oDR: Interview

How workers are fighting for their rights in Putin’s Russia

There are no strikes in Russia, say officials. But sociologist Pyotr Bizyukov is monitoring what’s really happening

Azamat Ismailov
28 July 2022, 9.20am
June 2020: Workers at Delivery Club, a platform delivery service, protest over a reduction in fees
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(c) Russian Look Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Russia is one of the most unequal countries in the world. The poorest half of the population owns 17% of national income, while the richest 500 people own 40% of financial assets in the country.

Official statistics suggest that labour relations in Russia are amicable and settled, and there are practically no disputes or strikes – but, unsurprisingly, this is far from the full story.

Sociologist Pyotr Bizyukov is trying to paint a true picture of worker resistance in Russia by monitoring labour protests across the country. And according to him, there were almost 400 such protests in Russia in 2021.

Workers not only down tools and walk off the job, Bizyukov says, but they sometimes resort to more radical actions – including hunger strikes, threats of taking their own lives and even the murder of their employers.

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openDemocracy spoke to Bizyukov about what these protests actually mean, what has changed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine – and what could happen next.

People usually think that a worker protest is the same as a strike. But that’s not the case, according to your data. What do you mean by the term ‘labour protest’?

Strikes were pretty much banned in Russia in 1993, by the neoliberal government that came to power [after the fall of the Soviet Union]. The legislation governing collective labour disputes spells out a long and complicated procedure – which is almost impossible to complete – before you can call a strike. As a result, the most important instrument that workers and trade unions have to influence their employer is not available.

Official statistics record no more than five legal strikes a year for the past decade and a half. But, at the same time, Russian news feeds are full of information about workplace protests. This is why, 15 years ago, we started our project (Monitoring of Worker Protests) to independently monitor labour protests.

Russian workers use various forms of protest: appeals to the authorities, pickets, rallies, ‘stop actions’, ‘spontaneous strikes’, hunger strikes and so on.

A ‘stop action’ is a protest that is accompanied by a partial or complete stoppage of work, but it’s not a full-blown strike from a legal point of view. For example, if you haven’t been paid for more than two weeks, you have the legal right to stop working until the debt is paid off.

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Healthcare workers in Glazov, Udmurtiya, come out for better wages and conditions, June 2019

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Source: Andrey Konoval / Facebook.

Doctors, in particular, quite often use what is known as an ‘Italian strike’ – that is, working to rule [where employees follow the technical and safety requirements of their work to the letter].

Also common are ‘spontaneous strikes’ [which don’t follow the required legal process for a strike]. If people are not paid for two, three, four months, then at some point they just say: “Enough!”

Every so often there are what I’d call ultra-radical protests – when people go on hunger strike, block roads, barricade offices, even kidnap company directors.

Rallies and pickets are de facto banned in Russia. How has this affected workers’ protests?

Today, the most popular form of protest is to send a written complaint to the state authorities [complaints accompanied 58% of labour protests in 2021]. This is the safest way and will be used until the problem reaches a breaking point.

People make complaints not because they’re passive and have given in to paternalism. It’s just that against the backdrop of state repression in Russia, other forms of protest are essentially like skydiving. Just look at Kirill Ukraintsev, head of the delivery drivers’ union in Moscow. He was arrested and detained on charges of organising unsanctioned protests.

Related story

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What would happen if Russia’s healthcare system went on strike? An interview with Russian healthcare union leader Andrey Konoval.

But people are already facing punishment for making complaints, as if making a complaint is the equivalent of starting a riot. Russian employers’ tolerance levels have dropped so low that they won’t accept any objections. The legal, institutional mechanisms for regulating labour relations have been pushed aside, and unconditional obedience has come to the fore.

Has the number of labour protests in Russia changed?

The number is growing constantly. In 2008, the year our project started, we recorded only 95 labour protests, but in 2009 (which was already a time of global crisis) it was 272.

In the early 2010s, industry and banks somehow recovered, but in terms of labour relations, nothing changed. The number of protests then stabilised at between 250 and 270 per year.

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Pyotr Bizyukov

This continued until 2014, when a fresh crisis began [the devaluation of the ruble following the fall in world oil prices and the first wave of sanctions following the annexation of Crimea]. In 2015, there were more than 400 protests.

2020 was a record-breaking year, when we collated 437 protests [against the backdrop of the global pandemic]. Last year, there were 389.

Each new crisis leads to a new surge of protests. Moreover, in the last three years, the up and down swing of protests has been much more dramatic; previously, the growth rate was smooth.

There’s an assumption that when a certain number of protests is reached, the situation will be qualitatively different. What is the point of no return? We know that 437 protests a year isn’t it. So, how many: 500, 600, 700?

Which employment sectors protest the most?

Until 2013, manufacturing was the main area of protest within the Russian economy. In 2014 to 2018, the centre of gravity shifted to sectors of informal employment [where workers don’t have contracts or are considered self-employed]: construction, local public services and so on.

Somehow, trade unions manage to operate in Russian industry, and large enterprises are subject to stricter control by the authorities and forced to comply with the law. But the informal economy is a sector without any oversight, where no one observes any laws.

This reinforces the potential for conflict. Not only does an informal employer feel that he has a free hand, but his employees also consider themselves free of all restrictions.

Since 2019, protests have also been growing in Russia’s healthcare system, where there are constant reforms, experiments with wages, merging and separating of institutions

Many of the protests are by taxi drivers who work for platform services [such as Yandex Taxi]. This is a strong point of contention, and the number of protests at the end of each year is measured in the dozens.

Since 2019, protests have also been growing in Russia’s healthcare system, where there are constant reforms, experiments with wages, merging and separating of institutions, and so on. This has led to disorganisation.

Also, the COVID-19 pandemic has worked like a magnifying glass. In May 2020, doctors organised a record number of protests due to a lack of PPE (personal protective equipment), overwork and a lack of [promised] COVID-19 payments.

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n St Petersburg, an installation reads "We will substitute", made up of the logos of companies which have left Russia - a reference to the official policy of "import substitution"

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(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

According to your data, the lion’s share of labour protests (30% to 60% between 2017 and 2021) are caused by delays in paying wages. Russians seem willing to put up with any treatment from their employers as long as they’re paid on time. Is that true?

Since there are no legal conditions for protest, people go on strike only when life becomes unbearable.

Non-payment of wages is the worst thing that can happen to a working person, especially if you live in a small town and your partner works at the same place [which is common in some areas with relatively few employers].

American sociologist James Scott used the following metaphor when describing forms of passive resistance by peasants in south-east Asia: “Imagine that you are bound hand and foot and placed in a turbulent stream. The water comes up to your mouth. Your task is not to untie yourself or punish the one who did this to you, but simply not to drown.”

This image is a perfect description of labour protests in Russia.

Non-payment of salaries is the meta reason that underlies everything. If you’re not paid for several months, you forget about working conditions, unfair pay systems or excessive work schedules.

The main thing for you is that you and your family have money. If you received this money as a result of a protest, there’s a feeling of relief: “Thank God! Now, just to make sure it doesn’t happen again, let’s not rock the boat any further.”

How many people face non-payment of wages in Russia?

Between 1.7 and 2 million people face not being paid their wages on time at least once every year.

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How effective are worker protests?

The source of my data is what’s published in the media. Quite often, the Russian media talk about how a protest starts, but not about how it ends.

For worker protests where the outcome is known [roughly two thirds of cases], roughly 20% end with workers’ demands being satisfied in full or in part; and roughly 20% without their demands being met.

In the other half of cases, protests result in negotiations. A protest is a kind of route to negotiations. Before the employer starts talking seriously to you, you must prove the seriousness of your intentions.

According to your data, 73% of Russian labour protests in 2021 took place without the participation of trade unions. Why?

Workers have a desire to participate in the regulation of employer/employee relations, but trade unions aren’t the best way to satisfy this desire. Many people consciously refuse trade union membership because they believe united action will probably lead to them losing out [by being punished for organising].

Sometimes, workers understand what a trade union can give them. They will follow what the union does and willingly take advantage of its achievements, but will still distance themselves from it. At the very least, trade unions know how to work with their declared opponents, but not with these kinds of opportunists. And yet these people are the majority of workers in Russia now.

Trade unions in Russia have few weapons in their arsenal. They missed their opportunity at the political level

Also, trade unions in Russia have few weapons in their arsenal. They missed their opportunity at the political level. When was the last time you heard trade union representatives in the Russian parliament raise the issue of revising strike legislation?

When it comes to collective bargaining, the employer can say: “We will increase salaries if there is the financial opportunity to do so.” And the trade unions will agree, because if they don’t, the employer will say: “Then I won’t take on any obligations at all.” And the point is not even that this or that trade union leader is corrupt, but that he understands: it’s better to have a poor agreement than no agreement.

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Worker protests in Russia often avoid political demands

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(c) Russian Look / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

How has 24 February affected the Russian labour movement?

This year started off rather strongly – like those years when the number of labour protests was at a record high. But at the end of February, the “special military operation” began, and in March there was an unexpected drop [in worker protests]. People were frozen, scared, stunned. I recorded only 11 protests that month, although the average figure for March is 28.

Since April, the wave of labour protests has been growing. All the norms were broken and replaced by chaotic fluctuations.

Recently, the director of a plant in the Urals [Ural Compressor Plant in Yekaterinburg] told workers who were demanding payment of their delayed wages that: “No one went on strike during the Great Patriotic War.”

Can educated specialists affect worker protests? Could they politicise them?

Basically, protest is a tool used by workers with medium qualifications, although highly qualified workers do also protest sometimes. For example, a couple of months ago there was a strike by staff at a private dental clinic in the Urals.

As for politicisation, I have the impression that, in their current form, labour protests in Russia are not developing into political protests, and will not do so in the future. As a rule, these protests are very local, and are focused on a very narrow set of demands.

But if the number of labour protests increases, they can create conditions for other protests. There was a case when the workers at a factory in central Russia went on strike due to delayed payment of their wages. They were joined by pensioners who’d had some payments cancelled, and then by mortgage owners of an unfinished building, who were fighting against the developer, and then finally by environmentalists. They held a general meeting. What united them? The slogan “Down!”

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