1 May 2016: Russian labour activist Alexei Etmanov leads a demonstration of autoworkers through St Petersburg. Source: MPRA / Facebook.On 10 January, St Petersburg City Court issued a ruling to dissolve the Interregional Trade Union (MPRA), known for its high-profile strikes at a Ford plant. This is the first time Russia’s 2012 law on non-governmental organisations acting as "foreign agents" has been applied to a workers' organisation. Unions were previously untouched by it.
An independent union
While not the largest Russian trade union (its official membership numbers approximately 4,000), MPRA is perhaps the most renowned. It emerged in the midst of a high-profile series of strikes at the Ford plant in Vsevolozhsk outside of St Petersburg, the most well-known of which took place in winter 2007. Bringing production to a halt and blocking the entrance to the factory, the Ford workers won the majority of their demands from the plant's administration. Wages grew by 11%, and yearly pay raises were indexed to one percent above the rate of inflation. For several years afterward, the Vsevolozhsk factory's contract, which determined working conditions and benefits, was considered a model in union circles.
The leader of the strikers, welder Alexei Etmanov, became famous overnight and, in 2011, was elected to the Leningrad Region Legislative Assembly, where he showed his worth in the opposition. In 2014, his antiwar position on Ukraine cost him the support of the center-left party A Just Russia and his mandate. In 2016, Etmanov ran on the liberal Yabloko ballot line and lost.
By the end of the 2000s, the Ford factory's example had spread: workers at Volkswagen, AvtoVAZ, Omsktransmash, and dozens of lesser-known companies both foreign- and Russian-owned joined the ranks of MPRA.
Unlike the old trade unions, which serve mostly to distribute favours, MPRA has placed its bets on collective action, arousing the anger of the state
Over the past 10 years, only a few have managed to replicate the Ford workers' success, which was surpassed only by the workers of the Volkswagen factory in Kaluga. There, the staff of the plant was able to avoid the massive layoffs that swept through the auto industry in 2015. According to the contract that the union won, autoworkers in Kaluga would be sent not back onto the job market, but on paid vacation and training at the auto group's European branches.
In the pre-crisis years [before the collapse of the Russian rouble in 2014], MPRA made a name for itself through several strikes and protests. Unlike the old trade unions, which serve mostly to distribute favours, MPRA has placed its bets on collective action, arousing the anger of the state, not to mention employers. In 2016, a Kaluga TV channel produced “Anatomy of a Union”, a "whistleblowing" film that accused MPRA of ties to the west and orchestrating a “Maidan”. Further attacks followed.
Last year, on 19 May, a complaint about the union was filed with the prosecutor for the Krasnogvardeysky district of St Petersburg. The man behind the complaint, Ivan Remeslo, calls himself a lawyer and investigator, but he is better known as a propagandist who specialises in criticising the Russian opposition. The prosecutor's office took the cue right away, beginning an audit that resulted in a lawsuit for the union's dissolution.
"The first question the prosecutor’s representative asked when they visited our office was: ‘So what do unions do?’ These are completely ignorant people. But these days, the brood of snitches who use state prosecutors as a tool for their own political gain keeps growing,” declared Alexei Etmanov as he left the courtroom.
The judge needed no more than five minutes in chambers to dissolve the union.
“Do you have any relatives abroad?”
MPRA was charged with “egregious violations of the law and systematic actions counter to the rules.” All of the items in the indictment can be sorted into three groups: formal complaints about the union's founding documents (for example, the use of the phrase “social association” instead of “social organisation” in the rules), involvement in political activity disguised as union activity, and receiving funding from abroad.
The decision of the St Petersburg court is unprecedented for two reasons. For the first time, an organisation not included in the state register of foreign agents was dissolved by a court for “performing the functions of a foreign agent” (the court opined that MPRA should have registered as a foreign agent voluntarily), and, for the first time, a trade union has fallen within the purview of the law on foreign agents.
Until now, Russian unions had felt themselves to be relatively safe; they were protected by International Labour Organization conventions, which Russia has ratified, and by the federal law on trade unions, which distinguishes them from other civil society organizations.
“This court decision throws the entire existence of trade unions in Russia into doubt. It hasn't come into legal force yet, and I sincerely hope that the Supreme Court will reconsider it”
“We all understand perfectly well that Russian trade unions are a part of the international labour movement,” says Oleg Babich, the director of the legal department of the Confederation of Labor of Russia (the KTR, of which MPRA is a part), who represented the union in court.
In MPRA’s case, this means the global union IndustriALL, which brings together unions of metalworkers and chemical workers in more than a hundred countries of the world. In Russia, its members even include several perfectly state-approved unions, which, according to this logic, should also now be dissolved.
The accusation of foreign financial support for MPRA is based on its receiving one-time grants of 150,000 and 180,000 roubles ($2,500 and $3,000) over the course of two years to organise trainings and workshops. However, in Alexey Etmanov's words, MPRA gives IndustriALL more than 200,000 roubles ($3,300) each year, and has a right to some compensation.
“Basically all unions do some kind of back-and-forth funding,” Oleg Babich explains. “It turns out that, using these kinds of lawsuits, without any warning or other, more gentle measures, they can now destroy large organisations that unite thousands of people.”
Solidarity outside of the law vs. unions outside of politics
The most unusual accusations brought by the city prosecutor against MPRA are that it gave moral support to the 2015 protest of long-distance truck drivers, as expressed in an article titled “PLATON is no friend of ours” and that union activists participated in a protest of fast-food workers from Carl’s Jr. and a protest of doctors against cuts to hospital staff. According to the agency's logic, MPRA only had the right to defend the interests of its own members, but not the members of other organisations, even those with which it was affiliated.
Further “proof” of how Alexei Etmanov’s union “was actually involved in politics” was provided by the union’s online petition to change Article 134 of Russia's Labour Code. These corrections were aimed at eliminating a loophole allowing private companies not to index their workers’ pay to the level of inflation.
“This court decision throws the entire existence of trade unions in Russia into doubt. It hasn't come into legal force yet, and I sincerely hope that the Supreme Court will reconsider it,” Oleg Babich commented. Alexei Etmanov is not planning to lay down his arms, either. If the higher court leaves the decision to dissolve the union in effect, MPRA may be resurrected under a new name.