Miners in Ukraine discuss
fight for sovereignty, rights
Coverage from coal region near Polish border
“It’s not true that people from my region don’t support the struggle against Russian occupation,” Xenia Kuznetsova, left, student from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, told Militant correspondents Joanne Holowchak and Ned Dmytryshn, right, in Kiev’s Maidan March 21.
BY JOHN STUDER
SOKAL, Ukraine — “While the trade unions themselves didn’t play a central role in the Maidan, workers and unionists certainly did,” former miner Yuriy Demkiv told the Militant March 23. The Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, was the scene of bloody street battles with riot police leading up to the fall of the pro-Moscow government of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Militant worker-correspondents spoke with a number of miners and other working people during a couple days spent in and around this town of roughly 20,000 on the western border with Poland. The area is host to seven coal mines; a coal processing plant with 900 workers, the majority women; and a garment plant with a workforce of 800 that makes socks.
“What we have accomplished is an important victory for the entire nation,” Demkiv said. “But we don’t trust the new government, or any of the political parties. We support the people staying in Maidan. Those in the Ministry of Energy and the Coal Industry today are the same people who served under Yanukovych.”
“But we don’t just need to change the faces,” he said. “We need to change the social and political policies, to get rid of the regime of bribery. We say freedom or death.”
As we talked in Demkiv’s apartment, the television was tuned to continual coverage of the Russian government’s seizure of Crimea and Moscow’s provocations in the east and south of the country, sections with the largest concentration of coal and steel production.
“Having understood that the people cannot be defeated even by force, Viktor Yanukovych and his associates fled, leaving the country devastated,” Mikhailo Volynets, chairman of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine, said in a March 11 statement on behalf of the nationwide Confederation of Free Trade Unions. “Ukraine was subjected to aggressive interventions by the Russian Federation.”
Unemployment and decreasing living standards “have worsened,” said Volynets, who opposes proposals from Washington and European Union governments for “policies of austerity.”
“This targeting of average people is unacceptable and counterproductive,” he said, all the more so in Ukraine, where “wages, pensions and other social payments are the lowest in Europe.” He called on unionists worldwide to support Ukrainian workers in their “struggle for peace for our country, its independence, integrity and the inviolability of its borders” and for “a decent level of life for Ukrainian workers.”
The economic and social crisis workers and farmers in Ukraine face has spurred their struggle to throw off Russian domination and open political space for discussion, debate and action.
In its coverage of a public protest by railroad workers in November, the confederation reported that there had been more than 331 workers’ actions from January through October 2013. In 43 percent of them workers were demanding unpaid wages from bosses or the government.
“We have not been paid since November,” said Olga Shkoropad at the union’s office in the Public Stakeholder Coal Company of Lviv, the coal enrichment plant here, where some 520 women make up the majority of the workforce. The company is 37 percent state-owned with the rest divided among individual capitalists.
The plant supplies three power plants, Shkoropad said. After these were privatized in 2012, they began to import processed coal from eastern Ukraine, cutting back production in the west.
Workers believe Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine, who is reported to control half of the country’s coal, steel, iron ore and thermoelectricity industries, is among the plant’s controlling owners, Shkoropad said. Ukraine’s capitalist class is drawn from those who were well-positioned through ties to the government bureaucracy to claim ownership of state-owned industry and banking after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s office reported March 22 that a search of an apartment owned by Eduard Stavytsky, former Minister of Energy and Coal Mines who fled with the fall of Yanukovych, contained $4.8 million in U.S. cash, 110 pounds of gold bars and diamond, gold and platinum jewelry.
Workers fight for back pay
The union has been organizing actions near the coal enrichment plant and in Kiev demanding back pay, Shkoropad said. The plant produces 11 rail coaches of processed coal a day, down from 37 a couple years ago.
“We are also demanding the government keep the coal mines and processing plants open so that we can keep our jobs,” she said.
The potholed-filled road to the plant outside the city reflected the decay of infrastructure that runs alongside the road to capitalism here. “When I first saw people driving I thought they were drunk,” said Volodia, a cab driver. “Now I know what they were doing.”
“The mine equipment we have is decades behind modern technology,” said Yura Sheremeta, a 32-year-old miner who builds tunnels at the Chervonograd No. 2 coal mine. Some 1,500 work at the mine, 800 underground.
“We have low seams of coal, with miners on their hands and knees,” he said. “We put explosives into the coal face, set them off, and go in with shovels to fill up the trams and get the coal out. Nothing has changed under either of the last two regimes.” Sheremeta was referring to the rule of Yanukovych and his rival, former President Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed on charges of corruption. Representatives of Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party dominate the interim government now in power.
“There is no safety protection in the mine,” Sheremeta said. “Workers sign off on safety forms everyday, but it means nothing. One of my co-workers was killed in 2006, crushed to death by a shuttle coach.”
“The union officials did little in response,” he said. “Workers rely on themselves for safety, not on the union or mine managers.”
Profit drive kills miners
One hundred sixty-one coal miners in Ukraine were killed on the job in 2011, according to official reports, roughly two workers for every million tons produced. This is among the highest mining fatality rates in the world.
In July 2011, 28 miners were killed in an underground explosion at the Suchodilska-Shidna mine in the Luhansk region, southeast of Kiev. The law says that the trade union representing miners who are killed must be involved in the official investigation. Seven of the dead miners were members of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine, but none of the union’s representatives were allowed to take part.
Seven coal miners were killed last month in an underground methane explosion at the Pivnichna mine near Donetsk in the east, BBC reported.
“There were 300 mines in Ukraine in Soviet days,” Volynets said March 20 in the union’s Kiev office. “Today there are 143. Forty-three of those are private, and they are the richest mines with the biggest reserves. The others are the most dangerous with more deaths.
“Our independent union was born out of big battles in 1989 and ’90, breaking from the old Soviet official union, fighting for pay they wouldn’t give us and higher wages,” he said. The union led a mass march of miners from every mining area in the country.
“One of the main problems we face today,” Volynets said, “is the spread of illegal mines in the east.”
These mines, known as kopanki, reportedly produce some 10 percent of the country’s coal output. Kopanki miners work under dangerous conditions and receive no government benefits.
The illegal mines were born after the fall of the Soviet Union, when many state-owned mines and other industries closed and tens of thousands were thrown out of work. Today they are a big business. The coal, greased by corruption, flows onto the state coal market and is counted as production from state mines.
“My soul is with the people in the Maidan,” said Sheremeta. “I was deeply upset when I saw Russia take over Crimea without any fight. I was inspired by some of the soldiers who showed spirit and resistance. And I admire the Tatars who spoke out and protested against the invasion.
“We are a sovereign nation,” he said. “We have spirit and we will continue to fight. If we don’t succeed this time, we will have another Maidan.
“And I think there will be one in Russia too.”
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As Moscow uses its troops to rip Crimea from Ukraine and maintain Russian domination of the country, worker-correspondents from the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom are on the scene reporting on the conditions of life and range of views among workers, farmers, youth and others — and talking with them about workers’ struggles and efforts to build proletarian parties in the countries they are from.
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