This article is reprinted, with permission and technical corrections, from Chartist.
Chris Ford, from the Ukraine Socialist Solidarity campaign, writes about a forceful campaign by miners in Ukraine and the lessons it provides a country torn by a toxic mixture of rising fascism, external interference and ethnic conflict.
July 5, 2014
After being ignored for months, the miners of the Ukrainian industrial metropolis of Kryvyi Rih have had a breakthrough in their dispute with the corporate giant EVRAZ, securing a nearly 20% increase in their wages. Whilst it is short of their 50% goal it is a step forward and testimony to the effectiveness of international solidarity. This comes amongst a rash of workers’ protests in a number of cities in response to the crisis.
In the grand scheme of things this may seem insignificant in comparison to the grim reality of Ukraine – but for those interested in steering Ukraine to an alternative road, the experience and struggle of these miners proves this is not as remote a possibility as we may think.
Kryvyi Rih is an iron-ore mining centre in the Dnepropetrovsk oblast in central Ukraine. It is mostly a Russian speaking city; the region has a diverse Ukrainian, Russian and Jewish populace, many having relatives in Russia. Kryvyi Rih is a modern city of close to 1 million people. It houses the giant Kryvorizhstal plant owned by Dutch-Indian Mittal Steel. Its mine owners include the EVRAZ corporation, owned by Russian oligarchs. The inequity of Kryvyi Rih is straight from a 19th century novel: the oligarchs pay next to nothing in tax in Ukraine whilst offshoring vast sums, mostly in London. The top share-holder of EVRAZ is Roman Abramovich, worth $14.2 billion; next in line Alexander Abramov is worth $7.5 billion.
In proportion to the wealth and luxurious lifestyles of these corporate owners the misery of the miners stands in stark contrast. The average monthly salary at Evraz’s Sukha Balka mine is 5290 Hryvnia, a mere £262.85. Whilst a corporate gloss has been painted over the mines, with company uniforms, protective equipment and European safety policies, the reality of working conditions is very different. Activists of the Independent Union of Mineworkers of Ukraine (NGPU) describe it as a “beautiful cover”, you are expected to “work at any cost, workers cannot refuse to work in dangerous conditions because they can be fired!” Two years ago there were twenty-three accidents at the EVRAZ iron-ore mine alone. Yury Samoilov, Head of the NGPU at EVRAZ, says that the “management work according to the laws of industrial feudalism”.
The increased assertiveness by the workers to challenge the oligarchs began with the EuroMaidan rebellion against the authoritarian ex-Presidency Yanukovych. Whilst most coverage has focused on the events in Kyiv, the EuroMaidan was a diverse movement that arose across Ukraine; in Kryvyi Rih it was more proletarian in composition than populist. When the authorities turned to using thugs and armed snipers to confront their Maidan demonstration on 24th February, Kryvyi Rih did not witness the wholesale shooting of protesters as in Kyiv. The reason was the hundreds of workers organised in self-defence brigades who prevented them from killing anyone. The next day hundreds of miners took over the chamber of the City Council demanding the councilors, who supported the pro-Moscow President Yanukovich, either represent the will of the people or resign.
These miners’ self-organisation of EuroMaidan has continued in resisting the destructiveness of the revanchist movement that arose followed the fall of Yanukovich. The “separatist” insurgency has roots in those with interests tied to the deposed President Yanukovych and the direct intervention of Russia. A string of Russian far-right militias are at the forefront where it has taken control of towns. In a number of areas this chauvinism has sown division and polarisation in communities. The miners have viewed maintaining the unity of Ukraine intimately connected to the unity of the workforce and their struggle with the corporations. Oleksandr Bondar, Head of the Independent Union of Miners at the EVRAZ, notes: “We began a couple months ago so workers could defend themselves against gangs of thugs organised by the mine bosses.”
On the 19th April when “separatists” planned an event in Kryvyi Rih with the expected seizure of administrative buildings, four of the six-thousand who mobilised in a counter-demonstration for unity, were miners and steelworkers. The positive role of organised workers is recognised in an appeal for international solidarity issued by the Independent Union of Miners of Ukraine:
“Organised workers and workers’ self-defence are precisely that stabilising factor which can effectively prevent the escalation of violence in Ukraine. In those places where organised workers are controlling the situation mass actions never turn into mass killings. The workers defended the Maidan in Kryvyi Rih. The workers did not allow any violence when they took under their control the situation in the city of Krasnodon during the recent general strike there.”
The local NGPU leaders Bondar and Samoilov point out that attention has been drawn away from the extreme deterioration in the social-economic situation, which is one of the main causes of the crisis in Ukraine. With currency devaluation, a rise in prices of consumer goods, transport and basic services, “all this has led to a sharp fall in workers’ real wages. By our estimates there has been a 30-50% fall in real wages.” The post-Maidan Interim Government appointed the billionaire Oligarch Igor Kolomoisky as the new regional governor; he announced a pay rise in April of 20%. The union points out it “actually turned into an insulting hand-out to workers of 300-700 hryvnia (£25-58).”
The miners responded to this situation with a claim for a 50% pay rise and a series of improvements to their conditions. NGPU began organising strike action; the restrictive Labour Code in Ukraine requires two-thirds support, and the trade union activists have working hard to collect 1,600 signatures to start a collective labour dispute. This activity was accompanied by a direct appeal for international solidarity, specifically calling “upon the workers of Britain for solidarity”.
Active International solidarity
On 23rd May the United Steelworkers Union in Canada picketed the EVRAZ plant in Regina in solidarity with the Ukrainian miners, prompting the Vice President of Human Capital to fly directly from the North American HQ in Chicago. This was joined by a protest at the EVRAZ London HQ by socialist and trade unionists of the Ukrainian Socialist Solidarity campaign on the same day. The demands for Justice for the Kryvyi Rih miners were also raised in the House of Commons in an Early Day Motion (137) by John McDonnell MP and in a the National Assembly of Wales, tabled by Mick Antoniw.
When an official notice of dispute was served bringing the miners’ strike action nearer, a picket headed by John McDonnell MP was held at the EVRAZ AGM on 12th June at Abramovich’s Chelsea FC. This combination of international solidarity and the miner’s campaign brought the oligarchs to the negotiating table the very next day. The campaign forcing a concession from the EVRAZ Corporation providing for a salary increase for all workers of 15 – 20%.
Whilst recognising this as a small concession, its achievement in itself was a big step forward, with the union now in negotiations, with further gains looking likely. The local union newsletter Slovo summed up: “Together we are a force to be reckoned with!”
It is this success in the independent union to challenge their employer and win that is important. As one activists noted, “it sets an example for all workers of Ukraine”. If we see the entire crisis in Ukraine as solely a result of geo-politics, or about anti-fascism, then this is irrelevant; however if we see it as a question of class, of capital and labour, then recent events are significant. As the miners Bondar and Samoilov write: “We are deeply convinced that the main cause of the destabilised situation in the country is the greed of Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs, who pay a beggar’s wage to workers, send all their profits off-shore and don’t pay taxes in Ukraine.”
It has been the recent experience of workers’ power, not military power, that has shown the ability to overcome the divisiveness of chauvinists, and to unify workers around both goals of social justice and in defence of a united and multi-ethnic Ukraine. It is from these positive experiences that we can take hope in the developing Ukrainian labour movement.
Chris Ford is convenor of the Ukrainian Socialist Solidarity campaign. They are staging a discussion forum in Parliament on July 9th.