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15 March, 2013  ▪  Bohdan Butkevych

Coal Wars

The shortsighted policy of the Donbas oligarchs has pushed miners to strike for their rights. Now the crucial questions are: who will lead the battle and whose interests will it promote?

As miners stormed into a regional office of Rinat Akhmetov’s DTEK company in Luhansk Oblast, they brought back the phantom of miners’ strikes from the turbulent early 1990s. The Ukrainian Week went to the industrial Donbas to find out just how intense the current mood of discontent really is

PROTESTING JOB CUTS

On January 10, 2013, twenty members of the Sverdlovsk Independent Trade Union occupied the office of Kostiantyn Tiumikov, director of the Red Partisan mine in Chervonopartyzansk, a town in Luhansk Oblast. They promised to deliver their demands to the mine’s owner Rinat Akhmetov and Luhansk Oblast Governor Volodymyr Prystiuk and leave the office after they were fulfilled. One of their requests was the cancellation of a December 21, 2012 order by DTEK’s CEO that would launch massive layoffs at Sverdlovantratsyt, a government-owned holding of five mines, including the Red Partisan. It has been a year since the new administration began planning large-scale workforce optimization. As a result of these changes, all miners are being forced to sign resignation letters with no date specified. The striking miners view their takeover of the director’s office as a last resort in their struggle against the lawlessness of big capital holders.

READ ALSO: Digging for Billions

The mine’s owners reacted in a perfectly predictable manner: they described the incident as vandalism and called the police along with DTEK’s security squads. On the night of January 10, 2013, the trade union members led by Kostiantyn Ilchenko were forced out of the office. While the owner claims that the strikers left after consenting to continue the dialogue in a lawful way, the strikers say they were forcibly removed by the police.

Local officials and trade union bosses immediately dismissed the protesters, calling them a handful of misfits that do not represent the majority of miners. Soviet agitprop-style comments from other miners followed. “This is a bandit trick that affected the whole staff of the mine,” said Ivan Anokhin, a brigade supervisor at Red Partisan’s Section 2. “Our brigade condemns them. We demand that such people do not work with us.” Meanwhile, the web started buzzing with articles about strike leader Kostiantyn Ilchenk as a former gang criminal and a crook, or an agent of the Presidential Administration created to prevent the emergence of a disloyal trade union.

MINORITY DISSENT

Most of the region’s mines are located in Sverdlov County in the far south of Luhansk Oblast. It is also a place where strong, cold winds blow all year round and tough, potentially explosive people live. After years of hazardous work, they take radical steps more readily than others.

The headquarters of Sverdlovsk Independent Trade Union is inconspicuously nestled in the town’s suburbs. After a drive on hideous roads, we arrive just in time to visit the trade union committee meeting. Twenty people in a small room debate the current situation and ways to further the struggle for their rights. Kostiantyn Ilchenko does most of the speaking, while the rest nod in response to his encouraging slogans: “After the January 10 strike, the number of trade union members in Chervonopartyzansk has gone from 5 to 16. People are joining us. I can’t say we have a crowd of candidates but there are some positive developments. Here is a wireman, and an entrepreneur – they are here to join our trade union. People are standing up, albeit slowly.”

“We now have branches at Tsentrosoyuz (a mine in Komsomolsk, Luhansk Oblast – Ed.), and Odeska mine owned by Yuriy Boyko,” says another trade union activist, head of the local biker club. “We’ve shaken off the slumber and are proud of it. People are coming to us voluntarily, like guerillas, because what mine owners and their bootlickers do is unspeakable.” Protesters tell us about one mine where the supervisor throws a cigarette butt on the ground every time he inspects the place and makes the first miner he runs into pick it up and throw it into the trash bin. Whoever disobeys is fired immediately. This is all done to strip the employees of any glimmer of pride or will to struggle for their rights. Plants and mines routinely employ draconian measures to improve discipline. Bosses exploit a variety of excuses—some more legitimate than others—to reduce the workforce to a legal minimum.

READ ALSO: A Pinpoint Strike

This sounds bad enough to stir dissent, yet most people remain inert. I ask the activists why the majority of miners endure this quietly and stay away from any movements. “They are afraid and ignorant,” is the answer, surprising as it may seem given the turbulent history of violent miners’ strikes here in the 1990s. In 1997, for instance, a miner set himself on fire in front of the Luhansk Oblast State Administration. A clash with Berkut, the special-purpose police squad, followed. Then the miners camped at the front entrance of the Administration building besieging the local government. They even had a pig called Hapochka after the then Deputy Head of the Oblast Administration. Finally, concerned with the looming escalation of violence, the central government put pressure on the local government and it gave in and paid the outstanding wages.

“The 1990s miners’ movement abated because the local social structure has changed dramatically since then,” says social scientist Andriy Strutynsky. “That rebellious generation is now retired. After the soviet system collapsed, virtually everyone who could work found themselves cast away. Despair gave them strength. At that point, they were all employed at government-owned mines that ceased to operate and the payment of their wages was suspended. So they just came to get what they had earned. When private owners acquired the mines, people finally had jobs and at least a small income.”

READ ALSO: Who Really Controls the Donbas?

In fact, employees are an element of the ground capitalists stand on as they appreciate the opportunity to have a job. Moreover, the miners are willing to rally in support of their owners only to prevent delayed payment of whatever wages they receive. One example was a surge of popular support at Azot, a plant in Severodonetsk, in 2005 (when Yulia Tymoshenko as Premier attempted to nationalize the plant but the staff did not let government officials into the premises – Ed.).

The oligarchs, however, tilt the balance in their own favor with ongoing layoffs, increased working hours, discrimination and more. The rule here is to forget social rights and earn a living, or leave and 20 more people are waiting to fill the vacant position. In towns where there is no alternative employer apart from a mine or a plant, people have no choice. Yet, continued pressure will eventually crush even this illusion of stability. This may trigger the return of the explosive 1990s.

As we drive to Red Partisan with two activists, the mine whose strike had become an overnight sensation, we survey the shabby grey town of Chervonopartyzansk and its locals huddled around bus stops. When we finally reach the mine, an activist named Serhiy suggests that we ask every passer-by what he or she thinks of the trade union and why they are not joining it. A sturdy man of 55 is the first miner we run into. Embarrassed, he says that he has just a few years until retirement and does not want to stick out. “You’re great, guys,” the miner adds suddenly. “I support you, but my wage…” A few more miners we talk to after him offer the same answer.

“Miners have pretty decent wages now,” says Serhiy Lozovyi, an activist of the Independent Trade Union and a Red Partisan employee. “On some shifts, one can earn up to UAH 18-20,000 per month. If you talk too much, though, you’ll end up in a bad brigade, working hard for UAH 4,000; they’ll intimidate your family. So people are afraid to do anything because they have an illusion of stability. They all support us in words, though.”

READ ALSO: Difficult Times for White Collar Workers

Our last question is whether the activists trust their leader and the main target of the trade union’s opponents, Kostiantyn Ilchenko. “Of course, we do,” they reply. “He’s a feisty fellow. They pour so much dirt on him and he still goes on with his cause. He’s recently drawn a former Sverdlovsk Town Council deputy into our trade union even though they’d been enemies earlier.”

WHO WILL BENEFIT FROM THE PROTEST MOOD?

A spirit of protest is in the Donbas air, yet it is very likely to become a bargaining chip in the hands of oligarchs. “Social frustration with the policy of big enterprise owners which they manipulate in mutual score-settling and rivalry is a typical portrait of the region. Ukrainians, especially those in the Donbas, are very inert in terms of a bottom-up struggle for their rights. Conventional forms of self-organization, such as trade unions, are completely under the control of either private owners or the state. The concept of self-organization is greatly discredited. Therefore, oligarchs are taking over all kinds of bottom-up initiatives or orchestrate them to suit their interests,” Luhansk-based political analyst Kostiantyn Skorkin claims.  An ex-official of the Luhansk Oblast State Administration who used to monitor social protests and movements states confidently that the current escalation of miners’ dissent, including the Sverdlovsk Independent Trade Union, is linked to the war of several oligarchs over control of the coal mining industry. “Note that the miners do stand for their rights, no doubt about that. They are not contract fighters, but real miners who work and live here,” says Oleksiy. “Yet, Ilchenko is a controversial figure. He used to lobby big businesses in the past and was linked to the so-called Yanakiyevo group. Clearly, this is all being done at the level of personal contacts, so it is next to impossible to catch anyone red-handed or prove anything. In the past, Sverdlovskantratsyt and Rovenkyantratsyt had both been government-owned enterprises feeding a pile of private subcontractors owned by Ivan Avramov, Yuriy Ivaniushchenko’s man. Now the mines are part of the DTEK corporation owned by Akhmetov. The escalation of the protest movements at his mines plays into the hands of his competitors. Meanwhile, the protesters have legitimate cause for dissent as lay-offs continue and intensify.”

Under another, more likely scenario suggested by an ex-official, MAKO, a corporation linked to Yanukovych’s son, has suddenly taken an interest in coal. Resistance from Akhmetov’s companies followed shortly after as the oligarch had already set up a full production cycle within his DTEK corporation. The conflict between the Family and Akhmetov is escalating – so far, in business, so Ilchenko and his trade union have popped up at just the right moment with their genuine bottom-up protests, exploited in the struggle between old and new oligarch groups. Meanwhile, the movement’s working-class members struggle with all their hearts for the right initiatives.

READ ALSO: Donbas Uprising

“Civic engagement in the Donbas is inseparable from the wealth grabbing that is taking place in the state once again as the new ‘Family’ players have entered the market,” says Kostiantyn Skorkin. “A distilled, truly popular protest is impossible; a brief insurrection is more likely. Any organized movement grows from organizations with leaders or sponsors, all with their own interests.”

So far, the miners’ movement is down to small groups of activists that are often controlled by puppet leaders. However, this may soon change. If thousands of miners join the protest campaign – and they may overnight – there will be no room for external control. Should this happen, the government is likely to use an old tactic to subdue the dissent: mass frustration will be channeled against a specific owner or official disloyal to those in power. Behind-the-scene games unfolding far beyond the miners’ towns may soon reveal the inconvenient scapegoat.


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