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Feature Story February 19, 2004
Solidarity Forever!
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 2 of 5
Nonetheless, many of the programs that dealt with bread-and-butter issues will remain in operation. Most importantly, the Public Interest Law Centers set up by Stevenson will continue to function. These seven centers spread across Russia accounted for approximately a third of the Solidarity Center's work. They provide legal assistance to Russians who generally don't have access to the courts, for anyone from a babushka coming in off the street to wage arrears cases and small unions that don't have the wherewithal to afford legal council. Mike Waske, the acting AFL-CIO representative at Solidarity Center, told me, "The law centers are all about shining a light on the legal system here. Most people have no idea what goes on in the courts here. These centers file cases and publicize them; win or lose, they illuminate the process."

Waske, an old-school American labor activist missing a couple of fingers on his left hand, came out of retirement to oversee the closing of the branch. He's had experience in Eastern Europe, in Belarus and the Balkans, but has no illusions about what his role here has been. "I was never as effective as Irene," he said. He told me about how, during his most recent border crossing last month, he almost hoped that they'd bar his entry. "They not only let me in, they were very friendly."

At the time of Stevenson's deportation, her work on behalf of the air traffic controllers' union was assumed to be the cause. In December of that year, Russian air traffic controllers in several regions - who are legally forbidden to strike - went on a hunger strike to demand higher wages. Their salaries had remained unchanged since before the '98 crisis and, when the government had refused to negotiate, they decided on radical action.

After a series of absurdist legal decisions - one court ruled that the controllers were breaking the law by not eating! - the union apparently won a 30 percent raise. Or at least that's what was reported at the time. However, according to Vokhmin, this raise was later reduced to 10 percent. The government also decided to toss out the old collective agreements, which each region decided upon independently, in favor of a system which called for a single agreement for all Russian air traffic controllers. "It took years to negotiate the old agreements," Vokhmin said. "And now the government forced them to start over again. When you have a situation where the state doesn't respect the rights of its workers, who will?"

Solidarity Center's role in the conflict was limited to providing legal advice to the controllers, but that seemed to be enough to get Stevenson expelled from Russia for "national security interests." At the time, Stevenson didn't talk much to the media, for fear of antagonizing the authorities. Now, when there seems to be little chance that she'll be allowed back into Russia anytime soon, she is more willing to discuss her case. She believes, sensibly, that there were several totally separate issues that emerged simultaneously that drew the authorities' attention to her and, having taken note, someone decided to act.

In addition to the air traffic controllers, the law centers were advising high profile labor actions at Aeroflot and Norilsk Nickel. So, while these centers handle on average 600 cases a month, these three cases of national interest drew the ire of the powers-that-be. At the same time, a front page article about Irene's fascination with Russia appeared in Izvestia and, for the first time in years, John Sweeney wrote a letter of support for a Russian labor dispute, in this case the Aeroflot action.

"I always joke that where do I have a bigger file - here in DC or in Moscow?" Stevenson said, referring to her long history as a labor activist. "Someone has been paid to make my file fat over the years. Then a lot of things came together at the same time that brought me to people's attention."

There was a high profile campaign by both Russians and Americans to allow Stevenson to return. Several Duma deputies (well, now former deputies; few of her allies survived the December purges), unions from across Russia, US ambassador Vershbow, Sweeney and others all lobbied on her behalf. The Washington Post even dedicated an editorial to her.

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