Vienna, April 21 – A strike by Russian air traffic controllers which has spread to more than 50 cities is “the first successfully organized mass protest since the beginning of the [economic] crisis,” an indication that Russian workers may be starting to overcome “the deficit of solidarity” which has hampered them up to now, a Moscow social critic says.
In an article on Stoletie.ru, Boris Kagarlitsky, the director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, says that the controllers’ strike is very different from the other protests that have appeared in Russia because it was organized and led by their trade union organization (www.stoletie.ru/obschestvo/deficit_solidarnosti_2010-04-20.htm).
The many other protests in Russia be they like those at the company town Pikalevo or on the roads in Siberia, he points out, have been “spontaneous risings rather than organized social actions.” And the work action of the air traffic controllers is especially striking because “strikes by this category of workers are prohibited.”
“But,” Kagarlitsky continues, “the paradox is that today’s legislation makes impossible the legal conduct of strikes even by those who are permitted to do so.” In practice, those who want to strike must observe “such a quantity of most complex formalities and absurd procedures that since the adoption of the law there has not been one case where all these were fulfilled.”
Given the ban on strikes by people in their industry, the air traffic controllers “instead of a strike staged hunger actions,” a reminder that the Federal Union of Air Traffic Controllers has “on its shoulders not a little experience of struggle” as “one of the oldest free trade unions of Russia.
Air traffic controllers are a powerful group, as anyone who recalls the conflict between the American controllers and Ronald Reagan nearly 30 years ago will recognize or as anyone who has followed the protests of air traffic controllers in the United Kingdom and France more recently will understand.
Kagarlitsky points out that “in former times the most severe threat for the ruling circles were strikes by miners, but in the post-industrial epoch, the balance has changed,” and highly skilled workers like air traffic controllers are far more important and can bring pressure on the government more effectively than miners ever could.
Now, “observing the successful actions of the air traffic controllers,” the Moscow sociologist says, “one might conclude that free trade unions in Russia are gathering force and will gradually come out of the crisis, which they clearly have experienced over the last 15 years. However,” Kagarlitsky says sadly, “such a conclusion would be premature.”
On the one hand, periods of economic crisis are seldom times when unions can be the most effective, given that many of their members are worried first and foremost about losing their jobs, a fear that gives a whip hand to employers and leads unions to be especially cautious in making demands.
(Indeed, in Russia, the unions have spent more time fighting among themselves rather than taking action, Kagarlitsky writes, providing details on the back and forth between many of the union leaders, a process that has led to more splits in the union movement rather than uniting it into a powerful force.)
. And on the other – and this is more important, Kagarlitsky insists – “the key problem of free trade unions” in Russia is not so much organizational as cultural. “They suffer,” he says, “from the same thing that Russian society as a whole suffers, from a deficit of solidarity,” from the sense that individuals need to cooperate with one another to advance their interests.
While union leaders talk a lot about “solidarity,” in recent years, there has not been a single strike in Russia where workers in one branch went out in support of those in another, Kagarlitsky says. Indeed, “according to law, the workers of one enterprise are not allowed to strike in support of the demands of another” even in the same sector.
There is some evidence that this is changing, Kagarlitsky says, in the cases of those who work together in particular places for communal rights and the like. But “solidarity must become the norm for wage earners” in Russia, something it now is not. But “all the same, the actions of the air traffic controllers show that the situation is far from hopeless.”