Kyrgyzstan: Rail-workers’ life and death struggle

Interview with Bishkek strike leaders

Rail-workers’ life and death struggle

A group of us – CWI members – met the leaders of a new trade union – The Railway Workers’ Trade Union – in Bishkek, the capital of the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, on 19 February. These workers took protest action last year, demanding full union rights and decent conditions and wages. Their desperate struggle involved a hunger strike and threats to set fire to themselves. The CWI organised international solidarity for the Railway Workers’ Trade Union.

Finally, the regime of President Bakayev gave way. In January 2006, the rail bosses conceded, at least on paper, to many of the workers’ demands. However, the Railway Workers’ Trade Union leaders are wary that the regime intends to privatise the rail network and are prepared to take more militant action if sell-off plans are announced or if the concessions made by rail management are not kept to.

A human rights worker, who collaborates closely with the rail workers, introduced the meeting between the rail union and the CWI. She gave us background information to the workers’ struggle and the 2005 ‘Tulip revolution’ in Kyrgyzstan:

“After last year’s ‘Tulip Revolution’, which saw the regime of President Akayev overthrown and replaced by President Bakayev, all groups and interests lobbied the new regime for their interests.

“The Railway Workers’ Trade Union union demanded full union rights. However they soon found out that there was big interest in the privatisation of their industry. Huge sums are involved. The government denied they were interested in privatisation but now they admit it. On 19 January, this year, the government signed a law on privatisation.

“People thought the new regime would respect human rights. It’s not true. The old regime of Akayev shot protesters who were against the selling of land to China. No army or police responsible were ever taken to court. But the new Bakayev regime has done nothing about this case. It’s also ready to hand back Uzbek refugees to the dictatorship in neighbouring Uzbekistan. These refugees fled last year’s army massacre of protesters in the Andijan area of Uzbekistan.

“What’s the difference between the Akayev and Bakayev regimes? The old regime was run by crooks and tried hard to hide it. The new regime is open about it.

“Journalists criticising the government face repression. This is clearly not parliamentary democracy but presidential rule. Nothing has changed.

“Last year, the striking rail workers, demanding union rights, better conditions and pay, held permanent pickets at the rail stations. There were always ‘counter pickets’. They arrived in expensive cars with police support. They lived in rail wagons and were fed by management.

“When the Railway Workers’ Trade Union strikers threatened to set themselves on fire to get their demands, they meant it. They planned to carry out self-immolation during the inauguration ceremony of President Bakayev. Five minutes after the workers publicly announced this desperate action, the leaders of the strike were re-instated by management.

“The new regime was terrified how the world would view workers setting themselves on fire and gave in to many of the workers’ demands. The rail management admitted it has made many mistakes. A court decided the new Railway Workers’ Trade Union should be allowed to exist. The rail bosses’ promised to re-instate sacked workers. Half of management were sacked by the rail tops. The union also succeeded in getting the rail ‘Internal Security Department’ [security thugs] set up by management, removed from the workplace. Bosses guaranteed there would be no repression against strike participants, there would be financial transparency of the industry and that specialist workers would not be sacked.

“But it is possible the management will go ahead with selling the rail system.”

Ernest Dokenov, the leader of the Railway Workers’ Trade Union, then spoke to us about their struggle.

“The Railway Workers’ Trade Union is a small, national, blue collar rail union. We split from the ‘official’ union, which was set up in 1994, following the demise of the Soviet Union. But the official union was controlled by the bureaucracy from the old regime.

“We decided to set up a proper union, the Railway Workers’ Trade Union. Our aim was to organise workers and to defend union rights. Legally, we are now fully independent.

“The rail system is small; around 20 kilometres going North and 120 South. But it links up with other systems. We go all the way to Moscow. So the network is important for the economy and our union can play a key role in workers’ struggles.

“At first, the authorities tried to disband us. The previous regime of President Akayev feared us. Things were meant to improve after last year’s ‘Tulip revolution’, which saw Akayev overthrown and replaced by President Bakayev. The Tulip leaders claimed they would improve things for working people. But the current authorities attack our union more openly than when under Akayev. They used old ‘Soviet’ laws against us that were actually abolished in 1999.

“The rail management threatened to privatise the rail network. If this is done, it will mean job losses and worse conditions for rail workers and rail passengers. They will try to sell the rail network assets. Engineers and specialist staff could be the first to be sacked. Only skilled workers that can’t be replaced will be kept on.

“Last year, the Railway Workers’ Trade Union took strike action and extreme measures to fight for our rights. We threatened to burn ourselves alive. We were desperate although we didn’t want to be seen as a destructive force.

“Our experience shows us that the only force that changes things are unions. You can’t rely on other forces. The television news was told to keep quiet about our struggle and stopped filming us. There was an information blockade. An opposition paper that reported our actions later turned against us. But our struggle meant that eventually we broke out of this.

“We would like international support from unions, especially those in the transport industry. We will not give up. The Railway Workers’ Trade Union is not a big union and most workers in Kyrgyzstan are in the ‘official’ unions. But we are winning more of their members. They see that our struggle won gains. It is ten months since we started our struggle and now even people abroad know about us. The management agreed to raise our wages by 30%. We insist a concrete date is given for each agreement they gave.

“Other strikes are likely. A strike by workers in an air company looms. Two companies merged and are about to sack 500 people.

“Recently, we set up a ‘Transport Workers’ Party’. It is now officially legal. It includes rail workers and also airport staff. It is a socialist party that is for equality and defence of working people.

“We are following in a good tradition of struggle. Some of the first unions in Czarist Russia were organised by rail workers and the railroads brought the news of the 1917 Russian Revolution to Kyrgyzstan. Now the first genuinely independent union in Kyrgyzstan – the Railway Workers’ Trade Union – has been set up by rail workers.

“We like what the CWI says about our struggle. We very much want to learn from the experiences of the workers’ movement in Europe. We want to build contact with other unions internationally.”

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March 2006