In Russia, May 1 is no longer celebrated as International Workers Day. It was replaced in 1992 by a more neutral holiday: “Spring and Work,” a break with the Soviet tradition, strongly supported by the then President Boris Yeltsin.
This year, the traditional event of the Federation of Russian Independent Trade Unions (FSIR) was held on Red Square. This event attracts concerts, food stands and tens of thousands of people.
The definition of union, according to the FSIR, which claims to have over 21 million members, is actually inappropriate. Since the USSR times, the Federation in fact plays only corporate functions related to “equalitarian” management of companies with their counterparts and does not promote any assertive action.
Thus, for years, the combative Russian Confederation of Labor, founded about 20 years ago and representing about 2.5 million workers, no longer participates in the official event. On Sunday, “we will have a big concert at the Recnovo Vokzal Park, while on May 1, we decided to hold an internationalist initiative, a protest outside the Kazakhstan embassy against the repression workers of that country have been suffering for years,” says the secretary of the Russian Confederation of Labor, Boris Kravcenko.
Other initiatives were organized for Monday: Zyuganov’s Communist Party and the alternative left (anarcho-syndicalists, Trotskyists, LGBT movements, and ecologists) have promoted their own activities in two different areas of the city.
In Russia, it is very difficult to strike, as the Labor Code provides that work stoppages can only be called when 100 percent of the employees of a given company adhere to it. In fact, strikes and pickets are illegal, and those who strike do so at their own risk. It may seem strange for a Westerner used to the stereotype of “Communist Russia,” but in the country that gave birth to the Soviets, trade unionism does not have a solid tradition. and all recent attempts to create a leftist party, without the stigma of nationalism and late Stalinism, have stalled.
Nevertheless, since the recession began to bite in 2015, shrinking real wages by 10 percent under the weight of inflation and devaluation of the ruble, strikes and labor protests have multiplied.
Professor Petr Busyukov, who has always studied the dynamics of labor conflicts in Russia, recalls that “the number of protest actions by workers have dramatically increased from 209 in 2014 to 419 in 2016.”
The protests are largely due to non-payment of wages and, for now, do not have any political significance. However, it is a wave of struggles that has not been seen in Russia since the 1990s. If anything, today’s strikes are characterized by the participation of new groups of workers: “They are promoted by workers who often are not even unionized, and are experimenting with new and innovative forms of conflict, from spur of the moment strikes to occupations,” emphasizes Professor Busyukov.
An example of this new labor protest is the all-out strike of Russian truck drivers that has been going on in the last month.
The truckers protest against the increase of the “Platon,” a tax toll on the use of federal highways levied on lorry drivers. Oleg, who joined the strike from the first day, explains: “A young independent driver like me, after taxes and depreciation of the ruble, can barely make €600-700 a month. With the prices we have in Moscow, it is difficult to survive.”
The spark of rebellion started from the very poor Dagestan region, but then it set fire to the rest of the country, from Moscow to Vladivostok: Now, 10,000 drivers hold their arms crossed despite the fact that two of their leaders were arrested by the police that hves also tried to prevent the workers’ demonstrations. Oleg, the Muscovite truck driver, adds: “We are not front-page material, like Navalny, but I understand them. … After all, all politicians, regardless of their affiliation, fear that our example will be followed by other workers.”