For the past year and a half miners in Ukraine’s state-owned coal industry have carried out strikes with round-the-clock picketing, and blocking entrances to mine bosses’ offices and roads leading toward the mines. They have rallied outside parliament and the government ministry responsible for the coal industry, demanding the government pay back wages owed to them. By July 1 the arrears added up to $42 million.
Led by members of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine, workers intensified their campaign leading up to the end of parliament’s spring session. And their tenacity and resilience paid off. On the last day before summer recess, a bill passed allocating 1.4 billion hryvnia ($53 million) to pay wages and upgrade the industry.
In a July 9 phone interview, Mykhailo Volynets, national chair of the union, and Viktor Tychynin, a leader at the Kurakhivska mine in Donetsk, told Militant editor John Studer about conditions miners face and their fight to get parliament and responsible ministers to act.
“I think about my co-workers and their families, who are under a lot of pressure,” Tychynin said. “We haven’t been paid for three months. It’s hard to buy food and other things we need to live. We can’t pay our utility bills. I don’t know if the electricity is still on at home.”
And miners who get sick don’t get any pay, he said.
Tychynin and 11 co-workers traveled from Donetsk to take part in the protests in Kiev. Much of the arrears are owed by companies in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, part of the Donbass coal basin in eastern Ukraine still under the control of the Kiev government. Workers in mines there have led the fight. But miners in the western part have also joined the actions.
On July 5 the union set up a picket outside parliament. Workers and union officials from Luhansk and Donetsk took part. The chair of the Myrnograd mine in Donetsk said that workers were ready to strike and set up roadblocks if their demands are not met.
The next day Volynets and the 12 Khurakhivska miners met with Igor Nasalik, the Ukrainian minister of energy and coal mines.
“He got frustrated with the meeting and suddenly called in the police, saying he thought the miners were drunk and insisting he would have them tested,” Volynets said. “Cops came and demanded to know if the miners were drunk. We said we’ll take tests if the minister and his staff are also tested.
“I called other unionists, journalists, lawyers and rights activists to come join us,” he said. “The ministry wouldn’t let them into the building.”
Before giving the interview to the Militant, Tychynin and Volynets had been part of a press conference in the union office “to get the word out and win support, to put pressure on the government,” he said, and to report about the insulting treatment they received at the minister’s office.
During the interview Studer told Volynets and Tychynin about the July 12 rally in Columbus, Ohio, in defense of the pensions of U.S. miners and other unionists.
“There is a similar crisis here, management is not paying into the miners’ pension fund,” Volynets said. “Miners are supposed to get at least $200 to $300 a month when they retire. But the government says there isn’t enough money in the fund, so now miners can’t get their pension money. The only alternative for them is to keep working on and on for their family to survive.”
“We support workers in struggle elsewhere as well, including the miners in the U.S,” Tychynin said. “We will fight for our rights to the end. We will never give in.”
Miners take to the streets
Chanting, “Enough talks! It’s time to act!” and “Pay us our wages!” miners from Donetsk, Luhansk, Volyn and Lviv regions took to the streets outside parliament July 10. Addressing the pickets, Volynets told them about the July 12 rally and the common fight miners had in Ukraine and the U.S. Some miners carried placards in English supporting the Ohio action.
Two days later miners moved their protest to the coal industry ministry, announcing they would picket round-the-clock. They demanded the right to set up tents.
That morning there were protests in Donetsk, Luhansk and Volyn regions in support of actions in Kiev. These strikes and protests reinforced the union delegations’ demonstrations in the capital.
In addition to winning funds to pay down on back wages, the fight has strengthened the union and brought new members into its ranks.
“My participation dates back to the days when I was a miner fighting for our rights when the Soviet Union still existed,” Volynets said. “Viktor is part of a new generation of union fighters. With union people like him I can see the future.”