War in Ukraine and the trade unions  

This is a talk I gave on 3 September 2014, at a meeting of the Book branch of the National Union of Journalists.

Thanks for inviting me to speak about Ukraine and the trade unions. There are three parts to this: (1) a brief summary on the war in eastern Ukraine; (2) trade unions and workers in the Maidan and anti-Maidan movements; and (3) trade unions and workers in the military conflict.

The war in eastern Ukraine

It would not make sense to discuss the situation of workers in Ukraine without first saying something about the war.

Since May the Russian government has been publicly supporting the separatist militia in eastern Ukraine, with statements by president Putin and others; with the annexation of Crimea; and by opening the border for large numbers of ultra-nationalist and fascist volunteers, and mercenaries, to cross with large amounts of heavy equipment. But no conclusive evidence of military involvement.

Last week [i.e. the last week in August] the situation changed: the number of reports of Russian troops and equipment being present in eastern Ukraine has multiplied, coming not only from the Ukrainian security agencies but also (i) from NATO; (ii) from various consultancies that specialise in military information; (iii) from the separatist leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko, who says that Russian soldiers are participating in the militia during their holidays; and (iv) most importantly from inside Russia, where journalists, NGOs and even members of the presidential human rights council are piecing together information about growing numbers of Russian servicemen killed in Ukraine.

As you know this has heightened the rhetoric at political level between Russia and the western powers.

We are as close as we have been to the conflict turning from a civil war in Ukraine into a war between Russia and Ukraine, and from there possibly into a wider conflict. So the situation could not be more serious.

As for the causes of the war, my view is that president Putin was provoked to annex Crimea, and to indicate his approval for separatism in eastern Ukraine, not because he feared Ukraine joining NATO, but because he feared the social uprising that took place in Ukraine at the beginning of the year that led to the overthrow of the former president, Viktor Yanukovich. (This movement became known as the Maidan movement; Maidan just means “square”, because the demonstrations started on Independence Square).

The trade unions and workers’ movement in Maidan and anti-Maidan

Ukraine has an enormous working class population, one of the poorest in Europe. In eastern Ukraine, people are often worse off than in Russia. Millions of Ukrainians work in either Russia or Europe as migrant labourers. In the early 2000s, living standards improved, but the 2008-09 crisis hit Ukraine very hard and since then all the indications are that things are getting worse: the number of people officially under the poverty line has risen, the number of people unemployed has risen, etc.

A large number of people are employed in the public sector, or get public sector pensions. Successive governments, despite being advised by the IMF and World Bank to make cuts, have shied away from doing so.

Like most former Soviet countries, Ukraine has two types of trade unions:

(1) successors to Soviet-era trade unions (affiliated to Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine, which claims to have 8.5 million members). These unions generally continue in the tradition of those old unions (close collaboration with government and management) and own large amounts of property inherited from them.

(2) various “independent” unions, mostly set up in the 1990s on the back of movements to organise workers independently of management (to various degrees). (Many of these unions are affiliated to Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine.)

The Union of Journalists of Ukraine is affiliated to the old-style Federation; the Independent Media Workers Union of Ukraine is affiliated to the Confederation of Free Trade Unions. The independent media union was set up in the early 2000s. Through the NUJ, activists arranged a programme under which NUJ members went and did seminars with union members on workplace organisation.

It’s been very difficult for people in western Europe to follow what happened on Maidan, in my view because it was a mass social movement that did not conform to widely held assumptions about how such movements develop.

Slogans and aims

The western media focused on the fact that the Maidan demonstrations were triggered by Yanukovich’s failure to sign EU association agreement, and used the short-hand “pro European” demonstrations. This is a huge oversimplification that obscures reality, because

(a) although much of the Ukrainian capitalist class and middle class is “pro European” because they think that will benefit business, many Ukrainian workers are pro-European because they know that wages are higher in the EU and they – mistakenly in my view – think integration with Europe might improve their living standards.

For many young Ukrainians, the social liberalism of most European countries compared to Russia is a big point;

(b) the failure to sign the EU association agreement triggered quite a small demonstration by university students; it was the insanely violent police attack on these harmless demonstrators that brought out much larger crowds;

(c) the movement soon became an expression of discontent about Ukrainian government in general, i.e. about dictatorial police bullying; corruption, that is rife; and also social and economic issues.

Information about the extent of social and labour protest before and during Maidan has been collated by researchers at the Centre for Society Research, who are based at the Myhola academy, one of the main universities. Their conclusions were, briefly:

— That there was a huge jump in social and labour protests, e.g. strikes on economic issues, in November-December 2013.

— That there were far more protest actions in 2013 than in any previous year (back to 2009);

— That in central and eastern Ukraine there was a higher level of protest than in western Ukraine;

— That there were more protests on socio-economic issues than on directly political issues, although the political protests, including Maidan itself, were on a much larger scale;

— That of those protests on socio-economic issues the biggest category was worker protests – in 2013 there were 389 of these, including 40 strikes. The most urgent issues were unpaid wages (45%), working conditions (30%) and closure of workplaces (19%).

— That trade unions were present in 22% of these protests but in 56% of cases, the workers had no help from any outside organisation, trade unions included.

Note that this discontent with poor living standards, combined with anger at the corruption and incompetence of government, fed into BOTH the “Maidan” movement AND the so-called “anti Maidan” protests in March and April. Of course there were also Ukrainian nationalists on the “Maidan” side, and Russian ultra-right-wing groups on the “separatist” side, who were active in these demonstrations, trying to turn them in a nationalist and divisive direction. Clearly they had some success.

Participation in demonstrations by the unions and the political left

The Maidan demonstrations in many ways swept past official trade union structures.

The independent unions made efforts to support the demonstrations. Their leader Mikhail Volynets was on the Council of Maidan. However these efforts do not seem to have impacted the movement very strongly. For example, in January the confederation of independent unions called for a general strike in support of the Maidan demonstration, but this call was largely ignored.

The leaders of the “official” trade unions could hardly avoid the demonstrations, since their office was directly on Maidan. Early on in the protests (November 2013) they offered use of their building to demonstrators, and protested against police attacks. But this was not enough to dispel cynicism and suspicion about them. Many ordinary working people had previously only seen the trade union leaders in the newspapers signing agreements with the government, so called “social contracts”, etc. They were perceived essentially as collaborators with government. Their close links with the Party of Regions (the political party headed by former president Yanukovich) added to this impression.

Many sections of the political left participated in the demonstrations in various ways. But the largest so-called left party in parliament, the Communist Party of Ukraine, continued to support the Yanukovich to the end. In particular, in mid January when Yanukovich decided to introduce dictatorial laws that would have put an end to the rights of free speech and free assembly, the Communist Party deputies voted for them, effectively declaring themselves as enemies of the demonstrators.

Note: fascism on the Ukrainian side

Fascism in Ukraine has been the subject of bad reporting in the west – partly because the Kremlin, laughably, has claimed it is fighting against fascism in Ukraine. I can answer questions, but it’s not what NUJ Book branch asked me to talk about. But quickly:

The level of support for right-wing and fascist parties in Ukraine, as measured in the presidential elections at the end of May, is very low. Oleh Lyashko of the Radical Party, a mainstream politician who swung to the populist right, received 8.5%; Oleh Tyagnibok of Svoboda, an ultranationalist party, was completely defeated with 1.2%; the leader of the Right Sector, an umbrella group of extra-parliamentary nationalists and fascists, got 0.7%.

In the European elections on the same weekend, right-wing and fascist parties registered millions and millions of votes, taking substantial shares. In France, the Front National received the largest share of the vote, 25% (i.e. more than twice the share of all the Ukrainian populist right and fascists put together). [Note, November 2013. In the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in October, the populist right and fascists did just as badly as in May. The leading parties in the new parliament will be president Poroshenko’s centre-right bloc and the party of Arseny Yatseniuk, the neo-liberal prime minister.]

Like fascist groups in many countries, Ukraine’s are significant for their violent street activity rather than for their electoral performance. In June this year, under the new government, this danger was underlined when the conference of the official unions was attacked by fascist thugs.

Workers, trade unions and the military conflict

From March this year, the situation in eastern Ukraine completely changed, with the formation of the so-called “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Lugansk. These are two big industrial areas with large numbers of steelworks and coal mines. There are quite well organised trade unions in many of these workplaces, and a relatively stable labour force. But there is also a high level of migration out of the region – many young people have left.

Was/is there any worker support for the “people’s republics”? In the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Yanukovich, in March and April, I would say, yes there was, mainly due to fear that there was just another bunch of oligarchs taking over in Kyiv, and fear – played upon by the separatists – that the region would be worse treated by the new government.

But once the armed militia took over government buildings and the military conflict began in earnest, I think this support clearly receded – by how much, it’s hard to say. It should be noted that the politics of the “people’s republics” is confusing, but certainly a number of key leaders were affiliated to ultra-right-wing and fascist organisations in Russia, and some of them were mercenaries accused of war crimes in the Caucasus.

What about the organised labour movement in eastern Ukraine? Once the “people’s republics” were installed, it became very very difficult for community and labour activists who disagreed with them to operate openly, because it was just too dangerous. Even if the armed formations under the command of these republics’ leaders didn’t bother to attack you, there might well be other men with guns who did. The only exception that I know of is the independent union of mineworkers.

In April and May the separatists tried to appeal to miners for their support. There were political arguments at the mines during which the independent mineworkers’ union leaders maintained a strong position of supporting the Kyiv government.

Over the summer as the military conflict intensified, most of the mines stopped working.

At the end of July, the government in Kyiv drew up a series of emergency wartime measures to finance its “anti terrorist operation”, including a wage freeze; delinking public sector pay from inflation;  permission for public sector employers to lay off staff; ending budgetary support for resettlement of deported Crimean Tatars.

This package was opposed by both of the trade union federations. It was also opposed by populist right wing parties in the coalition government, and this led to a government crisis.

It’s important to note the reaction of the independent mineworkers’ union in Donetsk to this government crisis. It issued a statement that condemned not only the right-wing parties, but also the union federations, for opposing the budget cuts. It accused these people of “playing political games”.

The union’s statement said: “Most of all these trade union federations were annoyed that the amendments to the budgets were not, quote, discussed with society, unquote – by which they meant, not discussed with them. We would like to ask these trade union leaders: what world are they living in? Do they know what is actually happening in eastern Ukraine? What kind of ‘discussion’ can they be talking about, when the anti-crisis government, in extreme circumstances, is just obliged temporarily to adopt unpopular measures. Do these great fighters ‘for the rights of the workers’ know that in Donbass tens of thousands of workers have quit their jobs or asked to take unpaid leave, in order to get out of the conflict zone and save their own lives and their families’ lives? […] This applies first and foremost to the coal mines, which in the zone of the anti-terrorist operation are hardly working at all.”

Note that this is not a pro-Russian statement. The Donetsk independent miners’ union makes clear that the blame for what is happening lies on “the war that has been unleashed by the rulers of our neighbouring state in the east of our country”.

On the one hand we probably all relate to the anger at trade union leaders who appear to be living in a parallel universe. On the other, the support for government measures aimed against working people is something that most of us would not identify with. I quote this document – a very depressing one to labour movement activists – because it shows the extreme difficulties under which the workers’ organisations in Ukraine are operating. and the way that solidarity can be undermined. This is a graphic illustration of how wars weaken and divide the workers’ movement.

There is a sharp contrast between this statement from Donetsk and one issued in mid May by the independent miners union branch at Kriviy Rih that represents workers at the Sukha Balka group of pits, owned by the Russian steel-making group, Evraz.

This statement called for a campaign for a 100% wage increase, and for workers to organise independently of military forces on either side. It said “the main cause of the destabilised situation in the country is the greed of Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs, who pay a beggar’s wage to workers, send all their profits off-shore and don’t pay taxes in Ukraine”. The oligarchs, it said “have brought Ukraine into the current crisis and who continue to destabilise it further, threatening to provoke a fratricidal war in Ukraine which without any doubt will have catastrophic consequences for all of Europe”.

Finally it demanded “that the authorities officially recognise the miners’ self-defence and the arming of miners’ brigades. Organised workers and workers’ self-defence are precisely that stabilising factor which can effectively prevent the escalation of violence in Ukraine. In those places where organised workers are controlling the situation mass actions never turn into mass killings. The workers defended the Maidan in Kryvyi Rih. The workers did not allow any violence when they took under their control the situation in the city of Krasnodon during the recent general strike there.”

Of course since mid May the military conflict has intensified, and inevitably made it more difficult for such initiatives to make any progress.

A few words about my personal opinion.

I am a socialist, and I believe that anti-militarism is an absolutely key socialist principle. The type of socialism I believe in does not try to answer questions about what governments should do; it tries to answer questions about what people, in the workers’ movement and more broadly, might do.

Ukrainian people made a good start by overthrowing a corrupt government. It was this, as I said at the beginning, that I believe provoked the Russian government, which is acting, whether through proxies or directly, as the aggressor. I think it is extremely important that some Russians, including Russian socialists – albeit a small number – have publicly opposed Russia’s action in Ukraine. They need all the support they can get.

I am not going to pontificate on what’s right or wrong from London. International solidarity means listening to people who are on the ground and trying to learn from it, and that’s the spirit in which I’m saying this.

In Ukraine, I can not agree with those like the Donetsk miners’ leaders who say that working people should sacrifice for the sake of the government’s war budget. The responses to the situation that I think are positive are those based on working-class and community action, of which the Kriviy Rih miners’ resolution is one example.

I think that strengthening working-class and community organisation, independently of the military forces on both sides, is the right starting-point. Not only the Kriviy Rih miners, but also small groups of activists in other parts of Ukraine, are trying to do this.

During discussion, I was asked what I thought trade unions in the UK could do about the situation. I replied that: (i) the NUJ should try to renew the links built up with activists in the Independent Media Workers Union in 2005-07, when we arranged courses on workplace union organisation in Ukraine in conjunction with activists in that union; (ii) it is difficult to find ways of supporting local community and workplace initiatives, but Ukraine Socialist Solidarity is a group in the UK that is trying to do that; and (iii) it is important to be wary of the fact that there is a “solidarity with anti-fascist resistance” campaign that I would urge trades unionists NOT to participate in, because it accepts the Kremlin’s blanket denunciation of the anti-Yanukovich movement as “fascist”, and is supporting the (fascist-influenced) separatists in eastern Ukraine, rather than workers’ movements.


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