Ukraine and the world’s unions — the view from Kyiv

October 5, 2023
Eric Lee Ukraine
Inset: LabourStart founding editor Eric Lee. Photo: Wikimedia CC By SA 2.0. Background photo: Sima Ghaffarzhadeh/Pexels

On the day that Vladimir Putin launched his war on Ukraine, the largest national trade union centre in Russia (FNPR) issued a statement that appeared on its website. “The Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia,” it declared, “supports the decision of Russian President Vladimir Putin to carry out an operation to denazify Ukraine.”

“Hitlers and Zelenskys come and go,” the statement continued, “but international worker solidarity remains. Peace to the nations! War on the Nazis!

The statement was such blatantly pro-Putin propaganda that it could have been written in the Kremlin itself. In fact, it probably was.

Such an egregious violation of the most basic norms of trade union solidarity — supporting an illegal and aggressive war on Ukraine — should have triggered the immediate expulsion of the FNPR from the ranks of the international trade union movement. But that was not the case.

Six months after the war began, Ukrainian and Polish unions issued a joint statement demanding that the FNPR be expelled from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). “There is no place for warmongers in the ranks of the international labour movement,” they wrote. That message was signed by Grygorii Osovyi and Mykhailo Volynets, the leaders of two largest national trade union centres in Ukraine, the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU) and the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU).

A failed suspension

I had the chance to speak with both men, and many other Ukrainian trade unionists, during my visit this month to Kyiv.

To their surprise, the ITUC was divided over what to do. Unions in Latin America and Africa seemed not to understand that the Russian government was behaving in a classically imperialist fashion, treating Ukraine as a colony with no right to self-determination.

Efforts to get the Russian union expelled failed.

Osovyi told me that the debate took months and he was surprised at how hard it was to convince many unions to take Ukraine’s side. He pointed out that while the European trade unions were by and large supporting Ukraine, the problem remained in parts of the global South.

He said that last year he had been invited to speak at an online event by a South African trade union. The union asked him to send on his speech in advance. After he did so, they cancelled the invitation.

This should surprise no one. On the day before the war broke out in February 2022, the Central Executive Committee (CEC) of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) issued a statement. “The CEC condemned the US sanctions targeted against Russia, as Ukraine tensions rise,” it said. “We stand with our BRICS ally during this time." By “our BRICS ally” they mean of course Russia.

One South African union website even now makes reference to “the Ukrainian aggression towards Russia”.

At a meeting of the governing body of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), three countries took pro-Russian positions, Osovyi said. Iran and China, countries which do not tolerate any kind of independent worker organisation, were on Putin’s side. But so was Brazil, which is a democracy in which workers’ rights are respected, and whose president is a former trade union leader.

TUC Congress Ukraine resolution

More recently, the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) passed a resolution in which the organisation “unequivocally condemns Russia’s illegal, aggressive invasion of Ukraine”. It was not passed unanimously, with some key unions either voting against or abstaining. But it was a victory nonetheless for those who support Ukraine and oppose Russian aggression.

In Kyiv, I met with two women who work for Ukraine’s national trade union centres, Olesia Briazgunova (KVPU) and Ivanna Khrapko (FPU). They played a role in this small victory in the British labour movement. They made video presentations encouraging the British trade unionists to stand with Ukraine.

Not everyone in the British unions appreciated their intervention. They were called “Nazi girls” by some in the pro-Putin camp. Some insisted that the TUC had banned Palestinian flags while allowing the Ukrainian trade unionists to display theirs, which they claimed included Nazi symbols (they didn’t).

Most unions are taking Ukraine’s side and are doing more than just issuing statements. They have been giving aid to the Ukrainian people through their sister organisations in the country, and union leaders have been visiting Kyiv and elsewhere.

Material aid

When I met with the leader of the 1.2 million member teachers’ union, Georgiy Trukhanov, he told me about the visit of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Among the donations the American teachers made to Ukraine were some badly-needed generators.

The Ukrainians have been getting aid from many unions and groups around the labour movement, including the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign based in Britain.

On my first day in Kyiv, I arrived at the local offices of the Solidarity Center, the global workers’ rights organisation supported by the AFL-CIO, the largest national trade union centre in the US. The front room was piled high with boxes of aid collected both from the international trade union movement and also from Ukrainians. I noticed among other things, sleeping bags and children’s toys. Natalia, a miner from the Donbas region, was there to coordinate shipping the boxes to those in need, mostly in the eastern parts of Ukraine, near the front lines.

In the offices of the KVPU, I was shown a room that had previously been used as a conference room. It too was piled high with boxes of medical supplies and other aid. There were many rolls of plastic film. These were needed to replace windows that had been blown out by Russian shelling. KVPU leader Mykhailo Volynets, a former miner himself, told me that the greatest need was for bandages.

The unions are fully mobilised in support of their embattled country. FPU leaders told me that 20% of union members were now serving in the armed forces. Teachers, who cannot be drafted because they perform an essential public service, have volunteered to fight in their thousands.

Defiance in occupied territories

In what Ukrainians call the “temporarily occupied territories”, the Russians have tried to ensure that Ukraine’s democratic, independent unions are not allowed to function. But just as during the darkest days of the Second World War, unions under occupation often continue with their work — despite the risks. The workers at Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant which is currently under Russian military control, have defied Russian demands and remain at their posts, desperately trying to ensure that there’s no nuclear catastrophe.

Teachers in the occupied territories have been ordered to cease all instruction in Ukrainian, and to only use Russian in their lessons. Some teachers, among them some who left the region, continue to teach covertly, online, in Ukrainian.

In Kherson, occupied by the Russians for several months before being liberated by Ukrainian forces earlier this year, the union headquarters defiantly displayed the national flag for months until the Russians forced it to come down.

Ukrainian trade unionists cannot understand why some of their brothers and sisters — for example, those in COSATU — who helped bring down a fascist regime in their own country would today be supporting a fascist regime somewhere else. They cannot understand why people in former colonies are not supporting Ukraine in what is clearly an anti-colonial struggle against a brutal, imperialist enemy.

Ukrainian workers and their unions remain defiant. They want and expect their fellow workers and unions around the world to stand with them, in solidarity. It is the very least that we can do.

[Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart.]

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