Sunday, October 5, 2014

Russian Teachers Protest!

By Stephen Wilson

Despite little media exposure, Russian workers are increasingly going on strike over unpaid wages Photo by

(Moscow, Russia) - Over the past six months news about the on-going crisis in Ukraine has dominated the Russian media and over shadowed and annulled other important issues. It is as if the war has acted as useful and almost obsessively driven distraction. Observers might be forgiven for believing Russians will put up with anything in order to resist sanctions, hold out against the west and win the war against the fascist Junta in Kiev.

              After all, people can live up to the old stereotype of the ideal Russian worker who never complains, moans or protests, but suffers silently like a 'real man'. The fact that Putin's ratings have soared above 80% and attendance at opposition rallies has decreased through lack of leadership, incessant feuding, a lack of a clear and convincing program and an aimlessly negativity (we know what they are against but we don't know what they are for other than very vague slogans about 'justice' and 'We are against corruption').

              This might lead many to assume there is almost no opposition to injustice in Russia. This would be to gravely misjudge the confusing and complexity of the situation. Opposition is not declining or disappearing but manifesting itself in unanticipated forms. If opposition to the government during the first years of the decade manifested itself mainly in political demonstrations, this years protests have largely assumed the forms of spontaneous industrial militancy in the forms of riots, demonstrations and putting down tools over unpaid salaries. For instance, in recent months, Russia has witnessed a wave of strikes by unpaid metal workers, hospital staff and miners. When I spoke to a
refugee from Donetsk one of the first grievances he bitterly complained about was 'I have been paid for 2 months.' He looked as if he was not about to give up demanding it.

              A Russian English teacher, whose salary has been frozen and her hours cut from 6.0 stavka to 2.5 stavka or 3000 rubles at her institute, told me, 'My wages have not gone up at all despite this rapid inflation. I would like to walk out on strike'. However, like many teachers, she lacks a trade union and another teacher at another institute received death threats when she started to complain of unpaid wages.

              (We are not at liberty to publish either the names of the teachers or the institutes for reasons of safety.)

              Those two teachers I met were protesting in their own ways without the aid or coordination of trade-unions. There are of course Russian teacher trade unions but they appear to be mainly professional bodies which offer advice about legal and professional training courses rather than actively defending teachers by organizing strikes. You are more likely to meet a trade-union steward in a management masterclass workshop than on a picket line.

              Nevertheless, largely without trade-unions, industrial militancy against unpaid salaries has increased over the past year is assuming a more militant and alarming character.

              According to the 'Institute of Social and Labour Rights, at present,1.1% percent of protests which occur everyday are labour protests. If in 2013, the percentage of protests
were provoked by politically managed companies', then in the first 6 months of this year the main grievance remains unpaid salaries. Of the protests against unpaid salaries, 50%   of them were without the aid or coordination of trade-unions and were very spontaneous. The latter type of protests has increased by 35%! The protesters are increasing losing       their patience and fear of employers, and simply putting down tools. An indication of their more limited patience of wage arrears is indicated by the fact that while in 2012, many workers could live without pay for up to five months, in 2014, this period has decreased to 3-4 months. Workers are increasingly fed up of hearing the old excuses for unpaid wages, such as 'The banks did not pay us,' 'we are in debt' and 'We will eventually pay you'.

              The Russian government should be alert to this growing mood of anger, discontent and distrust of their managers.

              The issue is not only about the fact that workers should be paid 'a fair wage for a fair day's work' but about being treated and valued with dignity. This is especially true in     regard to Russian teachers. They are frequently being asked to perform 'non-teaching' duties for which they are never paid or appreciated. They too often do a thankless job. Then there is the constant fear of being made redundant and job insecurity. Two English teachers jumped at the chance of doing a post-graduate course to obtain a doctorate at Moscow State university for two basic reasons:

              'Teachers who have doctorates are the last teachers to be made redundant at an institute and the course is free!' This course is unlikely to have much connection with their work at the institute. (A linguististic course on computer intelligence)

              Can't the Russian government do something to ensure companies and institutes pay their workers salaries on time?

              At present, a company which fails to pay its workers salaries on time faces a fine of 30,000 rubles. The Russian Mininstry of Labour states it wants to triple the fine to 100,000 rubles. However, most experts believe such a meager fine won't deter difficult
employers who already display an undisguised conceit toward workers described in Russian as 'khamstva' (boorish arrogance which can be insultingly aggressive verbally as well as physically). Challenging and changing this vulgar culture of khamstva which is so ingrained in their mentality could take decades never mind years.

              According to the President of the Confederation of Labour, Boris Kravchenko, 'At the end of the 1990's we held out hopes for a normal dialogue with the government and business. Today, we can observe that this dialogue has practically been lost and that workers can't count on being defended or having trade union rights. There is no longer a mechanism for securing dialogue ... The time of civilized protests has passed'.

               Future perspectives suggest that militancy amongst Russian workers, including teachers, will continue to increase as they lose their own fears, and anxieties and feel they have virtually nothing to lose by taking to the streets. Those workers who belong to trade-unions will pressure their own shop-stewards to make less compromises with managers over planned redundancies, unpaid and frozen wages. Independent trade-union         membership will rise as members of the old trade-union associations prove less and less effective and we will likely see an increasingly left-wing trend amongst workers. Workers  will become more confident, assertive and aggressive over fighting for their rights when they discover well-organised and structured protests are effective!

               Courage will dispel complacent cynicism.

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