Independent Union Struggles Against Partnership Schemes And Union-Busting on Russia’s Docks

For Igor Vdovchenko, going to work every day has become an act of resistance. Vdovchenko is a dockworker in Kaliningrad, a small area of Russia tucked between Poland and Lithuania. Whether or not they like their jobs, Vdovchenko and the others in the port share a certain pride in the simple ability to do the work: in their skill with the wide variety of equipment, and the complexity of the cargo they’re qualified to load, stack, and stow.

When he is given any work at all these days, it is cleaning truck holds covered in finely sifted rock, dirt, and chemicals. Vdovchenko told me “for a skilled dockworker, this would be funny if it wasn’t humiliating.” Along with a dozen or so others, he is singled out because he belongs to the Russian Union of Dockworkers (RPD).

Since RPD’s 1997 strike, port management has waged a highly orchestrated war against the union and succeeded in intimidating the majority of its members. Despite repeated firings and drawn-out court battles, 23 workers have refused to leave the union. They pay dues, gather for meetings, hold protests, and go to court.

Kaliningrad represents one of the few and most determined efforts in Russia today to assert workers’ rights to organize, freedom of association, and collective bargaining. The old Soviet unions – whose functions were to administer the social benefits of the communist system – after unexpectedly surviving the transition to “capitalism,” evolved a philosophy of “social partnership”: basically, accommodating management in exchange for continued survival.

Union membership in Russia is about 40 percent, but this is down from 80% five years ago, and most union members belong to old-style unions, which often seem to exist only on paper. Yet Russian workers inadequate wages, economic instability, the slow erosion of social benefits, deteriorating and dangerous working equipment and conditions, and little defense of workers’ rights or interests by the state. The courts are largely corrupt. The new labor code severely restricts many of the elementary tools trade unions have to leverage power, further constraining efforts at self-representation.


Unions like RPD, referred to as “independent,” “free,” or “alternative,” (deliberately suggesting their formerly Soviet counterparts are the opposite), formed mostly in the late ‘80s and mid-90s in response to nationwide wage arrears. Though they represent at best a few percentage points of the workforce, they are waging high-profile fights over fundamental questions in post-Communist Russia: what a union should do, who it should represent, what rights workers have, what an individual is worth. The independents are strongest in the transportation sector and among teachers and medics. Many embody activist and creative trade unionism at its best. The air traffic controllers union, known for its sectoral density, militancy and effectiveness, has been prohibited from going on hunger strike; it is considering fighting back by overeating to fail the daily physical all dispatchers take to make sure they can do the job. Kaliningrad-RPD’s fight – with fame disproportionate to its numbers--is a test case for the rare instance when Russian union activists do not give up or give in to relentless employer and government pressure.

In 1997 RPD Kaliningrad went on strike not because members couldn’t put food on the table (that came later), but because brothers in other Russian cities told them about getting paid three, six, ten times more money because of a union fight. RPD members wanted to be paid – and treated – according to what they were learning their labor was worth. From their founding in 1995, RPD also fought for self-respect, like having soap in the cafeteria so workers could wash their hands before eating (management initially refused, alleging workers would steal the soap, then rationed smaller and smaller slices before reneging altogether). The 1997 strike was Kaliningrad’s first where, more than just wages they were owed, workers demanded a place at a bargaining table.

The union lost the strike, thanks in part to strikebreakers management recruited: former workers who had retired or been fired for drunkenness. When RPD returned to work, they were separated into union-only, smaller brigades given less work, janitorial work, or no work at all. Members were used to moving thousands of pounds by hand; there’s a way you stand, a rhythm and motion you use to protect your joints. But now constantly ordered to shovel snow (in different terminals, to parade their “idleness” before non-RPD members), that work was back-breaking and intolerable. A rare court victory upheld their refusal, the day something snapped, to shovel snow anymore.

Meanwhile, the lack of work wiped out salaries, benefits, and bonuses. Management blocked advancement in the trade, reincorporated as a new “legal entity” to which members were refused transfer, seized and shuttered the union office, fired each member at least twice, and refused to implement court-ordered reinstatements. Half the RPD members finally returned to the port this May, two years after the court order. Half of those have been re-fired, mostly for health problems they didn’t know they had (in one case a heart attack). In October, the European Court of Human Rights announced it would hear RPD’s case alleging freedom of association violations and discrimination based on union membership. This will be the Court’s first case from Russia concerning trade union rights. Representing RPD, as since their founding, will be union chairperson Mikhail Chesalin.



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What strikes you first about Chesalin is his energy. He is constantly thinking, but in a way that doesn’t intrude on his total commitment to the moment, whether facing a hostile judge (as the union’s lawyer), counseling one of his members through a bogus health exam (as the union’s chair), or singing karaoke at a union party (as the union’s organizer).

RPD members say he was similarly determined as a dockworker. The brigade would move 300 hundred-pound sacks. Chesalin would want to do 50 more. Amid debates about whether or not this fight would have continued for this long without Chesalin, one role he clearly plays among the members is to encourage them to want more, and make them believe they deserve it. One said: “Tell Misha some idea you have – for him it’s fascinating. You said such a great thing, you can’t even imagine. Your organism just starts to work faster, you figure things out more easily.”

To management, on the other hand, Chesalin is an “adventurist...who dictates to robot members what to write on paper.” Personnel Director Evgenii Goncharov complained to me that for every order he issues – a reduction in work hours, cancellation of bonuses, forced truancy – RPD members always fill in the line where the labor code requires their opinion by writing ne soglasen: “I don’t agree.” Management seems frustrated most by RPD and Chesalin’s simple refusal to do as they’re told.

Given the general uncertainty in Russia today, this makes RPD’s project sufficiently radical. RPD’s proposition that workers deserve fairness, and have the right to stand up together and demand it, is an investment in a clear, fair system where workers and employers negotiate on equal footing and the state intervenes to mediate disputes. This investment is one few are willing to make.

In a strange sense, management is playing ball, carrying out its anti-union policies with rare and meticulous attention to the law in a way that eerily resembles legalistic U.S. anti-union campaigns. This fight has spurred a crucial transformation among the 23 who stayed in RPD. Unlike those who bowed to management’s offers of normal working conditions if they left the union, RPD has rejected the notion that rules belong to the employer, or the state.

They’ve had a few important legal victories: in addition to the snow-shoveling decision, the Supreme Court found that their 1997 strike had been legal. This is especially significant given that employers’ use of the court system to have strikes declared illegal is commonplace, and an important tool in managements’ arsenal. On a day-to-day level, RPD members know and use the rules; they quoted the labor code to me at length. Sasha Milinetz, fired in June a third time for a vision diagnosis that hasn’t changed in ten years since he was first hired, explained: “From Soviet times we’re all used to thinking there’s no such thing as truth, no matter how much you look for it, you won’t find it. At first, I refused to leave the union on principle: I joined myself, I’ll leave when I decide to, not because someone else says so. But when the Supreme Court said our strike was legal, I thought, maybe there is a truth here: we’re right and they’re wrong. Now that’s why I stay.”

I asked other members what made them different, why they had stayed when everyone else left. Vdovchenko told me, “we have a desire to win. They don’t.”

Sergei Danilenkov rejected the frequent justification I’d heard for leaving the union, that people had to “feed their families.” He said: “That’s one idea of what it means to be a father. But I don’t want to work in the port for less than I deserve, and be treated like less than a man so my son can grow up, work in the port for less than he deserves and be treated like less than a man. That’s another way to be a father.”

Danilenkov is in his thirties, with black hair, narrow, piercing green eyes and gruff, quiet confidence. Red and yellow necks of cranes are visible from outside the apartment he shares with his mother and another RPD member, a ten minute walk from the port. Since he and the others were fired two years ago, he’s worked on the railroads. He says the work is decent, and he’s making more money than he would in the port…but he’s dying to go back. “For the principle?” I asked. “No. I miss it. The shifts start at 8am – I’d be there by 6:30. I wouldn’t notice the time passing; I might wind up staying two, three hours after the shift ended.

“There was always more to do and it was always interesting. Maybe this ship is from America, Africa, Asia. They just give you a task, and then you organize it. No one’s standing around telling you what to do. You’ve got the freight, you know where it needs to go and you figure out the best way to get it all into the right place. You really feel like a person there.”