Life goes on for the Ukrainian trade unions. But these are very difficult times for working people. Unemployment is rising and there are whole sections of the economy which have collapsed. The entire country is mobilised and united against the Russian aggressor and the unions are very much part of that. At the same time government has attempted to pass new labour laws that would dramatically weaken the unions.
Guest blog by Eric Lee, LabourStart
The night before I arrived in Kyiv earlier this month, the city was attacked by dozens of Russian drones and missiles. I saw none of it as my train rolled through the fields and farms of western Ukraine, which could not have seemed more peaceful under the blue skies of late summer. Kyiv too showed few signs of war, at least in the parts of the city I visited. Cafes and restaurants are open and people are out on the street, even in the evenings. Life goes on.
Life goes on for the Ukrainian trade unions as well. But in my discussions with leaders of the main national centres, some national unions and activists, I learned that these are very difficult times for working people.
Unemployment is rising and there are whole sections of the economy which have collapsed, including aviation. The leader of Ukraine’s largest national trade union centre (the FPU), Grygorii Osovyi, told me that his union had lost a million members. I also learned that an estimated 20% of union members have either volunteered for, or been drafted into, the armed forces. The entire country is mobilised and united against the Russian aggressor and the unions are very much part of that.
Georgiy Trukhanov, the head of the 1.2 million member teachers union, told me that as teachers could not be drafted (because they’re considered essential workers) many have volunteered to fight.
The unions are not mobilised because they support the Zelensky government. That government has attempted, in war-time, to pass new labour laws that would dramatically weaken the unions. Last year, FPU and the smaller KVPU ran a global online LabourStart campaign to protest those suggested changes. Yevgen Stempkovskiy of the railway workers union had only this to say about the government: “We have a common enemy.”
And that enemy, Russia, is increasingly becoming the focus of hatred in Ukraine. For example, Trukhanov told me that the Russian teachers shared some of the guilt for the war. I asked what he meant by that. All the Russian soldiers currently fighting in Ukraine, he said, studied in Russian schools. They were taught to be what they had become — killers and rapists.
On the whole, Ukrainian trade unionists are pleased with the support they’ve been receiving from the international trade union movement. They are looking forward to an upcoming visit by ITUC and ETUC leaders. They told me stories of the bravery of American trade unionists who visited during some of the most difficult days of Russia’s aerial bombardment of Kyiv. They appreciate all the donations, both money and goods — including generators — which foreign unions continue to provide. I was told there’s an urgent need for bandages. Union offices, including those of the Solidarity Center and the KVPU, are crammed with boxes of aid. I was shown sheets of plastic used to cover windows that had been shattered by Russian artillery.
Unfortunately, not all unions are taking the Ukrainian side in this war. The formerly-Soviet controlled World Federation of Trade Unions has been outspoken in its opposition to Ukraine and to NATO. The largest Russian national trade union centre, FNPR, has suspended its own membership in the ITUC following criticism of its pro-Putin stance. Shockingly, there are unions in democratic countries which appear to be taking the side of the aggressor.
Osovyi told me that last year he had been invited to speak at an online event by a South African union. The union asked him to send on his speech in advance. After he did so, they cancelled the invitation. While many groups on the Left are showing full solidarity with Ukraine, there are others that seem to prefer a Russian victory.
While I was in Kyiv, the British Trades Union Congress held its annual conference and passed a pro-Ukrainian resolution. One of the people responsible for that is Ivanna Khrapko, youth leader of the FPU, who spoke by video with TUC delegates. I was talking with Ivanna about life under the relentless Russian attacks. She told me that one night she heard the distinctive sound of an Iranian shahed drone just outside her window. She was hosting child refugees from eastern Ukraine — the region all Ukrainians call “temporarily occupied territory” — and rushed them to shelter. A bit later, they heard the loud blast of a Patriot missile.
Ukrainian trade unionists like to say that they are not just fighting for their country, but for freedom. Their freedom and ours. After a week talking with them, I agree with that view. They are brave people, forced into a war they did not want by an aggressive dictator who shows only contempt for international law. Every trade unionist everywhere in the world should be doing what they can to support Ukraine. We have a word for that, a word that is at the very heart of what we do as trade unionists: solidarity.
Eric Lee is founding editor of LabourStart