement in Ukraine: archive and research» (http://laborarchive.blogspot.com) decided to document some of the most important labor protests that took place in Ukraine during the last decade. First of all, with this initiative we want to support workers in their struggle and to contribute to a greater awareness of their situation and clearer articulation of demands. Furthermore, by showing these videos at conferences and other events to a wider public and by making them available online, we wish to raise awareness in Ukrainian society about labor protests, to prioritize this problem in mass media and politics, and to encourage social science research of class relations.

The first type of labor protests (against the corrupt state) was clearly visible looking at the now bankrupt oil-refining plant «Galol» in Drogobych, Western Ukraine. Workers were actively protesting for seven years (between 2004 and 2010) against bankruptcy procedures and unsanctioned lay-offs of the entire workers' collective. Protests included more than twenty attempts to block the regional railroad, pickets in front of the city administration, and in front of the courts and government structures in Kyiv. Workers also attended regular court proceedings, contributed materials to the local press, created an NGO «Galol for justice», and accepted support from various leftist and trade union organizations. The situation was resolved in December 2010 by the court decision to sell the remnants of the bankrupt plant and to pay out all the wage arrears that have accumulated in this time. Most workers are now self-employed (market vendors, agricultural workers), housekeepers or pensioners, employed by small private enterprises in the city, some migrated to Central or Western Europe in search of work. 

Oksana Novosad, local leader of labor protests, shared with us the details of all the court proceedings (she keeps photocopies of all documents pertaining to the plant at home). Until the very last months of struggle she still believed that «justice will reign» and that the workers will be able to regain their «stolen property». Lack of complaints against the owner can in part be explained by the fact that the plant was sold and resold so many times to various fictive offshore companies whose owner was not easily identifiable. Labor activist Stepan showed us the ruins of the plant, commenting that in the 1990s it had such a great potential that even «Shell» was interested in buying it. Today workers still seem to believe that private ownership of the plant could have been efficient and could have benefited the workers.

The second type of labor protests (against the bad immoral owner) is represented by the protests at the Kherson machine-building plant in Southern Ukraine. This is a formerly large machine-building plant that produces machines for agriculture since the late 19th century and is now almost bankrupt with only three hundred workers employed in production. Major protests took place in February 2009, when the workers found out about mass lay-offs and occupied the plant. It received important media-coverage on main Ukrainian TV channels and protest events in solidarity with Kherson workers were also held in other Ukrainian cities and abroad.

Leonid Nemchonok, leader of workers' protests, mentioned that «a lot depends on the owner – if he goes like a tank, then we see such an outcome as here». He believes that workers at the Kherson machine-building plant were «provoked» by the immoral owner, who did not pay them wages for more than a year and then laid all of them off. Other workers also complained that the owner «did not know how to rule and how to share», and «did not want to negotiate». The conflict between the owner and the workers is clearly acknowledged but the owner's actions are presented in moral terms as those of a rude and evil man, while the workers' aims of feeding their families and securing jobs for their children are just and noble.

Finally, a clearly articulated class antagonism could be seen in a strike at the iron-ore mine of «Ferrexpo» group in August last year, to protest against work intensification measures and to demand a raise of salaries. Left-wing and trade union activists from other parts of Ukraine took part in protests and solidarity campaigns. It was also one of the few strikes in the «offensive» rather than a «defensive» mood (unlike the two other cases with bankrupt plants, here production is highly profitable, and the plant owner is one of the wealthiest people in Ukraine).

Ferrexpo participates at the London stock exchange and has an English-language website, where, interestingly (but quite expectedly) one finds no mention of the strikes. On the contrary, we read that «[t]here has been no major industrial action or labour dispute at Poltava since its privatization in 1995». The conflicting interests of the owner, whose website is dedicated almost exclusively to growth of output and of the value of its shares at the stock-exchange, and of the workers, who resist work intensification are obvious.

However, since many of the activists of these events were fired and unable to find new jobs, they were reluctant to participate in our project, while those workers who remained were even more frightened to lose their jobs if they spoke out. We were therefore only able to collect short activist videos from that time and some publications in leftist newspapers, flyers and websites.

These video materials became a vivid proof of the existence of labor movement in Ukraine and advanced the understanding of the different types of labor protests in post-soviet space. On September 19th-21st we carried a conference «After labor: workers protests in Eastern Europe after the break-up of the USSR» at the National University of «Kyiv-Mohyla Academy» (http://laborarchive.blogspot.com/2011/10/blog-post.html ) to present some of these videos to scholars and activists working on the topic of labor movement in Eastern Europe. Participation of the Head of the International Sociological Association, professor Michael Burawoy, as well as of young scholars from Eastern Europe, allowed to launch a discussion on perspectives of social research of labor in the context of public social science and in solidarity with the workers, where the workers themselves are not objects, but subjects and co-authors, and where the research results _ demand _ social change. 

We hope that the availability of our videos on the web (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zF5EKFAZAbU) and their screenings in academic and trade union settings will help to strengthen existing links (and develop new ones) between groups and initiatives interested in the labor movement and furthermore, will serve a mobilizing role for workers and activists. However, the videos will contribute to creating the history of the labor movement in Ukraine from the perspective of the workers and in their interest, becoming its illustration and subject for analysis.

Text: Vitaliy Atanasov and Anastasiya Ryabchuk

P.S. A free copy of the DVD of protests at the Kherson machine-building plant with English subtitles can be sent upon request (5 euro to cover package and international shipping costs). Please e-mail your requests to anastasia.riabchuk@gmail.com or atavita@gmail.com .