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Feature Story February 19, 2004
 
Solidarity Forever!
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
 
 

Just over a year ago, the US media rallied around labor activist Irene Stevenson when she was refused entry to Russia. Last week, the center where she worked closed shop. Funny how no one seemed to notice.

Last Thursday afternoon, the scene at the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center in Moscow was grim. It was the center's last day of operations; half-packed boxes of office supplies and documents lay scattered around, the walls were barren save for a few posters of noble-looking workers, and the staff clearly depressed. As if the closing wasn't bad enough, the elevator wasn't working, and most of the men spent the day as sherpas, carrying crates of beer and soda and snacks up several flights of stairs for a farewell reception for the center's friends and colleagues that evening.

The room picked for the spread was filled with boxes, just like the others. Only these boxes weren't filled with office crap; they were filled with the 15 years' worth of stuff that Irene Stevenson had accumulated before she was barred entry at Sheremetyevo in December 2002. "15 years of my life," she told me during a recent phone conversation. "Frankly, if I was there, I'd throw or give away most of it. A lot of it's just junk. But that's not the type of thing you can ask someone else to do for you."

The center, which oversaw several outreach and legal support programs, is closing for the rather banal reason that its grant from USAID has expired. In the end, it wasn't pressure from the FSB or Bush's anti-labor policies, but just the end of their five-year grant. Part of the blame can be attributed to simple bad timing: around the time that the center should have been applying for an extension, Bush had proposed massive cuts to the Freedom Act, from which Solidarity Center drew its funding. It didn't look like there was much reason to even try for more money. Since then, congress has rejected the funding cuts, but it was too late for the center to take advantage of it.

Viewed from a certain light, its closing isn't nearly as catastrophic as it might seem. Many of the programs that the center started have outgrown USAID, as they are now staffed and managed entirely by Russians. USAID has always been more concerned with supporting American businesses and paying ex-pats extraordinary salaries than getting results, so it makes sense that they wouldn't want to support such useful programs.

Still, there are two significant ways in which the closing will be felt. First, the center was the only AFL-CIO office in Russia. As such, it was in a position to draw international attention to the problems of Russian workers and maintain a level of international dialogue that certainly will be much reduced. Such dialogue was extremely important, especially for Russia's inexperienced labor movement. Contact with western unions exposed them to ideas and experiences that otherwise they would not have had access to, as well as giving them the benefit of strategies that have worked in the West. And the AFL-CIO could bring a certain amount of political pressure to bear in support of Russian workers.

The second way is that the Solidarity Center was maybe the only labor organization in Russia that managed to stay above the fray politically. Small as it is, Russia's nascent labor movement is bitterly divided by conflicting political interests. Part of the center's policy was to never discuss politics, focusing instead on concrete issues that unions were concerned with. By working only on specific issues that all unions theoretically agree on - regular payment of wages, government policy on housing, healthcare and utilities, freedom to strike - the center managed to hold a non-partisan position. Edward Vokhmin, the now unemployed Director of the center, said one of its missions was to convince workers that an employer wasn't good simply because he paid on time. "Without contracts and institutions to protect them, what happens when the boss stops paying?" With the center now closed, there are very few voices that will be concerned with this on a Russia-wide scale.


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