Russian auto union fights government move to shut it down

By Emma Johnson
January 29, 2018

“The very existence of trade unions in the Russian Federation will be called into question,” the Interregional Labor Union of Automobile Workers (MPRA) — one of the largest unions in Russia — said after the City Court of St. Petersburg ruled to disband the organization Jan. 10.

Government prosecutors claimed the MPRA is a “foreign agent,” getting gobs of money from the IndustriALL Global Union federation, over half a million dollars. The MPRA says the total was $6,000, received for training programs.

Unions belonging to IndustriALL have millions of members in more than 100 countries. In Russia, 10 major unions are members. The logic of this ruling is that they will also face being disbanded.

This is the second time a trade union in Russia has been targeted for “foreign” connections. In December the Justice Ministry declared the long-haul truckers’ Carriers Union, which has organized strikes and protests against onerous fees levied against them since 2015, a “foreign agent.” The decision was announced two weeks before the union organized a nationwide 10-day strike.

And it’s the first time a union organization that has not been registered as a foreign agent has been disbanded by the government for “performing the functions” of one.

“The trade unions in Russia are part of the international trade union movement,” the autoworkers’ union said. “No court decision can abolish international trade union solidarity as the basis of the labor movement.”

Their statement also rejects the court’s allegations that union members took part in illegal activities when they participated in a rally of fast-food workers and a protest of doctors against cuts in medical personnel. It defends its support for the truckers’ 2015 strike.

The court is saying that “the MPRA had the right to protect the interests of only its own members, but not members of other, fraternal trade unions,” the union says. “It outlaws the idea of ‘solidarity.’”

The autoworkers union became well known nationally when it conducted a 25-day strike at the Ford assembly plant outside St. Petersburg in 2007, where workers won 11 percent pay raises, indexing of wages to inflation, and a contract that registered gains in working conditions and social protections. The independent union’s militant strike attracted workers to its ranks and its membership grew. It now has 4,000 members across the country in auto and other manufacturing plants.

Union Chair Alexei Etmanov, who led the 2007 strike, says the union will fight this attack, including appealing to the Supreme Court if necessary.

“Hundreds of people, both trade union activists and ordinary citizens, have already expressed support for our union and condemnation of the judicial iniquity,” the union reported Jan. 12.

The Executive Committee of the Russian Confederation of Labor, Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, and Trade Union of Workers in the Metallurgical, Mining and Chemical Industry of Georgia are among those who have already made statements protesting the ruling.