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Russian employers and their foreign counterparts doing business in this country
Russian employers and their foreign counterparts doing business in this country must have heaved a sigh of relief this week, as Oleg Neterebsky, deputy chairman of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and chairman of the Public Chamber's profile commission, refuted press reports that the Russian Federal Labor Service (Rostrud) was preparing to ease the law on strikes.

This throws into doubt predictions by some trade union experts of numerous protests this year. Almost all the strikes that took place in the past year were ruled illegal under the articles of the Labor Code, which makes so many formal requirements of the announcement of a strike and so many reservations about its conduct, that it is virtually impossible to stage one legally. It was these draconian restrictions that Rostrud was rumored to be about to lift.

Experts in the field have long voiced concern about what they see as the effective outlawing of industrial action. In an open letter published last November, many of Russia's most prominent economists and sociologists urged the leaders of the country, MPs, and the business community to revise labor legislation and "turn their attention to the growing trade union and strike movements, and to view them as a civilized, decent, and effective method of regulating labor relations in a market economy."

But legislators chose to ignore the voice of the experts. International agreements recognizing the rights of employees, to which Russian is a signatory, and reprimands by the International Labor Organization were also totally ignored. It is rumored that the Presidential Executive Office officials are the main opponents of tailoring labor legislation to world standards.

The conciliatory position of the official trade union - the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, represented by Mr Neterebsky - does little to help revision of legislation. Having inherited all the flaws and weaknesses of its Soviet predecessor, this organization has not become a school of capitalism. No wonder, then, that about 10 million workers quit it in the last few years.

A recent survey by the VTsIOM pollster shows that today only a third of people in Russia are members of trade unions. Of those, a mere 23% believe that trade unions defend the interests of employees. Over 80% said that trade unions have no influence at their place of work.

Almost every recent strike has been staged without the federation's participation. They were organized instead by independent trade unions - small organizations, which are playing an increasing role in the labor movement. Last year, they staged strikes and protests in the ports of Tuapse and St. Petersburg, and at plants of such companies as AvtoVAZ, Ford, Surgutneftegaz, UAZ-Sual, Karelsky Okatysh, Heineken, and Pochta Rossii - Piter.

But on each occasion the courts, referring to the Labor Code, ruled them illegal. The Supreme Court shares this position. On March 25, it dismissed an appeal by the dockers' trade union of the port of St. Petersburg. Its reasoning was simple - a law has to be observed no matter how bad it is.

Moreover, the Labor Code's anti-strike articles allow employers to take pre-emptive action. Thus, train drivers planned a national strike on November 28. But the Moscow City Court banned the strike at the complaint of Russian Railways. This time, it quoted an article that bans strikes at enterprises with a bearing on national security.

Some companies resort to other methods, including strike-breakers and OMON riot police, blackmail, and dismissals. At some strikes trade union activists have been brutally beaten up. At Surgutneftegaz, troublemakers were escorted by the police to a local mental clinic.

As a result, most protests do not achieve anything. But there has been one prominent success. The strike committee at the Volga Ford plant managed to achieve a 20% wage increase. The administration had to accept the demand because it could not afford to keep the plant idle, and was under pressure from West European car-workers, who supported their Russian colleagues.

This success inspired many. In the middle of March, workers from the KAMAZ cabin assembly shop went on short-term strike. Employees of Rostov's Tagaz, which produces Hyundai vehicles, and Moscow's Renault-Avtoframos were ready to join them. But their trade unions are too small, and the Labor Code automatically makes their actions illegal.

This is why on March 21 the Muscovites staged a rally demanding amendments to labor legislation. Everything suggests that domestic car-workers, who are at the vanguard of the alternative trade union movement, will continue to press this issue.

As distinct from the early 1990s, trade unions are only making economic, not political, demands. They want the revenues from the country's economic growth to be distributed fairly. In industrialized countries, wages take up 50%-60% of the final cost of a product. In Russia that figure is a mere 10%.

Employers, though, are quite content with this situation, and do not want to make concessions. We can be sure that they will use all their connections with the powers that be to prevent changes in labor legislation.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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