Ukraine: the International Workers’ Day that we lost

In the Soviet Union, May Day devolved into a formal holiday with little direct political meaning. Today, Ukraine has never been further from trade union struggle.

Serhiy Guz
1 May 2019, 12.01am
1 May, 1978
YouTube / VivaVideo

“Peace, work, May!” This tired Soviet slogan lost its meaning even in the Soviet Union. For the majority of people, these were just words that appeared on banners at 1 May demonstrations or postcards. And in the latter years of the Soviet Union, 1 May consisted of passive participation in an official demonstration, and then going to a forest or lake to cook kebabs with friends.

For young people today, 1 May is nothing more than a hangover from the past - and a nice break in routine in the form of a picnic. For older people, it’s the traditional start of “dacha season”, when weekends become dominated by trips to the countryside, and, yes, more opportunities to eat kebabs. Even marketing experts use the May holidays as a chance to sell people every possible product connected with “relaxing in nature”. The Soviet version of 1 May, and with it International Workers’ Day, have long died in our country.

Meanwhile, all across Europe, people hold mass demonstrations in support of workers’ rights on the same day. How do you explain to Ukrainian citizens, living in a world of propaganda, why tens and hundreds of thousands of people - even millions - come out on to their city streets with red flags and trade union banners?

Our television channels and press prefer not to notice these mass demonstrations in Europe - they’d rather not have to explain them. Indeed, these explanations don’t fit into the ideas which Ukrainian media foist on society about how modern democracies are organised. This set of ideas, which has long shifted to the right, doesn’t have room for trade unions, or for fighting for the rights of workers and wage earners in general. These issues have been declared part of a dangerous left-wing (read: communist) ideology - and one that is unwelcome and forbidden in our country.

Get the free oDR newsletter

A weekly summary of our latest stories about the post-Soviet world.

When was the last time you read a speech by one of the leaders of Ukraine’s biggest trade union organisations (if you even know their names)? Who did the trade unions support at the presidential elections? What are they doing at the sectoral or national level? What are their positions on the country’s most pressing economic and political problems? Trade unions unite millions of Ukrainians in their ranks - far more than political parties. It’s as if our unions have disappeared from our country’s economic and political life. This situation would be impossible in any other European democracy, where trade unions are actively involved in management at all levels: participating in elections, negotiating with government and employers, lobbying for changes in legislation and much else. And no one even thinks to call them “a hangover from the Communist past”. In Europe, trade unions carry out an important function in society.

"We're fed up with capitalism": 1 May 2014, Kamianske
(c) Serhiy Guz. All rights reserved.

However democratic a society might be, its real freedoms depend on the balance of social interests in politics and the economy. For example, business tries to create favourable conditions for itself - minimal restrictions, liberal legislation, low taxes and easy access to resources. To defend its interests, business creates and finances political parties, advances candidates into parliament and local councils, and seeks to influence government work.

It’s unsurprising that, despite the constant concern in Ukrainian media about “pressure on business”, business (particularly big business) actually enjoys ideal conditions for its existence: oligarchs become presidents and governors, they have access to offshore zones where you can avoid or pay minimum tax, and they have a monopoly in many sectors. Their incomes increase even in conditions of economic crisis. The state, or more accurately, the public officials who represent it, has its own interest: collect as many taxes as possible, implement the policies of those who brought them to power, reduce expenditure in those sectors of the economy where there is little resistance from society. And so we see that, in Ukraine, the state introduces the Rotterdam Plus formula for calculating coal prices (which benefits Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov), ignores the rise of monopolies, retreats on its social guarantees in the health service and education, and pays pensions and wages at a rate that you can barely live on.

The fact that Ukraine has become the poorest country in Europe is possible only because the country lacks those civic forces that could defend the interests of workers vis-a-vis the state and business. The Communist Party has been banned, and other left-wing parties have been more or less marginalised. Ukraine’s trade union movement is under attack from all sides. The old unions have not been reformed, and across the country we see the rise of “yellow unions”, which work in the interests of business, and not their members. (For instance, in my town of Kamianske, a new trade union was recently set up at the local metallurgical plant - a shop manager was designated its head.) Ukraine’s real trade unions, the ones that are independent, are under constant pressure, and the heads of local branches - under threat of losing their jobs.

The Independent Trade Union of Railway Workers protests in Kyiv, March 2019
(c) Aleksei Arunyan. All rights reserved.

As a result, we have on the whole trade unions that have weak organisation, and that often exist only in a formal sense. These organisations don’t hold strikes to demand wages in line with living standards, don’t put forward their candidates for positions of power, and don’t issue ultimatums to government to defend the social interests of their members. In the end, they are ashamed of the only day in the calendar when unions across the world hold solidarity actions - 1 May.

We haven’t only lost 1 May. Together with it, we’ve lost our faith in justice and solidarity - our faith that with our honest work we can earn enough for a reasonable life. We’ve forgotten what International Workers’ Day is about. Remember that when you’re on your way to eat kebabs.

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData