Albert Speransky: A Surprise for the Authorities

25 June 2021 

by Albert Speransky, сhair of the board of the Workers’ Initiative, a Russia-wide civic organisation, and winner of a Moscow Helsinki Group award

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group 

It’s not often that you come across bright, proactive individuals in the “state” unions of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FITUR). Their social media pages are populated with pictures of office rooms: several well-dressed people sat around a table, having a discussion; or else, photos from a boardroom meeting or conference. You will never see a worker in a hardhat and overalls in the photos that show the working lives of our ordinary, unionised bureaucrats.

It is this context that really makes the Chelyabinsk Regional Mining and Metallurgy Union stand out. Here, deputy chair Vladimir Revenku has worked out how to get through to senior civil servants and parliamentarians. And he doesn’t do it alone – instead, he has gathered together a whole creative working group.

The authorities are liable to become bored if they are not infringing on workers’ rights. That’s the way they are, these servants of the people. They have started making amendments to Section 10 of the Labour Code. If a worker on a dangerous production site is given a mask, hardhat and gloves, then all of a sudden, his working conditions are no longer considered hazardous. This worker is no longer entitled to a shorter working day, additional leave or compensation for the potential harm. All at once, he loses everything in exchange for a measly hardhat and a mask.

What’s more, employers have the right to fire employees they don’t want, or to reduce their salaries, as a result of accidents in the workplace. 

This is the current state of play with workplace safety, just for businesses in Chelyabinsk region where the Mining and Metallurgy Unions operate. The union’s technical labour inspectorate made 69 inspections over the last year, and found 229 violations of the legislation governing worker protection. Over the course of a year, 149 workers were harmed at work, including 19 serious accidents and 12 fatal ones. The technical labour inspectors are pushing for increased pay-outs to victims and to bereaved families, in addition to payments from the social security fund and the obligatory work insurance

The proposed new rules on workplace safety, put forward by the authorities and employers, have now gone to the State Duma. They were passed on the very first reading.

And so, activists close to Revenku decided to appeal to the authorities with a sarcastic video on the topic.

“We dreamed of bending our backs. We dreamed of working our way to a hernia by the age of 40, standing at a burning stove. Of turning metal. Mixing concrete. Of doing physical labour for twelve hours, breathing in emissions”, the workers in the video say with bitter irony. “Otherwise we would have gone into business. But we don’t need business! We don’t even need a salary really! What we have is great, almost like in an office! Almost like in a minister’s office! And it will be even better!”.

Within two weeks the video had been watched millions of times. Tens of thousands of people left comments in support of the workers.

“Since the bill had already been adopted in its first reading, we had to act promptly, using all the legal tools available to us to draw attention to the problem,” Revenku said. “Publications in the media and social networks have already provoked a reaction in society. We managed to attract the attention of both civil society representatives and individual parliamentarians. But, unfortunately, this is not yet enough. If most of the respected State Duma deputies do not hear us from beyond the Ural Mountains, we will come to Moscow and convey our position louder and more clearly. As part of the protest action, we will hold a series of solo pickets and hand over our demands to the deputies personally.”

So a scout, a pipe-bender from the Trubodetal’ factory and trade union activist, Vadim Kachkaikin went to Moscow. In his work clothes and a helmet he held a solo picket outside the State Duma building and handed a box containing the metal workers’ appeals to the deputies. The box contained 500 requests from the metal workers, mainly from Chelyabinsk region. There were many more requests, but they didn’t all fit in his hand luggage when he was boarding the plane. “Each appeal makes clear that there should be no amendments to the Labour Code, regarding Section 10,” Revenku explained. 

The head of the Duma’s Labour Committee, Yaroslav Nilov, began the meeting by inviting its participants to watch the video made by the GMPR activists, and pointed out that the metal workers’ proposals must be considered. Employers in turn criticised the position of the union. “This film is just a provocation,” said Aleksei Okunkov, director of the national employers’ association, the Association of Industrialists of the Mining and Metallurgical Complex of Russia. Despite this discontent, the Committee decided to satisfy the demand of the trade union and to remove the amendment to Article 209 by the second reading.

It’s interesting that the worker flew from remote Chelyabinsk to deliver the letters to the deputies. Why not put him in touch with some people from the FNPR headquarters, perhaps even those without helmets?  This very important trade union issue was raised by this man from the Urals. A nobody.

In the early 1990s, I was invited to work in the leadership of the newly formed FNPR. At the time, I was working at the magazine Soviet Trade Unions. They asked for help reforming the old trade unions so that they would truly protect employees under the new economic conditions. I then became one of the leaders of the USSR-wide labour movement and I headed the country’s association of journalists writing on industrial and agricultural themes. I wrote and published a lot of material and defended the workers.

The first chair of the FNPR was a wonderful man, Igor Klochkov. We gathered the activist workers several times to have a big, constructive conversation. We then invited many people to the FNPR’s plenary session to tell them what was happening at their firms.

One after another, activist workers came to the podium and said that the former chairmen of the trade union committees under the new economic conditions were jumping into bed with directors and forgetting about protecting workers’ interests. And the old trade union guard who had also come to the session started pounding their feet and whistling. After that, the workers walked out of the session in an organised group. I left too. I wrote a report to Klochkov that we had to create a new trade unions’ charter, create new organisations. Based on the old staff, that was impossible.

The chairman was afraid to rock the boat, and I left the FNPR. I explained my reasons in an article in the newspaper Trud. Two years later, Klochkov was re-elected, and he tried to reform the old trade unions. There were and still are those who would get in bed with the directors, with the power of capital.

Working in the FNPR, I travelled a lot around the country meeting with workers’ collectives. I remember my trip to Yoshkar-Ola. As a person from the central leadership, I was well received in the republic’s trade union centre. They found what they thought was a good trade union organization for me at one of the factories. I made a visit there. During their lunch break, the employees were having a rest. I approached one group, another, and asked: “How do the trade unions work at the plant?” And they answered: “We don’t have them.” Many years have passed and workers are still not seeing trade unions in their place of work. They are hidden in offices, and are called the FNPR trade unions.

And there, among these ranks, I saw an activist who could become an example for those fighting for workers’ rights. This is Vladimir Revenku, deputy chairman of the Chelyabinsk Regional Committee of the Mining and Metallurgical Trade Union. Vladimir Revenku’s main trump card is that he knows how to attract a lot of people and supporters to the development of his initiatives. At a time when the proper words of many of our leaders go down like a lead balloon, no one is picking them up.

Before taking up this latest struggle to protect labour rights, he wrote a petition addressed to the Deputies of the State Duma (albeit with an ironic tone) offering to resurrect serfdom in Russia. The petition had stated that: “a low level of income deprives a person of a serious part of their freedom. The worker has no freedom of movement, and it is difficult for him to make any radical changes to his own life. He may not even be willing to agree to participate in a collective gathering aiming to defend his own rights as it depends on the employer. This is, in effect, serfdom, which is all but formally legalised.” 

Before then, Revenku had discussed his idea with workers, and then launched his petition on social media. Hundreds of people signed the petition, and it became a kind of appeal to society. In Russian mainstream media, unusual writings began appearing like electrical sparks about workers in Chelyabinsk asking the State Duma to legalise the Serfdom which existed in the country in all but name. 

On his own internet page, Revenku ironically posted that he had tried to create a petition that supported Russian oligarchs since they urgently needed belts for their trousers that were “falling down from the weight of the money stolen from the people.” 

Revenku added a video of himself to the petition. In it the workers say: “The state has surrounded us with care: here the retirement age is below 70, and wages are a dignified 20,000 roubles!” 

Then Revenku had another idea that was supposed to highlight a new problem; the size of our minimum wage that the state tried to feed to its citizens.  

A group of volunteers made up of 14 metallurgists and miners from Chelyabinsk region was formed, and they decided they would use their own bodies to show how the state thanks workers for their service. The state guarantees them rations that are not much different from those people would get during the Leningrad Blockade in the war. The workers called their experiment “life on the minimum wage”. They tried to live on this shameful minimum wage which left them only 4,141 roubles for food after the rest was spent on other costs. Each participant managed to get 33 food items into their grocery basket. The experiment then began.  

Without exception, all the participants in this brave act complained of a loss of energy, mental fatigue, and sickness. One young woman said that during the experiment she suffered from headache, nausea and stomach-ache. A second participant reported that “the second week was very difficult psychologically because you’re malnourished, you’re trying to get by on this amount of food. Two young women quit after the first week. They lived on 150 roubles a day. It became unacceptable for them. One woman from Karabash got sick so she ended the experiment. People began to drop out, some ran out of money, some ran out of food, some just got fed up with everything. If they hadn’t supported each other everything would have fallen apart even earlier.

There was particular concern for those who work in hazardous production, they complained of loss of concentration, physical weakness, and the subsequent increased risk of defective work and the risk to industrial safety.

According to Vladimir Revenku, the main organizer of the experiment, who did not observe from the outside but was also part of the deadly group: “I gave up on day 29. I just had some sugar, salt and bread, 200-300 grams. It became clear that I could not live on the amount of the minimum wage. I even had to eat sour soup at the end of the second week. I was not allowed to throw the food away – this was a condition of our action. My wife would cook the soup for me for 3-4 days and you had to eat it all these days with bread in the form of toast and croutons.

Revenku lost 10 kg in weight. It is possible to survive, but is this life? In the beginning it seemed to him that there were too many potatoes, but when on the 28th day he ate the last potato fried with onion in water because he was out of vegetable oil and there was no butter, he was in a dreary mood.

Many participants had to forego contact with their families for the duration of the experiment so as not to come under temptation again. Vladimir Revenku tried to get home from work towards nightfall, eat his evening meal and go straight to bed, it was easier that way. Only four people managed to make it to the end of the experiment; the rest dropped out for health reasons as they went along.

The question arose, why don’t the people who approve socially important laws in our country test their practicality before approving them? Workers from Chelyabinsk in their letter proposed that officials from the Russian Ministry of Labour and Social Protection and the Minister Anton Kotyakov, personally, live a full month on the minimum wage, eating only food purchased in the shops.

“Anton Olegovich, could you live on this generous minimum wage? We’ve had three weeks of it. We don’t just exist, we work. I create metal structures. I work on a large industrial site. I pour out sulphuric acid. I bend piping for twelve hours a day.  The metal workers measure it. And we live on this minimum wage, where we are given a kilogram of sugar and 200 grams of meat for a month. Where there is flour with no yeast. We live on 150 roubles a day. There are two sausages in dough or two side dishes or two soups for a whole day. And, for heaven’s sake, please don’t mention living on the minimum wage, or you will suddenly fall sick…”

With their action, the workers, though suffering pain and other problems, wanted to draw the attention of officials to our minimum working wage. They believe that the minimum wage should be at least 60% of the average wage in the country. And they are calling on  ordinary citizens to sign a petition which will oblige officials to live at least one month on 12,000 roubles, so that they might experience the beauty of such a life, as offered to ordinary people.

And this appeal to the authorities was noticed. At the meeting of the State Council and the Council for Strategic Development and National Projects, which was held with the participation of the head of state, the leader of A Just Russia, Sergei Mironov, spoke about the action of the metal workers and miners from Chelyabinsk. Reports about the workers’ actions were put on Putin’s desk. He looked at them, and in his speech he said that the minimum wage should be raised.

And in this case, the trade unions, with help from Revenku, succeeded in raising the awareness of the authorities, by highlighting a running sore.

We could do with more campaigners like Revenku so that we might not only give birth to more ideas, but also find ways to implant these ideas into the boardrooms and heads of our rulers. Then a lot of things in our country would have changed for the better.

Translated by Judith Fagelson, Mercedes Malcomson, Elizabeth Rushton, Fergus Wright, Matthew Quigley and Graham Jones

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