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These miners protested for 43 days underground. Then they were betrayed

This autumn, miners in the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih held a strike one kilometre underground to force management into a compromise. The day after an agreement was signed, the plant began legal proceedings against 400 miners.

Igor Burdyga
3 December 2020, 10.18am
Soviet mural at ArcelorMittal Kryvyi Rih
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Image: Igor Burdyga

When 18 iron-ore miners came to the surface on 15 October, they had spent a total of 43 days underground in one of the largest strikes in Ukraine’s metal industry in recent years.

Their mine, Oktyabrska, together with three others (Rodina, Hvardiyska and Ternivskaya) are part of the Kryvyi Rih Iron Ore Plant, the largest iron ore mining enterprise in Ukraine. The plant is owned by companies of Ukraine’s two richest oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov and Ihor Kolomoiskyi, and supplies raw materials mainly for export.

This is not the first time miners have held protests at the plant in southeastern Ukraine. Just like the city’s other mining and metallurgical enterprises, since 2017 miners’ trade unions have been demanding an increase in their minimum wages to one thousand euros - the equivalent of their earnings before Ukraine’s currency was devalued in 2014 and 2015.

The 2020 protest was sparked by the further deterioration of working conditions. The plant administration introduced piecework wages for most jobs underground, linking people’s daily income to the amount of ore mined. After organising an above-ground protest on 3 September, miners demanded that a recent workplace audit be re-examined - this process had left workers without their previous benefits and allowances - and that enterprise managers should be fired. The strikers demanded that the Ukrainian government revise official lists of harmful and dangerous professions, which provide for early retirement.

At the peak of the strike, a total of 417 workers supported these demands, blocking work at all four mines and endangering the plant’s existing contracts. However, plant management, headed by board chairman Serhiy Novak, called the protest an “illegal strike” and refused to negotiate. The striking workers and their families have complained of pressure and harassment from private security firms, the police, Ukraine’s security services, and even local military conscription offices, which sent out call-ups to workers.

The strike did not go unnoticed by the Ukrainian government. Local MPs from the ruling Servant of the People party, local officials and even Ukraine’s deputy minister of economy visited the Oktyabrska mine to meet striking workers. They all assured the protesters that they had no power to influence the management of a private enterprise, advising them to find a compromise as soon as possible.

Much to the miners’ dismay, Ukraine’s national media virtually ignored the protest. Striking workers believe this is due to censorship introduced at the country’s two largest media groups - 1+1 and Ukraine, which are controlled by the plant owners Ihor Kolomoiskyi and Rinat Akhmetov.

The strike ended in an agreement with plant management. Workers achieved wage increases, promises to keep benefits related to hazardous work, and improve safety and supply of mining equipment. Plant management also promised to not prosecute striking workers, and pay them for time not worked.

But the day after the agreement was reached, a local court in Kryvyi Rih began examining a civil suit by plant management to declare the workers’ protest an illegal strike - which prevented the mine from operating and created unsafe conditions underground. Proceedings against 417 participants in the strike continue, and workers now prefer to call what happened a protest rather than a strike - in defence of their right to action.

Here, four employees of the Oktyabrska mine talk about their protest - and share their impressions from the aftermath. We publish their words in full.

Tatiana Garkusha, winder, 39

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Tatiana Garkusha | Image: Igor Burdyga

Here you can see the pile driver [the above-ground part of the shaft of the mine], then the shaft, a hole, and there are wagons in it, and our job is to carry people, materials in these cages along the mine workings.

We are always the first to know that our boys have stayed late at a meeting, and we are the first to visit them. When these things happen, our maternal, human, solidarity instinct switches on: we need to feed them, give them water, find out if they have everything they need.

This time it was exactly the same. After the night shift, our guys stayed underground, their meeting dragged on. Why do workplace meetings take place in the mine? We are very vulnerable, much weaker on the surface. It’s not our territory - there are people who leak information and interfere. That’s why no one talks to a large number of people about meetings in advance.

Our work as winders was very important. We did not realise immediately how long the protest would last. But when it became clear that no one wanted to talk to the strikers, staying underground was the only way to be heard. Nobody came to offer a realistic dialogue at first. Why? I don’t know myself how to answer this question.

We brought messages, videos, clothes, food. We helped wives and relatives when they brought something to the plant checkpoint. All messages were important, personal. The children would send a hello to their dads.

At first, plant officials would search our bags, to prevent us from smuggling alcohol through - until we sounded the alarm that the guys weren’t being sent food and water. It was even tougher in other mines.

Emotionally, it’s hard to see how the guys changed while they were down there. Everything is much more complicated in a mine: confined space, lack of information. It’s an oppressive environment.

"And when we’d done enough in this madhouse, accumulated a bunch of this anger, things left unsaid, fatigue, disappointment, then there was a feeling that here, underground, you are with your friends, they are good people, and they understand you. Not like on the surface"

Management tried to show us that we are not worthy of being communicated with on equal terms. There have been strikes before - for a couple of days. Last year there was a protest - workers left the mine without signed guarantees and no one complied with them. This time we just didn’t believe them.

Every day, everyone is waiting for some kind of progress, for something to happen. But this does not happen every day. The conflict was slow-moving. And then you come and understand that there is nothing to say. And if there is, then it’s just a lot of negative information. Management pressures us, they brought in the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine - ed.], began to spread rumours that this protest was being paid for by someone, colleagues stopped supporting us.

You don’t want to spoil the mood with this information. You don’t want to undermine people’s mood and spirit. We admired them for this after all. I looked and understood that these are the kind of people that won the war.

And when we’d done enough in this madhouse, accumulated a bunch of this anger, things left unsaid, fatigue, disappointment, then there was a feeling that here, underground, you are with your friends, they are good people, and they understand you. Not like on the surface. That made things easier. And everything else is awful.

This strike made me feel like a fighter - I didn't even know that I had it in me. After all, many of us are rooting for some kind of revolution. But it turned out that it was hard to get involved in the protest and start, but it was easier to fight. You find like-minded people who have the same language as you.

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Polling station in Kryvyi Rih set up for local elections in October | Image: Igor Burdyga

Initially, we kept politicians at a distance. They constantly wanted to bring their politics into this. It’s before the elections, after all [elections to local councils were held in Ukraine on 25 October]. We said that we were apolitical and were only ready to talk about the problems at our enterprise. We didn’t want anyone to score points on us with their questionable help.

Yuri Koryavchenkov, Serhiy Zakharchenko [MPs from Kryvyi Rih] attended negotiations. We were in Kyiv a couple of times. Some deputies wrote official letters. We contacted the central media, sent videos and photos. They refused [to cover the strike], they said that they could not broadcast it. I just can’t understand if representatives from the Servant of the People party [pro-presidential political party with an absolute majority in the Ukrainian parliament - ed] visited us, then why didn’t president Zelenskyi [a native of Kryvyi Rih] say a single word?

In the end, I’m left with a feeling that something is unfinished and misunderstood. How much politics was there in this? We would like to see politicians who we aren’t ashamed to cooperate with. After all, this is not just an underpayment of money to workers. This is robbery and theft of resources. Ore is mined in an absolutely haphazard manner here because management does not give us the right equipment.

Management doesn't give a damn if they leave a mess. What will remain for our descendants? These are the questions that thinking citizens have. I want my child to live here, I am not going to leave, although I thought about it like many others. Just banging your head against the wall all the time is hard.

The strike taught us, allowed us to see other people who are also struggling. Someday we will be able to shout together that our country is ours. And this enterprise is also ours. We have a goal, aspiration and desire to learn how to fight properly. There’s little information available in an accessible form. We need to pay more attention to working with people - this is now the number one task.

Viktor Stoyanovsky, overman, chairman of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine, Oktyabrska branch, 38

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Viktor Stoyanovsky | Image: Igor Burdyga

The physical sensations are very difficult to convey. I wasn’t worried about my health, more the threats to my family and children. It was hard to deal with, the fact my family was unprotected. Some men met my children near their school, and criminals threatened them on behalf of plant management. They intimidated my wife and children, and kept our house under surveillance.

Everything else doesn’t matter. When you’re in the mine, your sense of self-preservation is dulled, you feel safe down there. You’re responsible for your own life in the mine, but on the surface nobody thinks your life is worth two cence. The laws don’t work, anything can happen. My wife and children were afraid to leave the house. That is, until Mykhailo Volynets, chairman of the Independent Trade Union [of Ukrainian miners], wrote an official letter to the Minister of Internal Affairs - only then the pressure on the family stopped.

We have had protests before, but not on this scale. The former chairman of the board, Yuri Karamanets, did not bring us to this. But the current management speaks only by force and in ultimatums.

You ask questions about workplace protection. Well, you fight for safety, and it all ends with people being laid off. For example, all the new equipment only exists on paper. Electric locomotives were bought on paper, supposedly new winches, but we were given old ones that had been painted. It’s like the neolithic era. A crowbar, a shovel - that’s all your equipment. And you need to buy them with your own money.

"There are enterprises that value what they say, their company’s prestige, cherish their reputation. But at Kryvyi Rih Iron Ore Plant, if there is an opportunity to cheat you, they will cheat you"

Agreements with management are not worth the paper they’re written on. They promised verbally that they would fulfil certain agreements, but as soon as the team got out of the mine, they forgot about everything. They said that they would not try and prosecute us, but then filed a lawsuit against us.

Some of the strikers are now being treated in hospital after so many days underground. The settlement agreement stated that they would be treated at the plant’s expense - after all, they stayed underground because they were intimidated. Now everyone is paying for their own treatment, the plant hasn’t given a dime. Families went without wages for a month and a half. The plant promised to compensate for the time not worked in line with average wages - they are yet to pay anything.

There are enterprises that value what they say, their company’s prestige, cherish their reputation. But at Kryvyi Rih Iron Ore Plant, if there is an opportunity to cheat you, they will cheat you.

Workers at the plant could also speak from a position of strength, but the country is at war, and no one wants an unstable situation. If there are more serious protests, and blood is shed, then workers cannot be stopped. I have the impression that plant management needs this bloodshed. And the power structures have forgotten who they swore allegiance to - the people of Ukraine, not the oligarchs. They stand on the side of the owners and say they cannot do anything.

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In 2018, a mass protest campaign emerged at railway yards in Kryvyi Rih, and was then taken up by other mining enterprises in the city | Image: Igor Burdyga

We demanded the return of hourly wages, because now it’s done on piece-rates - according to the amount of ore mined. In these conditions, it is not profitable for an enterprise to invest in safety, in new equipment. If the worker needs to do something to get paid, then he’ll do it. Hence the high injury and mortality rate [Kryvyi Rih Iron Ore Plant is among the top three Ukrainian enterprises in terms of the number of accidents at work in January-September 2020]. This is all hidden, and management thinks that money should be earned on miners’ blood.

While the collective was underground, we were sent some hot food from the mayor [Yuri Vilkul], but you expect more decisive action from politicians. And the city council is just worried, it adopted some resolutions.

These people are extracting minerals that belong to the people. The state says: this is private property and nothing can be done. This is a lie, and one that people do not understand. Sooner or later the people will take everything into their own hands. And when there is no civilized way to achieve justice, things can end badly. We tried for 43 days, and they starved us out. In this situation, only the civilized world can help, the one we’re trying to join. Stop this despotism and dictatorship, which is being carried out even at the enterprise level, and restore dialogue.

The workers could go into local politics, but for this they need a decent salary. Politics requires time or extra cash, so you don’t have to think about how to feed your family every day. It’s all about home-work-sleep, when do you have time for anything else?

Tatiana Shcherbak, winder, 40

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Tatiana Shcherbak | Image: Igor Burdyga

We were followed, they were listening to our phones. They told us in person that if we help the strikers, then we can be dismissed from work. On the second day, the strikers called and asked for water. In response, the head of the workplace protection department said he could send down 40 black bags for corpses. Is that normal?

They want to take everything away from us all too quickly. They say that there are no lists of hazardous professions in Europe. But there’s decent salaries there after all. And you don’t give us decent wages, you take away all our benefits and then want us to silently work at a broken enterprise mining Ukraine’s resources any old way for you? That’s what they want.

Our thousand euros slogan is as concrete as possible We used it, realising that there would be negotiations. Ask for more, get what you originally wanted.

This strike forced us to get 100% involved: to be above ground and below. While we were up top, we didn’t even have enough time to eat. And then we went down into the mine and found ourselves a bit depressed because we weren’t doing anything. After all, when you are sitting there, underground, you have practically no information, and besides, there is pressure from your own people, which is really unpleasant. But you still continue to believe in a miracle - that we will win. We had to filter the information out, because if we passed on everything, the situation would be quite sad. When we remained underground ourselves, we understood that others were doing the same to us, trying to take care of us.

People who had a decent salary also fought with us from start to finish in this strike - tunnellers [specialists engaged in the construction of mine tunnels], for example, supported us. At one point, there were 417 workers underground from the entire Kryvyi Rih Iron Ore Plant. Railway workers also supported us, and also began to strike. That was nice.

We expected support from other mines and metal factories in Kryvyi Rih. But the other enterprises acted more cunningly - they raised salaries by 15-20%. They were given money so that they would not join us. They bought people in a smart way. It turns out that our strike helped them too. We helped everyone except ourselves.

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Oktyabrska mine | Image: Igor Burdyga

This strike did not teach our workers anything. There will be a strike in a month’s time or in a year, perhaps. And Kryvyi Rih Iron Ore Plant will work in the same way to draw people out - management, I mean. And people will make the same mistakes.

Divide and conquer - this is management’s tactics. The workers came - and were divided, intimidated and given promises. Some got the carrot, others got the cane.

Kyiv was silent. There was no reaction. We don’t get involved in big politics, but we understand why the television channels didn’t cover us. We have two owners, and both control the largest TV channels. As a result, it turned out that our job was impossible without politics. Without the local TV channels, no one would have known about us at all.

Kryvyi Rih no longer belongs to metal workers and miners. There were years when the metal workers and miners lived well here. There was enough for them and us when we shared. Now the 1990s are coming back, it just won’t be as rough as it was. They want a lot again, and we’re going to be slaves. They’re taking too much at once: benefits, payments.

"What kind of agreement turns into a lawsuit the next day? This is why there’s a lack of trust"

I would like to believe that the agreement will be respected. We have a guarantor - Mykhailo Volynets MP. But we left the mine on 15 October, and on 16 October the first court session was scheduled to hear management’s claim against the strikers. Against all 417 people. What kind of agreement turns into a lawsuit the next day? This is why there’s a lack of trust.

How do you win? Knocking on doors, writing, talking. I’m not talking about how stupid people are, many are not interested. You come to work, you do your job and you go home. You do not think about how it will be tomorrow. There must be a leader who will bring together the people who understand, there’s a lot of them. We’re only just getting started.

Konstantin Tsar, electrical fitter, 33

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Konstantin Tsar | Image: Igor Burdyga

A mine is like a subway, only it’s darker and more damp. It was hard to spend 43 days down there without my wife and children.

We spent the time in a garage where the wagons are prepared. You sleep on boards, not a couch. You don’t see the sun at all, and some guys have eye problems when they come back to the surface. The pressure is high - after all, you’re a kilometre underground. There’s high humidity, which can cause problems with your lungs in the future. Plus hygiene: there’s no shower, you wash with water from a bottle. The first two days there were problems with water.

The operators did everything on enthusiasm, and the management of the mine threatened them with dismissal. Then they softened, they began to give us water at least.

You are not alone underground, you feel a little safer when you’re with colleagues. On the surface, you understand that the police or the SBU could grab you, or the military registration office could call you up. While you are down there, they can’t do this. The mine management and part of the entire plant came down to us. On the second day, comrade Novak [chairman of the board] came down, but in the end there was no real dialogue. He stood his ground: there’s no money, you’ll just have to hang in there.

But people aren’t stupid, we can see perfectly where the money goes. That mine equipment is purchased at exorbitant prices according to strange schemes.

On the third or fourth day, representatives of the Dnipro regional council came down to us, on the fifth day - Yuzik [Yuri Koryavchenkov] with his retinue. Their aim was not to solve the problem, but simply to bring us back up top. But we didn’t start this just because we wanted to, but because they didn’t hear us. Because there were strikes, but the problem was not resolved. Nobody believes words any more, or even documents.

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Oktyabrska mine | Image: Igor Burdyga

Five days after us, the Rodina mine started their protest, a few days later - the other two mines [Hvardiyska and Ternivska]. Management did not try to talk to us, they wanted to tear apart the mines, and there were ore reserves on the surface. They were ready to draw things out. In any case, a compromise is a compromise. We had two representatives, they took turns going to negotiations. They would come back and discuss the collective decision with the miners. Everyone gathered in a bunch and began to discuss: what we were agreeing to and what we weren’t. Everything was collective.

We could have been down there for a long, boring time if the issue was not resolved further. I would have stayed for another 10-15 days. There was a lack of support from other mines. If all four mines stood still, they would run out of ore, and contracts would be broken.

“The city of metal workers and miners” is written only on billboards in Kryvyi Rih. In fact, we are almost slaves here. I don’t know how else to explain the fact that people working underground receive 8,000 hryvnia [about $280] a month - this is ridiculous money for a grown man.

"Our city is the seventh in terms of the size of its budget in Ukraine, taxes from the enterprise fill it. If businesses stop mining ore, who will pay taxes? Is the state really not interested?"

After all, the enterprise makes this city. They say: if you do not work at a metal plant, then go to the service sector. And if someone is 45, and has spent 20 years at the mine, then it's hard to find another job. Retraining is difficult, and your health has already been ruined.

I am 33 and have been working in the mine for four years. Prior to that, I worked as a trader, and in a car service. When I got a job here, the salary was normal and was going up.In the last year and a half or two, everything has been taken away from us.

It’s absurd that a person working in hazardous conditions in a mine or at a mining and processing enterprise receives less than a barista in a cafe. I’m not saying that’s a bad job. But I’m ruining my health and bringing profit to the owners, I want better wages.

Our city is the seventh in terms of the size of its budget in Ukraine, taxes from the enterprise fill it. If businesses stop mining ore, who will pay taxes? Is the state really not interested? But why does it not want to monitor the owners of the business so that they work legally, observe safety regulations and improve working conditions?

It’s clear that the state is a bad manager and does not need to own enterprises, ship factories, and has to privatise factories and hand them over to private owners. But it’s still necessary to monitor how the state manages this enterprise. That’s not how it is here, unfortunately. We have to solve these issues ourselves somehow.

Is it time to pay reparations?

The Black Lives Matter movement has renewed demands from activists in the US and around the world seeking compensation for the legacies of slavery and colonialism. But what would a reparative economic agenda practically entail and what models exist around the world?

Join us for this free live discussion at 5pm UK time (12pm EDT), Thursday 17 June.

Hear from:

  • Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership
  • Esther Stanford-Xosei: Jurisconsult, Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe (PARCOE).
  • Ronnie Galvin: Managing Director for Community Investment, Greater Washington Community Foundation and Senior Fellow, The Democracy Collaborative.
  • Chair, Aaron White: North American economics editor, openDemocracy
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