Trade Unionism is far more than collective bargaining and social dialogue, it is the most important voice of working people against dictators in factories and government. That is why the international trade union movement the ITUC and the Global Union Federations now face a choice of their own identity. The largest Russian confederation, FNPR, has totally lost its independence and is nothing else but Putin’s mouthpiece or it is fully supportive of the Russian aggression and invasion of Ukraine. In both cases their further membership in the ITUC is incompatible with the ITUCs values and constitution.
Guest blog by Frank Hoffer
“The FNPR (Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia) is as independent as a dog that lost its master”, I was told by a Russian miner 30 years ago while working as labour attaché at the German embassy in Moscow. Thirty years later there can be no doubt the dog has found its master. On the day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine the FNPR published an outrageous Orwellian statement:
“The Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia supports the decision of Russian President Vladimir Putin to carry out an operation to denazify Ukraine. The future of the country should be determined by its people, but gangs of Bendera, nationalists and accomplices of the Nazis should not put pressure on their will. We sympathize with those who were forced to evacuate to Russian territory by regular shelling and the death of loved ones. The trade unions of Russia render all possible assistance to them. We believe that peace will return to Ukraine, and Ukraine will become a democratic, peaceful, neutral state.
Hitlers and Selenskyis come and go, but international worker solidarity remains. Peace to the nations! War on the Nazis!”
This statement is a literal repetition of Russian State propaganda to justify the attack on a sovereign state. These are lies to justify the killing of innocent people and the bombardment of Charkiv, Kiev and other Ukrainian cities. And of course, FNPR President Mikhail Shmakow and the FNPR leadership know that these are lies.
President Selenskyi was elected by an overwhelming majority of the Ukrainian people, and none of the extreme right-wing parties gained a single seat in the last parliamentary election. To imply that Hitler and Selenskyi are somehow a similar tragedy for Ukraine and that the Russian invasion has something to do with international workers solidarity is not only beyond comprehension, but an insult to the principles of global workers’ solidarity.
Russia under Putin represents the diametral opposite of the values for which the labour movement has always fought. It suppresses civil society, democracy, freedom, the right to assembly and to organise. Trade Unions have historically always supported the right of workers to determine the destiny of their societies through democratic elections and their own independent organisations. Freedom and democracy are no guarantee for social justice and a sustainable future, but they are indispensable for it.
Trade Unionism is far more than collective bargaining and social dialogue, it is the most important voice of working people against dictators in factories and government. That is why the international trade union movement the ITUC and the Global Union Federations now face a choice of their own identity. Are they with the working people defending their right to be free, or are they keeping the authors of the above statements in their ranks and continuing to pretend that we all want peace and decent work.
Thirty years after the end of the Soviet Union the FNPR has come full circle. In 1993 Mikhail Viktorovich Shmakov became the leader of the FNPR. He has been in that position ever since. Shmakov was regarded as the man who understood that the Soviet type state-controlled trade unions needed to change. Energetic, smart and authoritative he gave the convincing impression that he is serious about this task. With his reform-credentials he also won the trust and sympathy of western trade union leaders and the FNPR was invited to join the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.
This positioning of the Russian trade unions on the international stage was a major success for a former Soviet organisation. However, transforming the old Soviet style trade union bureaucracy into a truly membership-based independent trade union proved far less successful. It remained by and large an organisation of grey soviet type bureaucrats subservient to state power and factory bosses. With hindsight it can be asked how hard the leadership really tried to drive a top-down transformation of their organisation, but there can be no doubt that they failed and they failed the more Putin resurrected an authoritarian regime.
Internationally the FNPR and Shmakov personally strengthened their credibility by being staunch supporters of the independent Belarussian trade unions. He took a clear position against Lukashenko’s measures to subordinate and repress the trade unions in Belarus. This has been his consistent policy despite the Kremlin’s support for the Lukashenko regime.
For many years the FNPR and its affiliates managed the balancing act of largely unreconstructed ineffectiveness at home and friendly relations on the international trade union circuit. There was a remaining hope that somehow the FNPR would slowly evolve towards a real trade union despite Putin. And hope dies last. But in 2022 there can be no doubt it’s dead.
In 2022 the FNPR and its chairperson have become part and parcel of Putin’s propaganda machine. There are only two explanations for this outrageous statement: either the FNPR totally lost its independence and is nothing else but Putin’s mouthpiece or it is fully supportive of the Russian aggression and invasion of Ukraine. In both cases their further membership in the ITUC is incompatible with the ITUCs values and constitution that clearly states:
“The confederation proclaims the right of all peoples to self-determination and to live free from aggression and totalitarianism under a government of their own choosing.”
Championship games are relocated from Russia, membership in world sport organisations is suspended, theatre and concert tours are cancelled.
Continuing business as usual and keeping the FNPR in its ranks will destroy any moral authority of the ITUC. Support for the people in Ukraine will have no credibility from an organisation that has a man as its vice president who fully endorses Putin’s aggression.
Frank Hoffer is an associate fellow of the Global Labour University. The blog was first published by Global Labour Column.
Note by Espen Løken:
The other smaller Russian confederation KTR made a statement immediately after the invasion calling for cessation of military action, as rapidly as possible, and the renewal of peaceful dialogue and coexistence between the multinational peoples of Russia and Ukraine."