Russia: Workers’ occupation at Yaraslavl factory ends in victory

No to boss’s backsliding – Support the Kholodmash plant workers!

The following article on the recent Kholodmash factory occupation is a translation of an article originally published on ‘socialism.ru’, website of Socialist Resistance (CWI in Russia).

The report gives a colourful and graphic eyewitness account of how the Kholodmash factory workers overcame their initial caution and took militant action, occupying the Directors’ offices and winning their demands for unpaid wages and for the plant to be kept open.

The article ends with an appeal to socialistworld.net readers to support the Kholodmash workers and to send messages to the factory’s management, demanding no backsliding on agreements made with the workers.

socialistworld.net

Workers’ occupation at Yaraslavl factory ends in victory

‘Kholodmash’ is an industrial plant in Yaraslval, Russia (Yaraslval is a large city about three hours drive north of Moscow). On Monday, 20 March, negotiations between Olga Boiko, head of the trade union at Kholodmash, and Directors of the company, Mikhailov and Kalinkin, along with the regional Deputy Governor, Federov, ended in victory for the workforce.

The regional government was forced to come out against the attempt to declare the Kholodmash plant ‘bankrupt’ and management were given a week to find money to pay back the workers’ wage arrears. In turn, the management was promised a delay in paying for electricity and gas.

The regional government argued that it would hold negotiations with the national government so that the factory is bought back into state ownership. Guarantees were given that no action would be taken against those that participated in the action. These results indicate that only radical measures can force change, and although it is still too soon to say a full victory has been achieved, considerable concessions have been gained.

 Ivan Ovsyanikov, a member of Socialist Resistance (CWI) in Yaraslavl, and an active participant in the occupation of Kholodmash, explains what happened:

 The workers call what happened at the factory "an uprising", and they are not far from the truth. Although the events appeared to develop spontaneously, they are the result of a massive amount of agitation and preparatory work conducted by the ‘Zashita’ trade union in the plant.

 Two or three days before the workers’ occupation, it appeared that the workforce had succumbed to apathy. Even the ‘Instrument Shop’, the best organised section of the workforce, had come out against taking any ‘radical action’. It was left to a small group of female activists to decide that they would act anyway, whether they got support from the rest of the workers, or not. Undoubtedly, their decisiveness pushed the remainder of the workforce into taking action.

Workers’ patience runs out

On the morning of 15 March, a hundred or so workers gathered outside the Director’s office. When they stated their demands, Mikhailov, who is not only General Director, but, in effect, also owns the factory, refused, in a rude and cynical manner, to even listen to the workers. This proved to be the workforce’s last attempt at "dialogue". For the workers, it was the final straw, and by the next morning their patience had run out.

 On the morning of the 17 March, as soon as the morning shift started, a spontaneous meeting began in the workers’ changing rooms. The management, afraid of what was happening, ordered Olga Boiko, the factory’s trade union leader, to be kept out of the factory. But some of the security guards, who were sympathetic with the trade union because they also faced redundancy, refused to obey management’s orders. "We are defending the factory, not the owner" they commented.

 The security guards also allowed activists from Socialist Resistance (CWI) into the plant and a TV crew from a local Yaraslavl news station. When we came into the factory there was only about 50 workers left in the meeting. But, within half an hour, the rest of the workforce joined in. The discussion was lively. Although there were some sceptical voices amongst the workers, they were in a minority. It was clear to most workers that there was no more room for compromise and the time for half measures in dealing with management was over.

At 9.30 am, 17 March, the workers went to the Director’s office. We were amongst the first to enter his room. Once there, we found factory Directors’ Mikhailov and Kalinkin, in a meeting with the Head of Security. For a couple of minutes, some of the workers wavered in the reception area – this gave the management the chance to issue a final insult. Kalinkin attacked the journalists present. "Get out of my office, who gave you permission to film here?" he shouted. But, as Kalinkin went to push a cameraman out of the building, the workers stopped Kalinkin. Within seconds, the office was full of workers. The room was like a packed bus. And the managers huddled behind their big desks.  

 Ignoring the worried pleas of the management, Olga Boiko, the union leader in the factory, once again listed the workers’ demands. She called for the immediate and full payment of four months wage arrears, the maintenance of production at current levels, and guarantees against redundancy in the event of bankruptcy. Olga Boiko then went on to declare that there was no longer any possibility of negotiations with the management, and that the workers would stay in the office until the Regional Governor and Prosecutor General appeared. The workers applauded Olga Boiko.

Uncomfortable questions for bosses

 The workers’ occupation lasted four hours. The discussion with the Director was very involved. Until the workers’ occupation, so-called ‘discussions’ between the workforce and the management were very one-sided. Management presented orders and promises and expected workers to keep silent. Now it was the management who had to listen. Everyone wanted their chance to discuss with those responsible for asset-stripping the plant – and everyone got their chance. Most of the questions proved to be very uncomfortable for the Directors. For example, workers asked, why were two thirds of the plant’s equipment transferred to another factory?

 That the Management did not like being questioned in this way was demonstrated by the pale face of Director Mikhailov during the discussions, and by the fact that the security chief had to keep wiping sweat from his forehead.

It turned out that there were many talented orators and cross examiners amongst the workforce. Sergei Nikolaevich, from the factory’s Instrument Shop, and standing just a nose away from Mikhailov, succeeded in asking many awkward questions – for which he was called "a provocateur" by management. To this slur – reminiscent of the old Stalinist system – other workers replied: "Then we are all provocateurs"!

Sergei carried on: "I don’t want to upset anyone, I’m not that sort. But I think that it’s time to kick these fat layabouts out, stick them in a car, and send them through the gates. What do you think lads?" "That’s right", replied the other workers.

 The Director wasn’t keen to be sent out of the factory in such a manner, as suggested by Sergei. But he was still desperate to get out of his office!

By 11 am, a crowd of journalists milled around the factory entrance. But Mikhailov ordered them to be kept out. When the workers demanded the journalists be let in, Mikhailov decided to be crafty. "Of course, of course, I’ll just run down and let them in". But the workers knew Mikhailov only offered to do this to try to make sure the journalists got nowhere near the occupation. So, a group of 20 workers and Sotssprot activists ran down and stopped Mikhailov going anywhere near the factory gates. It didn’t take long for the protesters to overcome the remaining security guards, and then the workers unbolted the factory gates to let the press in. The gates were also flung open by the workforce when another TV crew turned up.

Later on 17 March, local ‘big wigs’, and, of course, the police, turned up. Amongst the first to arrive was the Deputy President of the Regional trade union, Batov, along with a female colleague, called Grosse, who was unknown to the Kholodmash plant workforce. These two union ‘officials’ spent their time trying to convince the workers to leave the Directors’ office and to sit down to negotiations. Their arguments had little success with the workers. Then the police came into the factory and tried to "protect" the managers. The workers made the police squirm. They asked the officers, "What are you doing, got nothing better to do!"

 Then the Region’s Procurer, a young careerist, also turned up.  He spent a long time trying to convince the workforce that his office’s previous audit of the Kholodmasi factory did not reveal any wrong doings by management. The collapse of the factory, he said, "Was an objective necessity". But the workers did not accept this explanation. By the end of their debate with him, the Procurer had to promise that the next audit on the Kholodmash plant will have to examine details about the factory much more thoroughly.

Speeches by the assorted factory chiefs and local big wigs still left the workers unsatisfied. The workers demanded the Regional Governor, Lisitsyn, who was involved in running down the factory, and is one of President Putin’s favorite governors, should come to the Kholodmash plant. But, of course, the workers were told that by Lisitsyn’s office that the Regional Governor was "out of town". Lisitsyn’s deputy promised to bring a delegation to the plant on the following Monday and asked the workforce to send a delegation to meet him on that day. After some discussion, the workers agreed, nominating two or three people from every factory shop. But, as local union leader, Olga Boika, explained, whatever the outcome of the negotiations, the workforce body would now act as a ‘standing strike committee’.

Seeing the resolve of the workforce on 17 March, management had to choice but to agree too many of the protesters’ demands. Eventually, the Kholodmash plant director was released from his office at 13.30 hours.

So worried are the Yaraslavl city’s authorities, they kept to their promises and, as mentioned above, significant concessions were made in negotiations to the workers. While the key activists, including members of Socialist Resistance (CWI), were questioned by the FSB (political police), so far, no further action has been taken. Undoubtedly, the authorities have decided to wait, hoping the anger will die down before trying to take ‘counter-measures’. But the workers are determined to remain vigilant!

Support the Kholodmash plant workers – Send messages to the authorities

To help consolidate the Kholodmash factory workers’ victory, and to help keep up pressure on the Kholodmash plant management and city authorities to stick to the agreement with the workforce, please send letters to management.

Letters should protest at low incomes of the Kholodmash workforce, that wages have not been paid for some months, and that the workers are concerned that they will soon be made redundant.

Furthermore, protests should show concern at attempts to undermine and to use repressive measures against the leader of the Kholodmash plant trade union, Olga Boiko. This is unacceptable. Please indicate your full support for the workers, in their struggle to save their wages and jobs.

Working people and youth internationally should make clear to the Kholodmash management that if the Kholodmash workers demands are not met, solidarity action by trade union members will be organised around the world. This will include pickets and protests outside Russian embassies and consulates to raise public awareness of what is being done at the Kholodmash plant, in Yaroslavl.

  • All repressive measures against Olga Boiko, and other activists, should immediately cease
  • All the demands of the workforce to be met

Please send protest letters to:

  • Director of Kholodmash, Valerii Kalinkin
  • Email: holod@median.ru.
  • Fax: +7 4852 552204 (wait for message and beep, then press send button)
  • Please also send copies to bezduhovnost@list.ru.

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