A strike broke out on 22nd April in the coalmines belonging to Rinat Akhmetov in the Lugansk region (in the south-east of Ukraine).
Two thousand miners besieged the management offices and demanded a pay rise. Is this a sign that the direction of the Ukrainian protests is changing?
According to Andrei Ishchenko, a member of the united-socialist organization “Left Opposition” and co-ordinator of the Workers Defence Committee of Odessa:
“Until now it was difficult to call the protests in the south-east class protests. They were dominated by Russian-nationalist slogans and reactionary-abstract ideas. But now the situation can change radically.”
“In my opinion, the pro-Russian direction of the protests in south-east Ukraine is beginning to dissipate, and there are objective reasons for this.”
“Initially, the main goal of the protestors was unification with the Russian Federation. All the talk about a referendum and federalization – with a Russian flag in the background – was, of course, nothing more than an attempt to give the protest the appearance of a certain legality.”
“But the real role of Russia has become clear to many participants in the “anti-Maidan” protests. It is intervening in the situation just as much as it needs in order to keep the protests half-alive for the purpose of accomplishing its geo-political tasks.”
“The unrest in the south-east can be used (by Russia) for bargaining with the west, and as a means of putting pressure on the weakened authorities in Kiev.”
“It seems that the miners in Krasnodon (city close to the mines) have understood who their real enemy is.”
“Few people now believe in unification with Russia. The pro-Russian protest has exhausted itself from within. Deprived of goals and of any meaning, it is simply dying away. But at the same time, Ukraine is in the grip of a profound economic collapse.”
“The participants in the protests are disappointed now not just in the policies of the Kiev authorities but also in those of Putin’s Russia. More and more they are turning to their own basic problems: the exchange rate of the hryvnia (Ukrainian currency), local rates of pay, and prices in supermarkets and petrol stations.”
“These are of much greater concern to people than problems of language or big questions of geo-politics. Let’s hope that that protests will now gradually take on a different meaning, and that there will be no more empty chants about “Glory-to-Ukraine – Glory-to-Russia”!
Additional information about Rinat Akhmetov and the miners’ strike:
Rinat Akhmetov is the richest man in Ukraine, worth somewhere between $7 billions and $17 billions. He claims that he accumulated his wealth through commercial risk-taking.
Investigations by the Ukrainian government, on the other hand, have identified him as the leader of an organized crime syndicate. In 2005 Achmetov fled to Monaco, but returned the following year after an investigation into his financial activities was killed off by the Yanukovich government.
Akhmetov is also a prominent member and financial benefactor of Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions, and a former MP for the party. Like all good Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs, he owns a football club (Shachtar Donetsk).
(His predecessor as club president was, alas, killed in an unsolved bombing assassination in 1995.)
The current strike involves miners in five pits owned by “Krasnodon Coal”, one of Akhmetov’s many business subsidiaries. The decision to strike was taken by a mass meeting held in Krasnodon’s main square at four o’clock in the afternoon on 22nd April.
2,000 miners then ‘laid siege’ to the company’s offices overnight, demanding that their rates of pay be raised to the average rate of pay for miners in the Donbas. For footage of the ‘siege’, see here.
(The chant is: “(Put the money) On the Table!”)
According to one of the striking miners:
“Yesterday (22nd April) there was a meeting in Krasnodon about the referendum and there was some other meeting. But 22nd of the month is when we get an advance payment on our salary. We each got a thousand hryvnia.”
“But prices have gone up in the last week – petrol is dearer, bread is dearer. Then one of the lads said: ‘Let’s demand a pay rise.’ And we backed him. Top pay here is 6,000 hryvnia, but the average in the Donbas for anyone working at the pit face is between 8,000 and 10,000 hryvnia.”
The strikers have not raised any political demands.
The separatist movement in south-east Ukraine has also been condemned by Nikolai Volynko, leader of the Independent Trade Union of Donbas Miners:
“As far as separatism is concerned, these issues could have been closed off a long time ago, if it had not been for these anti-terrorist campaigns, with their opening phases, medium phases, concluding phases, stops and postponements. And with every phase, more and more regional offices are seized.”
“The local authorities are on the side of the separatists because they have unofficially been promised that they will all remain in their posts if anything changes in terms of Russia. The time has come to be open in our resistance.”
“The central authorities are behaving indecisively, very indecisively. The local forces are not helping the army. What is left for us, the people of the Donbas, to do? Are we to wait until the authorities are kind enough to conduct another anti-terrorist operation? But what phase, or what stage, will the pregnancy be at the next time?”
“We will resist!”
From the website of the Russian Socialist Movement.
23rd April: General Director of Krasnodon Coal issues statement claiming that only a small minority of miners back the strike, and are doing so only “under the influence of provocative appeals” by supporters of federalisation and a local referendum.
This small minority was supposedly preventing the rest of the workforce from working as normal: “Do not believe claims that 80% of the workforce are on strike. More than 97% want to work, but cannot get to work because of the road-blocks on the access roads.”
According to the company statement, the miners are raising political demands as well as economic ones: They want the company to provide coaches to take them to the offices of the Ukrainian Security Services in Lugansk, occupied by separatists.
23rd April: According to an article on the Ukrainian business website “Hubs”, every day’s lost production at the mines costs the parent company of Krasnodon Coal over $1.2 millions.
Article quotes Yury Tasherev, representative of the Krasnodon Coal trade union, denying that any political demands have been raised:
“There were no political issues. Why head for Lugansk? If anyone wants to go there – please, they can do it in their own time. The miners are demanding a doubling of their pay, to about 15,000 hrivniya.”
“And they want scrapping of the HayGroup method of calculating pay (in which the level of pay is dependent on the performance of a co-worker).”
According to Tasherev, the mines are at a standstill, with only maintenance work, but no production, underway in the pits.
Article also quotes an economic analyst from Eavex Capital: “(If salaries were increased by 50%), the cost would not be a small amount but would be tolerable. What is important is that if there is such a pay rise, then this could lead to strikes in other subsidiaries of the parent company.”
24th April: Talks are underway between Krasnodon Coal management and an “initiative group” set up by the striking miners themselves. Trade union officials and officials from the local council are also involved in the talks.
Transport to the pits is still blocked (although it is unclear whether this is caused by road-blocks manned by separatists, or by striking miners).
Those involved in the talks agree that anyone approaching the company’s offices should be checked to make sure that: they are a Krasnodon Coal employee; they are sober; they are not a provocateur.
24th April: Unlike all other reports about the strike, a report by the Russian news channel RT claims: “Miners are also refusing to pay a 10% tax on their salaries, imposed by the post-coup authorities to restore the Maidan Square in Kiev.”
The same article ‘quoted’ a Krasnodon Coal miner as saying: “We are also against Kiev’s junta. We do not recognise their authority. It is not legitimate. We stand for the memory of our ancestors fighting alongside Russians. We are all Slavs. We are one nation. We do not have heroes such as Bandera and Shukhevych.”
25th April: According to a statement issued by the company, production has resumed in all pits bar one but talks are still underway. A “mutual understanding” has been reached on 15 of the 16 issues raised by the miners, but there is no agreement on the demand for a pay rise.
On the square in front of the company offices miners are collecting signatures for a petition calling for a return to the old version of the collective agreement in operation in Krasnodon Coal from 1998 onwards, but gradually whittled away by management over time.