Note from the LeftEast editors: Faking “the people” has been extensively used in the recent wave of protests in Eastern Europe. Usually, it is governments—Russian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian—who have the monopoly on ordering state workers to take a day off and be bussed to the capital, where they are given a meal, pre-prepared posters and banners, and instructions how to conduct themselves. The rallies in which they participate are then televised extensively to prove that “ordinary people” support the government and condemn the trouble-makers from the Opposition. In its efforts to expose the spectacle, oppositional media all too often portrays those unfortunate people as inarticulate, dumb, and somehow different from “us,” somehow less human. Written before abrupt ending of the Euromaidan protests, this article shows how in Ukraine the former Opposition—with the complicity of one union—engaged in similar tactics.
On February 13, 2014, the so-called “All-Ukrainian Strike,” so long promised by the leading politicians from the Opposition, took place. During the entire day prominent Ukrainian media channels were competing to cover the successes of this “strike.” Reports about the advances of the strikers in eastern Ukraine – such as the strike of “120 trolleybus drivers in Lugansk,” that was reproduced by many newspapers and internet-publications – turned out to be complete fabrications. Meanwhile, news stories from Western Ukraine seemed more hopeful. Hundreds of enterprises, and more than ten thousand workers, declared their support for the strike in western Ukraine. However, when, around lunch hour of that very day, the real character of this “strike” was revealed, it was time to cry rather than celebrate.
Ordered by the directors of the enterprises, workers were forced to abandon their lunches and to gather for one hour in front of the main entrances to their factories, to express their hearty support of the opposition leaders. A clip about this “lunch strike” in a linen factory in Rovno was on constant rotation on TV Channel 5, which belongs to the Opposition-affiliated oligarch Petr Poroshenko. Its participants later openly admitted that their “strike” was ordered by the factory’s director. And this was the scenario for all of the enterprises which were announced as having joined the “All-Ukrainian Strike.”
Ukraine is probably the only country in the world where strikes are not held through the initiative of the workers themselves, but are ordered by their bosses, to occur in an orderly fashion during the lunch hour, so that no disruption of their business-operations will take place. This would be funny, were it not so sad!
However, let’s try to understand exactly what happened. Who is behind this performance camouflaged as a nationwide strike? To do this, let’s look back to the very recent past. On January, 21, a press-conference was held for Sergey Kaplin, deputy of Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) from the political party “Udar,” and Mikhail Volynets, KVPU President (The Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine), a former MP from the party “Fatherland.” It was then that the establishment of the All-Ukrainian Strike Committee was announced. Already, then, media and trade unions were concerned about the fact that besides the representatives of opposition parties, only one affiliated trade union organization (KVPU) was given membership in the Committee. None of the Ukrainian independent trade union associations, except the KVPU, were admitted into the “all-Ukrainian Strike Committee.” Why?
Established in the mid-90s, The Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU), headed by its permanent leader Mikhail Volynets, has been desperate to maintain its monopoly on the independent trade union movement in Ukraine for many years. Volynets has been successful in getting the KVPU to be recognized as the only independent trade union in Ukraine by a powerful bureaucratic Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU), inherited from Soviet times, as well as by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
Despite the fact that new trade union associations and trade unions have recently sprung up like mushrooms in Ukraine (the all-Ukrainian Alliance of Trade Unions (VAP), Democratic Trade Unions of Ukraine (DPU), all-Ukrainian Independent Trade Union “Zakhyst Pratsi” (Labor Defense) and others), they still have not overcome the monopoly of the KVPU. Using his traditional proximity to the top of the parliamentary opposition, Mikhail Volynets did everything possible to prevent the leaders of the struggling independent movement from participating in the “All-Ukrainian Strike committee.”
At the same time, the KVPU has long ago lost all human and organizational resources, and is incapable of organizing any “strike” by its own strength. For over 20 years, the umbrella U.S. labor association, the AFL-CIO, has provided financial and organizational support to the KVPU. But on November 2013, when Euromaidan started in Ukraine, Mikhail Volynets was completely unable to provide support for the trade union movement of Euromaidan, and it remains something of a mystery how the huge amounts of money from American trade unions were spent.
Volynet’s recent behavior has been in general rather strange. On November 26, 2013, he made an announcement to the Ukrainian media about going on a hunger strike in protest against the refusal of Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, to sign the Vilnius agreements. He intended to maintain his hunger strike until these agreements were signed. However, he ended the hunger strike without informing the media on the evening of the very same day. Meanwhile, the leaders of the political opposition demanded that Mikhail Volynets bring the miners to Kiev – no miners arrived. Instead, Volynets had the office workers of his KVPU put on the miners’ helmets and simulate “miners from Donetsk and Luhansk” at Maidan. However, the most impressive of his actions was the public announcement that Mr. Mikhail Volynets made at a press conference in Kiev on December, 2013. In it he declared that all markets in Kiev had gone on strike. It should be noted that the press conference was held on Monday, which is the cleaning day, during which markets in Ukraine are normally closed. Naturally, on Tuesday, the following day, all markets were open and operating to their full capacity. And Mikhail Volynets’s profanation became known throughout Ukraine again.
It is absolutely clear why Mikhail Volynets (KVPU) had no intention of conducting an all-Ukrainian Strike, but only its simulation. However, hope remained that the political opposition would be interested in opening a dialogue with the real independent trade union movement in Ukraine and engaging in the preparation of a real (!) all-Ukrainian strike. But, that hope went out very quickly. The political party of Vitaly Klychko, “Udar,” which took responsibility for organizing the strike of February 13, 2014, decided to stake its bets not on the workers and ground-up initiatives, but on the administrators and management of the factories as well as its regional party activists. Among the members of “Udar” are many large enterprises and business directors of Ukraine. They became the main supporters of the organization of this fake “strike.”
What conclusions can and should we make after the failure of February, 13th? A real All-Ukrainian Strike would require serious preparation. And without the help of workers themselves and independent unions, it will be altogether impossible. Another imitation of an All-Ukrainian strike, scheduled by Mikhail Volynets for February 25, 2014, will only discredit this deeply righteous idea. The mass deception of Ukrainian citizens, perpetrated by the media, will only worsen the situation.
It is important to point out that the current legislative regulation of labor actions such as a “strike” requires a most radical transformation. According to the current law “On the procedure of settling collective labor disputes (conflicts),” dated 1998, conducting any, even a local strike, is highly problematic from the legal standpoint. Preparing the legislature to modernize strike regulations would be a worthwhile task for the parties of the opposition.