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Feature Story February 19, 2004
 
Solidarity Forever!
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
 
Page 4 of 5
 
"Look at the people on trial for environmental espionage - do they really think it's going to stop people from reporting on this? I think when it's about international contact, a bunch of things come together at the same time and they take action. The current government has no interest in in-depth ties between Russian organizations and international ones, and they have violated those ties with impunity."

Honestly, though, she is downplaying her role. I only met Stevenson in person once, about a year and a half ago, but she made a profound impression on me. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of Labor in Russia, traveled frequently to every corner of Russia (and had union contacts in each one of them) and a vision of exactly what needed to be done. It made sense why the authorities would want her gone: her personality united too many people. As Vokhmin told me, "there weren't any more attacks on the center after Irene's deportation. But if you look at the role her personal presence played, it was essential to the organization. So many people thought of her as a good friend."

Stevenson's expulsion has coincided with a much broader attack on labor in Russia. While issues of non-payment are not making headlines any more, the old debts have yet to be settled. Salaries aren't matching the rise in living expenses. Independent unions, never very powerful, have been rendered almost totally unable to defend their members' interests. According to Vokhmin, there were only three real strikes in Russia last year. And even these were technically illegal. The reason is that the labor code adopted in 2002 makes strikes by a union virtually impossible. The various hoops which a union would need to jump through make the very idea of a 'legal' strike taking place in Putin's Russia implausible. Even the UN's International Labor Organization, normally a very timid group, has begun advising Russia to make changes in legislation and in practices that are in violation of international standards. At one point, when Russia refused to share data with it, the ILO went so far as to lump it with perpetual pariahs Belarus and Colombia. But usually, Stevenson said, the ILO is very polite, even when criticizing.

One of last year's strikes offers an excellent example of the problems confronting workers. This strike took place in a North Urals mine owned by SUAL, the aluminum company controlled by oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. (Vekselberg is the same guy who recently bought several Faberge eggs for 700 million dollars.) About 300 workers refused to exit their mine, demanding raises from their current salary of roughly $300 to $1000 and more transparency in the way the company was run and how profitable it was. They picked a strategic time - right before Duma elections, and around the time German PM Schroeder was scheduled to make a visit to Yekaterinburg. Several politicians in search of some populist points came to lend support to the miners, and some of their demands were met, including a 20 percent raise. But Vokhmin said, "I don't want to even imagine how it would have ended if they hadn't gotten so much media coverage. It's like workers only have their pinkies to fight with in a boxing match. Except that there are rules in a boxing match."

This strike demonstrates what happens when there are no institutions on the side of workers. They are forced to resort to extreme measures, like trapping themselves in mines or hunger strikes, just to draw attention to their cause. But the obvious flaw in such actions is that very few workers are willing to take such radical steps, and they are dangerous. Furthermore, once the TV cameras pack up for Moscow, the concessions given can quickly be rolled back.

Human rights organizations, while certainly justified in concentrating on Chechnya and attacks on freedom of speech, fail to appreciate the role of labor. By focusing all their energies on those problems, they don't appeal to ordinary Russians, who have more pressing concerns, like how they'll afford dinner. Workers' rights are violated millions of times a day, and perhaps by paying more attention to these issues, NGOs could gain more popular legitimacy.


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FROM THE VAULT

Medvedev’s Ipod Nano Playlist :

Hot Afternoons in Armenia's Frozen Zone :

The Republican Guard :
Iggy, The Great
Concert Review: Iggy and the Stooges : B1 Maximum, September 11
 

 
 
 
LATEST ARTICLES

Save The eXile: The War Nerd Calls Mayday
Editorial
The future of The eXile is in your hands! We're holding a fundraiser to save the paper, and your soul. Tune in to Gary Brecher's urgent request for reinforcements and donate as much as you can. If you don't, we'll be overrun and wiped off the face of the earth, forever.

Scanning Moscow’s Traffic Cops
Automotive Section
We’re happy to introduce a new column in which we publish Moscow’s raw radio communications, courtesy of a Russian amateur radio enthusiast. This issue, eXile readers are given a peek into the secret conversations of Moscow’s traffic police, the notorious "GAIshniki."

Eleven Years of Threats: The eXile's Incredible Journey
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Your Letters
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Russia's freedom-loving free market martyr Mikhail Khodorkovsky answers some of this week's letters, and he's got nothing but praise for President Medvedev.

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Everybody complains about celebrities, but nobody does anything about them. People, it’s time to stop fretting about whether we’re a celebrity-obsessed culture—we are, we have been, we’re going to be—and instead take practical steps to clean up the celebrity-obsessed culture we’ve got...

 
 
 

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