The threat from within: trade unions vs. the Kiev junta


March 17, 2015
Translated by Kristina Rus

Ukrainian conflict has many facets: US vs. Russia, neo-nazis vs. anti-fascists, Ukrainians vs. Russians, oligarchs vs. the people, Kiev junta vs. trade unions. 

The decisive blow which will tip the scales can come from any direction. 

The closer it gets to the bottom, the closer is the resolution. Kiev junta can set the rules in its sandbox, but it is not above the universal laws.

People can be convinced of many things – that the enemy is a friend, and a friend is the enemy, even that they are better then others, based on ethnic or religious principles. 

But empty wallets and hunger cure a lot of misconceptions.

Aleksey Blyuminov for

“The real extent of the abyss approached by Ukraine is hidden”

The halt of industry, the depreciation of the hryvnia, the loss of export markets and the collapse of the domestic market lead to mass impoverishment of Ukrainians and, consequently, to increased dissatisfaction with the current regime.

Alternative parties are incapacitated. However, they are replaced by all sorts of grass roots community initiatives and trade unions. One cannot yet speak of it as a strong factor, but the trend is emerging and in the future, according to predictions of observers, it will only increase.

In response – the increasing interest of repressive bodies in trade union and worker activists. In war virtually any social protest – from demands for repayment of debts on wages to the battle for jobs – faces accusations in the media of the activists working for the “enemy agents”.

Remember, how Arsen Avakov’s advisor, Anton Geraschenko announced that the employees of Dnepropetrovsk “Yuzhmash” demanding the payment of salary in arrears – are “Putin’s agents”.

About the current state of the Ukrainian trade union movement “Politnavigator” talked to the leader of the All-Ukrainian Trade Union Federation “Labor Solidarity of Ukraine,” Vitaly Makhinko.


PolitNavigator: In his recent speech on the First National channel, Poroshenko said that 25% of Ukrainian industry is out of work today, and the tenth is physically destroyed. In turn, the Cabinet downgraded its forecasts for economic indicators this year, allowing almost a 12% drop in the GDP, and inflation over 40%. How close to reality is this data? Are the authorities underestimating or exaggerating the scale of the crisis? 

Vitaly Makhinko: It makes no sense for the authorities to exaggerate the scale of the crisis, on the contrary, the impression is that they are looking at the situation through rose-colored glasses. In December the decline in GDP was predicted at the level of 2-4,3%, today it is 5.5%, 8.6% and 11.9% – what will happen at the end of the year? Our economy already retracted to the level of the 90’s. The crisis in some sectors has ricocheted to the others. But the worst thing is that the government does not seem to realize the true extent of the economic abyss approached by the country, and not taking any steps to avoid it.

The decline is everywhere, many businesses close. Due to the jumps of the dollar exchange rate, it is simply not profitable to stay open. Moreover, a significant part of production was focused on the Russian and domestic market, so under the conditions of closing the first and a drop of the second market, they can’t easily find an alternative.

Most entrepreneurs are now in a “suspended” state and are contemplating whether to stop the operations or not.

PolitNavigator: And what should the people do? How to survive?

Vitaly Makhinko: Actively seek alternative or additional sources of income. To stay healthy – the majority of Ukrainians simply can not afford treatment.

Saving, saving, saving and a return to the almost natural economy (off the land). Although many have already been living below the poverty line and have no expenses to cut, the question is about basic survival.

A rally of the workers of Yuzhmash in Dnepropetrovsk, for which the authorities will blame “Putin’s agents” 

PolitNavigator: The government’s forecast for the unemployment rate is also increased. Today we are talking about more than 11%. How close are these numbers to your estimates? What industries are most vulnerable to unemployment right now, and which are in a risk zone and can begin layoffs in the near future?

Vitaly Makhinko: Actually the number of unemployed is much higher than the official statistics and will continue to grow. Businesses will have more layoffs, leaving only key employees. Wage cuts are rampant, many employees are transferred to half-time, part-time, and remote work.

The only sector where the situation is more or less stable, is agriculture, all others are in a risk zone, layoffs even affected the food industry, which is always in demand. The most massive reductions occur in mechanical engineering, also – miners and civil servants (usually lower level). In addition, most affected are the industries that offer products and services that directly dependent on the dollar exchange rate (tourism, transport, entertainment, services, etc.): the former clients can no longer afford their offerings.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming unemployment has already led to a massive violation of labor rights, and we are talking primarily about serious violations – illegal dismissal and non-payment of wages.

PolitNavigator: In the last few months, we have seen a surge of protest activity in the country, associated with socio-economic needs. Teachers are protesting, miners are blocking highways and are protesting at the Cabinet and the Parliament. How big is the role of trade unions in this process? What is the general mobilization potential of the independent trade unions in Ukraine?

Vitaly Makhinko: The trade union movement has enormous potential, in the atmosphere of aggravation of the socio-economic situation, there is a corresponding demand from the Ukrainian society. But the problem is that in our country there are practically no strong independent trade unions. In fact, there is no one who can lead the protest mood of the workers and guide them in the right direction. The authorities capitalize on that by using controlled “pocket” trade unions trying to take under control the social and trade union movement in the country.

Therefore, these protests perform rather the function of a lightning rod: they allow to “let off steam” and to ease the social tension in the society and simultaneously curb the protest movement, by heading it. For truly independent trade unions, public organizations, there is an unspoken taboo on social protests.

Remember when at the end of last year the whole country was rocked by strikes of workers of “Kievpasstrans”, after which we were declared “provocateurs” and “saboteurs”? Now it has become the norm. The authorities through intelligence services suppresses social protests, the activists are persecuted – so the organization of even the most peaceful protests is dangerous for its initiators. Naturally, the “old” trade unions controlled by the management of the enterprises and the government, will not take on this task, and the creation of “new” trade unions of the European standard requires a lot of time.

Protest against the hike in utility rates in Kiev last summer

PolitNavigator: How can a trade union help someone today?

Vitaly Makhinko: In the first place – to protect their labor and social rights. The union helps to solve not only labor disputes, but related matters: whether it’s – getting aid for a child or protection from real estate fraud. For more than two years our hot line is actively working, where qualified lawyers provide assistance to citizens from all regions of Ukraine.

Politnavigator: Do you work with the military? It is no secret that people are thrown to the slaughter, and are declined the status of combatants, or payments. And when people are returning from the front crippled, it turns out that they were not officially listed in the combat zone.

Vitaly Makhinko: In response to the pressing challenges of our time, we created the Center for legal assistance to the military, which protects the interests of members of the ATO and their families.

Trade union protest in support of Donbass last summer

PolitNavigator: Is it true that the views expressed by many experts that today, after Donbass with its miners, metallurgists and engineers actually fell out from the Ukrainian context because of the war, the epicenter of the protest activity of workers moved to the center and to the West of the country? At the forefront of protesters today we see the miners from Volyn and Lvov. Is it accidental or not?

Vitaly Makhinko: Of course, it’s natural. Worker protests used to occur in the Center, and in the West of Ukraine – I know this firsthand, because our offices are very active in these regions. But against the general background these protests were just less noticeable. Furthermore, there are now many more causes for social protest than there was a year ago, so the development of protest movements in all regions of the country is a natural phenomenon.

“Labor solidarity” actively works in the Center and West of Ukraine, and also in the capital. Because of pressure from the authorities, security services, we moved our headquarters from Kiev to Kirovograd – to the homeland of the founders of the Ukrainian social-democratic movement, where we have a large number of supporters.

PolitNavigator: What areas of social work is your trade union”Labor solidarity” leading today? Can you name some specific examples?

Vitaly Makhinko: Recently we were able to solve many problems in different parts of Ukraine. We demanded to make payments to the employees of “Kievpasstrans” of more than 100-million payroll liabilities. However, after that we came under strong pressure from security services. Thanks to the support of the trade union we were able to solve old problems in the sphere of utility services in the city of Dolinskaya, Kirovograd region. To do this, activists together with the inhabitants of the city had to “capture” the city council and force the municipality to finally accept decisions important for the city, before the law enforcers managed to pull up the police spetsnaz to the building.

Now there is also a question of protection of ordinary civil servants, whose rights are often violated. Recently the union through the court forced Novomirgorod Department of the State Land Agency to reinstate an illegally dismissed employee.

And there are many such cases today – every day we solve big and small problems: help people to achieve the payment of wages, to get reinstated at work. Now we raised the issue of the increase of bread prices: if the product No. 1 will become a luxury for Ukrainians – the country will not avoid food riots. The rise in price of all goods and services, primarily for basic food items, puts a significant part of the population on the brink of survival.

Transport worker strike in Kiev. Authorities accused the organizers of “working for Russia”

PolitNavigator: Since March and April under the memorandum with the IMF utility rates will go up several times. Do you intend to respond to this?

Vitaly Makhinko: Important area of our activity over the past year is a social movement “Tariff Maidan”: we fight with utility mafia and defend the right of Ukrainians for adequate utility tariffs, a decent quality of services. Our actions, obviously, were not welcomed by some influential people, because the “Tariff Maidan” in Kiev was destroyed, the people who introduced themselves as “Maidan self-defense”, kidnapped and tortured our activist, but six months later, the police made no progress in investigating the case.

PolitNavigator: Many experts today are pessimistic about the labor migration abroad as a method of alleviating the problem of unemployment in the country. They say that the EU and Russia have already accepted the maximum volume of potential workers from Ukraine. So what about those who are left behind? How, in your opinion, the presence of surplus labor masses in the country can affect the political and social processes? And in what direction?

Vitaly Makhinko: Today almost every third Ukrainian wants to leave the country to work abroad. Some do not see any prospects in the home country, others want to wait out the crisis abroad. But the need for Ukrainian workers is much less than the supply, which in turn leads to numerous scams in relation to those wanting to work abroad.

From despair people agree to any work, agree to violations of their labor rights, especially in terms of payment of salary. So we recently made a decision to establish a trade union “Labor solidarity” in Poland, which will represent the interests of Ukrainian workers.

Naturally, the increase in the “army of unemployed” will lead to destructive processes in the state and, as a natural result – to social unrest. One way to avoid this explosion is a strict dictatorship, which, apparently, the current government is approaching.

PolitNavigator: Can the Ukrainian trade unions today become a unified and influential entity in relations with the authorities? We see that the government is not hiding and quite successfully forcing through Parliament their anti-social initiatives in terms of raising the retirement age, reducing real wages, the collapse of social benefits and cuts in pensions to working pensioners. Is there any social dialogue today? Negotiations on the new tariff agreement? Or all these “remnants of the past regime” are completely forgotten and discarded as useless?

Vitaly Makhinko: Unfortunately, we have to admit the “impotence” of the majority of Ukrainian trade unions, which had been inherited from the Soviet authorities. They can’t deal with the basic issues of labor rights and are unable to unite, because they depend entirely on the management of companies and authorities.

The fact that the social dialogue is almost absent highly raises the degree of explosiveness in the country . The authorities make irresponsible anti-national decisions without a debate, and anyone who dares to express their opinion or advise anything, is immediately classified as “[Putin’s] agents” and “enemies of the people”.

PolitNavigator: The big problem of today’s Ukraine is the marginalization of wide sections of workers through the mechanisms of partial employment. When people work without official registration, part-time and from time to time. While surviving on small plots of land or something like that. Worldwide, the unions are fighting with this phenomenon, and what about you?

Vitaly Makhinko: We have a tendency to increase the number of “conditionally” employed workers. They can work part-time, seasonally, perform a one-time, piece-rate work. In fact they have no social guarantees, and to defend their labor rights is very problematic. The existing trade unions, unfortunately, completely ignore this issue. Today we are the only Ukrainian trade union that protects (and quite successfully) the rights and interests of workers, who are not officially employed

PolitNavigator: How likely in your assessment in the short term ( six months to a year) is an emergence in Ukrainian politics of a political party or parties, based on trade unions as their asset? And what interferes with this process?

Vitaly Makhinko: Now there is a great need for a political force which will defend the rights of “ordinary” Ukrainians – workers, teachers, peasants. We have already gone beyond just the trade union activities and raise a number of social problems on the national level, to find effective solutions for which we must evolve into a political force. Unlike the existing political parties, tailor made “for the elections”, we are gradually building up the party structure from below, having a reliable trade union platform, a great experience of self-organization and collective decision making.

Because trade union issues are now quite popular, I do not exclude the occurrence of the alleged “trade union” one-day political parties, which will essentially be artificial, hybrid entities, only exploiting the “trade union” brand, but not able to meet the challenges of our time.

PolitNavigator: What is your forecast for the near future? In connection with the intensification of the crisis and the fall in the economy, will there be a reciprocal process of politicization of the demands of the masses? Or the people will just move away from politics, and all the negative social energy will settle in the suburbs, the suburban and rural gardens?

Vitaly Makhinko: Every day the number of dissatisfied people increases exponentially, despite the strict policy of the authorities in this matter. The growth of dissent will sooner or later lead to the politicization of the demands of the masses, but the people need to unite around a strong leader, organization, ideas. Therefore, the authorities are trying by all means to put pressure on those who can lead a popular movement, simultaneously trying to substitute their own leaders of various stripes. If there is no unifying core, the energy of popular protest will gradually turn into a deep depression and will only spill into the kitchens and gardens.

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