Belarus authorities smash strike, jail strikers

Issue 

By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — The administration of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has used heavy-handed repression to crush a strike by public transport workers in the country's two largest cities. Union leaders, strike activists and a prominent opposition parliamentarian have been arrested. Scabs have been hired to drive metro trains, creating a serious danger to passengers. Scores of striking workers have been fired, and security forces have ransacked union offices. The indefinite stoppage began on August 17, shutting down the underground railway system in the capital, Minsk, and trolleybus depots in Minsk and Gomel. The strikers were demanding the payment of wages owed from as far back as June. In addition, workers on the Minsk metro were demanding the restoration of bonus payments cut recently by management, and the dismissal of the metro's director.
Also on strike were employees at several plants of the Integral production combine, which formerly specialised in defence electronics. These workers also had not been paid for months.
On the evening of August 20, Lukashenko went on television to demand that the transport strikers return to work. He described the stoppage as "a planned political act" against the government. According to Lukashenko, the instigators were the Belarussian Popular Front, which leads the country's small nationalist movement, and US and Polish trade unions.
Meanwhile, the authorities were feverishly recruiting scabs. On August 21 the Minsk metro started up again. Services were near normal, but police could be seen in the cab of each train guarding the driver.
According to a spokesperson for Belarus' independent trade unions, not a single unionised driver had returned to work. The stand-ins, as identified by the Moscow daily Izvestia, were "retired drivers, drivers sacked for drunkenness, and ... drivers of above-ground electric trains". The latter had been taught to operate the underground trains in courses lasting a day and a night.
Responding to a request by the mayor of Minsk, the Moscow city administration sent 11 instructors from the Moscow metro system to train additional scab drivers. So far, no reaction to this has been reported from the Moscow trade unions.
At 7am on August 21, striking metro workers gathered in Minsk on a square outside the offices of one of their unions. Police ordered the group to move on. Then as the strikers proceeded along a nearby street, masked special forces troops seized union leaders Nikolai Kanakh, of the "official" metro workers' union, and Vladimir Makharchuk of the rival "free" union.
Later that day, Supreme Soviet deputy Sergei Antonchik stated that police had arrested a further 15 strikers, and that 60 metro workers had been sacked. Also detained was the head of the Free Trade Unions of Belarus (SPB), Gennady Bykov. Antonchik's turn came on the afternoon of August 22, when police asked him to leave the offices of the SPB and come into the street "to have a few words". Witnesses said the parliamentarian was then hustled away by five uniformed men.
In these days the SPB offices were searched by police, despite the fact that the warrant they produced specified a different address. The invaders seized the union's charter documents as well as correspondence.
Improbably, Minsk deputy prosecutor Vladimir Reutsky insisted that there had been no arrests associated with the metro strike. The union leaders had simply been brought to the prosecutor's office for questioning — with the help of police. Antonchik was held for three days, while the arrested union activists received jail terms of 10 to 15 days.
At a press conference in the SPB headquarters on August 21, it was claimed that meetings in defence of the metro strikers had been held in a number of Minsk enterprises. Participants in these meetings were said to have called for acts of civil disobedience including blocking main traffic thoroughfares. However, no such actions have been reported, and by the final days of August, it was clear that the strike had been defeated.
The authorities are able to claim a certain basis in law for jailing the strike activists; it is illegal for the country's essential service workers to withdraw their labour. But slavery is also illegal, and the distinction between slavery and requiring people to continue working when they have not been paid for months is a tenuous one. In any case, security forces in suppressing the metro strike knowingly breached provisions of the laws covering the making of arrests and the searching of premises. When it comes to smashing strikes, the nomenklatura-capitalist rulers do not feel themselves bound by legal niceties.
Under the law, deputies to the Supreme Soviet can be arrested only if the legislature votes to lift their parliamentary immunity. By flouting this provision Lukashenko has indicated his contempt for the rights of the parliament, for the constitutional limitations on his powers and for the rule of law. The unnerving signal which the erratic, authoritarian-minded president sent citizens when he ostentatiously spoiled his ballot in the parliamentary elections earlier this year has now taken on much greater menace.