By June V, Red Phoenix correspondent, California.
Organized workers in Ukraine have been battling for labor rights for decades, and in the course of the ongoing war this struggle continues to be paramount to the livelihood and survival of the working class. Class solidarity is the foundation of their activities while the political rulers and oligarchs resort to opportunistic savagery against the proletariat during periods of social and economic upheaval. In November, Yuri Samoilov of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine lent his voice to the workers of his country in an interview by Ignacy Józwiak, a representative of Workers’ Initiative (Inicjatywa Pracownicza), an anarchist national trade union in Poland.
Yuri, thank you very much for taking the time to answer us in the difficult conditions you are in because of the war. To begin with, can you tell us a few words about yourself and your role in the labor movement in Kryvyi Rih?
My name is Yuri Samoilov and I am the president of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of the city of Kryvyi Rih. In addition, I represent the Local Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, which also includes railway workers, teachers, care-givers and workers in the service industry. Currently, the Miners’ Union also includes metal workers, and medical workers.
When was your organization founded?
In Kryvyi Rih, it was founded in 1992.
Who are the largest employers, or the largest companies in Kryvyi Rih, apart from Arcelor Mittal, which we all know?
There are mines, factories and steel plants owned by Ukrainian oligarchs: Yaroslavsky, Kolomoisky and Akhmetov. When you go on strike, you come into conflict with these three oligarchs.
And are your organizations present at Arcelor Mittal?
At Arcelor Mittal we have a section of about 400 people, including employees of subcontracting companies. There are about a thousand people employed directly by Arcelor Mittal, and in subcontracting there can be up to 20,000 people. Most work in local companies. Currently we have two sections there.
How many members does your union have in Kryvyi Rih?
You told us that there were strikes every year in Kryvyi Rih; when was the last one?
The last major strike took place in 2020, with a group of miners staying 46 days underground. At first there were about 500, and at the end of the strike there were about 50 people underground. In addition, there were demonstrations; we occupied the presidential palace, that is, we went to Kyiv for an interview with the president. There were clashes with the police. We were fighting for a 30% wage increase and the maintenance of social protection for miners and mine workers, the women miners. The bosses claimed that today work underground in the mines is no longer dangerous, that miners no longer work under difficult and dangerous conditions, and this is what provoked the conflict. This conflict is still ongoing; just right now it is in a silent phase. I think that in the next two years, this story of questioning social protection will be repeated. Now the bosses are using the war situation to take away workers’ rights and guarantees, both financial and social.
What is the current situation of the industry in Kryvyi Rih?
The industry is operating at about 30% of its capacity. Some workers are furloughed. Where we are present with the union, things are done in a rather civilized way, but where we are not present, the workers are simply thrown out, and they do not get their wages. Many of the men in Kryvyi Rih serve in the army. People are experiencing constant stress, because right now there can be “work” for “some money.” I insist on the word “some” due to uncertainty. It may as well be that there is no work or no money at all. There are many displaced people, refugees, in the city. Those who come from Zaporizhia, Donetsk region, most are looking for work. It also causes a form of pressure, because the bosses know they can always find someone to hire, especially in small companies. Wages are now being cut almost everywhere.
What salary do the workers receive during periods of shutdown?
About half of what they earned while working. Or nothing at all.
And this is legal?
Yes, now it is legal. Some of the social guarantees have been withdrawn from workers at the level of the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian parliament) by the authorities.
How have labor relations and wages changed since the war for workers who still have their jobs?
If we talk globally, there is a worker protection fund, through which perhaps some will see their wages maintained. But for most workers, pay has been cut. This is mainly due to the fact that some allowances and premiums have been reduced or withdrawn altogether.
How have work schedules changed?
It is very variable, for example some people work only two or three days a week. Others work twelve hours a day, six days a week. The law in general is no longer applied here. Miners no longer work underground for seven hours straight, but ten hours. On the surface, people work twelve hours. Employers justify this by the curfew. For six months now, they have not been able to adapt the logistics to the curfew, and they will not do it anyway. Instead, in companies we adapt as best we can. Workers work longer shifts underground. We have a curfew in the city from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
And there are no special passes for moving around during the curfew?
No. It’s hard to get anything about this issue; it is already a military issue.
And what are the main tasks of the Kryvyi Rih unions at the moment?
Just as at the beginning of the war, our task is to help our union members who are now serving in the military. I would say this, supplying the army at such a basic level as clothing and equipment for the cold needs to improve. Winter has already begun, and it is harsh. Before the war, an employer did not have the right to dismiss an employee without the agreement of the union. Now they have been given that right and they are very eager to use it. They say there is no work, and enough is enough, they do not have to give a reason for the dismissal. Elon Musk would be happy, because these are his methods, the liberalization of labor relations.
But what are the unions still doing?
Sometimes, for example, different people call me and say “a member of my family died at the front and his body is somewhere in a neutral zone not far from the city, come and help me get it.” You see, in Europe, the unions might even be afraid to think about it, whereas here you have to deal with it in one way or another, and we are doing it.
There are many different problems related to the military, but why are we even talking about the army? Because several hundred members of our union were called up to the army, but still have their jobs. Their employment contracts are not suspended. They are not yet, but anything can happen. They are members of our union and remain so. Everything is intertwined here: labor relations, the situation of companies, the situation in the city, the different personal relationships. It can be said that the union deals with all these areas. Legislation in Ukraine has been highly liberalized. Soldiers are also workers, and unions in the army are not recognized. It is true that a soldier in the army cannot be fired, he can only be killed or wounded! As far as humanitarian aid is concerned, we carry out our missions with the members of our union in mind. It can be said that the activities of the union have been shifted to the military. I do not know about other countries, but in Ukraine trade unions do not exist in the army, there is even a ban on trade unions in military structures. Attempts were made to establish trade unions there, but they were quickly destroyed.
And where do your union members serve, are they together or in different units?
Most serve here. Before the war and at the beginning of the war, territorial defense units were formed here. There was what I would call outsourcing for the military. It may sound ridiculous, but I spoke with one of our activists today, and there are a lot of legal nuances around the status of fighters. On the one hand, they are military, on the other hand they are not, and on the third it is not clear at all. But anyway, our men are everywhere, from Kharkov to Kosy Kinbursk. I have contacts practically all along the front line.
What is the attitude of your union members to the war now? What are they hoping for, what are they waiting for?
The majority of people are waiting for victory. We hope for victory but we also have a class approach.
What can change after the victory, in Kryvyi Rih and Ukraine?
Personally, I hope that self-confidence will grow among the people. In recent decades, people have lost faith in themselves and those around them; in social organizations, in trade unions, in the army. The army today has a lot of support, even though everyone knows that there are problems. In our country, the army and the people are one and the same. This is the difference between our army and the Russian army, here everyone, even if he is not at the front, helps and participates. I also wanted to talk about this; we have an internal, horizontal mobilization, which can make it possible to correct the mistakes made by the authorities. I mean, more in the economic field, not in the military field.
And what is the situation in Kryvyi Rih now, there seems to be shelling again?
The situation is very difficult. There is no electricity in half the city, six hundred people, miners, are underground. Only half an hour ago, I received the latest information about their evacuation. Today I thought we could use Starlink [satellite system installed by Elon Musk], because very often there is no means of communication. Anyway, you know some of our men, recently I could not communicate with them, the internet was cut, even mobile networks were cut. We have more and more problems with electricity and connections, and everything indicates that the winter period will be very tense.
Did anything change in the city after the liberation of Kherson and the surrounding towns? [The meeting took place four days after the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson in November.]
The mindset has changed. I met people from Kherson Oblast who now live in Kryvyi Rih, they were preparing to return home, to the countryside, to small towns. But what state of mind can you be in when you arrive home and your home is no longer there? In some villages there are no houses at all, as during the Second World War. It is not just that there are no roofs, there are no buildings at all. Volodya, a miner from Kryvyi Rih, was in the south. He said the stench was horrible because of the corpses. That is why there is no euphoria, even if there is joy following Kherson’s liberation. It’s difficult there; there is no water or electricity, no gas, in a city of nearly 350,000 inhabitants. Now it is maybe 150,000, because more than half the population has left the city. They say that more than 100,000 people went to Russia, but to my knowledge, most went directly to Poland via Latvia and Lithuania. Now everyone is afraid that we will have to negotiate. The situation in Ukraine could remain this way for several more years.
I also wanted you to tell us about the situation and role of women in the trade union movement in Kryvyi Rih.
In Kryvyi Rih, women miners play a vital role in our organization. The 2020 strike rested largely on the shoulders of women. They have been very active. There are mines in our city where more women work than men. Women feel the protection offered by the union. They understand that if there had been no union or strike in 2020, they would have to work five more years, and they would have two weeks less vacation. Today, miners have an average of 52 days of vacation, and there was a proposal to reduce them to 28 days. It is obvious that we have to fight for this. In our union, women represent about 30% of the members, they are miners and metal workers.
And how has the war affected them?
There are women who have gone to the front, there are members of our union who are currently fighting. Some women went to Poland or the Czech Republic at the beginning of the war. Most have returned. The majority of women are now here at work.
Do you want to add something, maybe there’s something you’d like to say I didn’t ask?
I am very grateful to your organization [SUD Solidaires], I am happy that we met. We have already received your delegation several times, and you are in the process of making a film about us. That way more people will know who we are. We have been fighting for several decades. Now people know more about us and this gives us more strength, both to us and to you. I am convinced that the more we talk, the stronger we will be.
What do you expect from the international trade union movement?
I look forward to the consolidation at the international level of the independent trade union movement, which is very important. The trade union movement in the world was established a long time ago, but from my point of view, it has been entirely bureaucratized. These structures do not deal with trade union activities, but rather with cultural and literary activities. There are union structures and there are union members, which are separate. We are working with you to change that. I hope that our meetings and discussions will create all of this from scratch.
Thank you, and victory to all!
Interview conducted by Ignacy Józwiak – Inicjatywa Pracownicza – Workers’ Initiative – in November 2022. Edited and published on December 25, 2022 by Christian Mahieux for the International Trade Union Network of Solidarity and Struggles. Translated from French.