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Vol. 78/No. 14      April 14, 2014

‘Ukraine workers are beginning
to see they are actors in history’
(front page)
DNEPROPETROVSK, Ukraine — “Workers are beginning to see that they are actors in history,” said Aleksei Oleksyevych, leader of the Independent Trade Union of Miners, at a March 28 meeting with Militant correspondents at the union’s office here.

The meeting included four members of the miners’ union, a leader of the city’s teachers’ union and Yuriy Semenov, who has been part of organizing rallies here in solidarity with the mobilizations in Kiev’s Maidan (Independence Square). While most people in this eastern city are Ukrainian, their main language is Russian.

“Today we are taking steps forward,” Oleksyevych said. “We brought down the [President Viktor] Yanukovych regime and are making gains against bosses in our plants and mines because of the power of the Maidan and Maidans across our country.”

As Oleksyevych presented a slide show of recent protests here, he said the most important demand was for freedom of speech and action. “We need this above all,” he said.

One photo included a banner raising demands the union is fighting for and seeking to recruit around: “For a European standard of living; 3,000 euros a month in pay; a seven-hour workday; and improvement in working conditions.”

“Currently we get the equivalent of 100 euros ($138) a month,” Oleksyevych said. “And though we’re supposed to have an eight-hour day, most workers try to get overtime because they can’t live on their regular pay.”

“Legally it says we have the right to strike,” said Igor Vitalyvych Parhomenko, the union’s regional vice president. “But in fact that ‘right’ is wrapped up in so much red tape that we can’t use it. We filed to strike, but the government kept saying we missed this or that requirement. It was only after a year and a half that they said we could strike.”

“We know it will be a long and difficult road to truly win our freedom,” Oleksyevych said, “but we are determined to continue fighting to the end.”

Dnepropetrovsk is the center of steel pipe production in Ukraine. The biggest pipe works are run by Interpipe, owned by Victor Pinchuk, the country’s second biggest capitalist. Pinchuk is also the son-in-law of former President Leonid Kuchma. (The Russian government of former KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin recently imposed sharp tariffs against Interpipe products as part of its efforts to economically squeeze Ukraine.)

Pinchuk is part of a relatively new Ukrainian capitalist class that was formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. State industrial property was privatized and sold off at rock-bottom prices to those with funds and political influence, creating a layer of what are commonly called oligarchs.

Parhomenko and Alexander Karpen, one of the other unionists at the meeting, worked at the Interpipe factory complex. When Parhomenko came home after work one night in January 2013 three men had broke into his apartment. They told him to stop his union activities or “your mother, your family will have problems.” They beat him with a chain, knocking him unconscious.

Parhomenko was then refused treatment at a company medical facility, where doctors said he was a drug addict. Company agents called police and sought to frame him on criminal charges.

Union defends framed-up workers

The union organized his defense. It proved the cops and hospital staff acted under company orders. Doctors were punished, but Parhomenko was fired nonetheless.

Workers continued to fight and eventually won his job back. “I credit the Maidan,” Parhomenko said. “We are fighting to build unions in as many plants as possible now.”

After the Yanukovych government passed a law in January gutting free speech and the right to protest, unionists joined a protest of some 3,000 in the center of Dnepropetrovsk.

“The Right Sector played an important role in holding back the regime’s riot police in Maidan,” Oleksyevych said. The political party is one of the rightist, ultranationalist groups active in Ukraine. “But Ukraine is multinational, with Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians and Russians. Trying to divide the Ukrainian people is an obstacle to our struggle. It’s like giving a present to Putin.”

Recently, members of the Svoboda party, another rightist group, stormed into a television studio that featured pro-Russian news, beating the station manager until he signed a letter of resignation.

The unionists responded by carrying a banner at the local Maidan reading, “You cannot shut up the journalists, Ukraine needs freedom without regulation.”

‘Didn’t get paid for a year’

“We didn’t get paid for a year at our plant,” said Evgenii Derkach, who works at a plant of 7,000 that makes military rockets. Under the Soviet Union, it produced many of the large intercontinental ballistic missiles designed primarily to carry nuclear warheads. For years, Derkach said, Soviet officials officially denied that the city of Dnepropetrovsk existed. “But it was hard to hide a city of 1 million people.”

“People were fired illegally for organizing protests against the lack of payment,” he said. “I survived by living with my parents. Other workers got second jobs.”

“One week ago we won all our back pay,” Derkach said. “We believe the protests all over the country made this possible.”

“The oligarchs who have taken over the plants say ‘we’re private, so the laws don’t apply here,’” said Oleksyevych. “But we’re waking up and fighting back.”

“The school administrators try to fire union activists,” said Lariss Kolesnik, a leader of the Teachers Union. “They pay special attention to their work, looking for excuses to get rid of them.”

“Our union was born six years ago, when the local government wanted to turn our school into a shopping center,” Kolesnik said. “No one thought we could stop them, but we talked to the leaders of the miners’ union and they helped us. And we won.”

“Our union is still small. Many teachers are afraid,” she said. “But we have been able to win a number of fights for back wages, including for teachers who are not members of the union.”

“The new temporary government in Kiev is pushing to dissolve the Maidan,” Oleksyevych said. “But this is not the answer. We need to transfer the power to the people. We will organize as many Maidans as we need to get there.”

Related articles:
Ukraine workers resist pressure to demobilize
IMF ‘offers’ more debt, Moscow hikes gas price
Montreal march demands Russia out of Ukraine
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