Employers use war to take away workers' rights
Interview with Yuri Samoilov of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine
Ignacy Jóźwiak (IP – Workers’ Initiative union): Yuri, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us under these difficult war conditions. To begin, tell us something about yourself and your role in the labour movement in Kryvyi Rih?
Yuri Samoilov: My name is Yuri Samoilov, and I am the chairman of the Independent Union of Miners in the city of Kryvyi Rih. In addition to this, I represent the Local Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which also includes railroad workers, teachers, medics and workers in the service industry. The Miners' Union at the moment also includes metal workers, and some medical workers are also members.
IJ: When was the organisation founded?
YS: In Kryvyi Rih, we founded it in 1992.
IJ: What are the largest employers, or the largest companies in Kryvyi Rih, besides Arcelor Mittal, which we all know about?
YS: There are mines, factories and metal processing plants owned by Ukrainian oligarchs: Yaroslavsky, Kolomoisky, Akhmetov. When we go on strike, we have a conflict with these three oligarchs.
IJ: And do you have your structures at Arcelor Mittal?
YS: At Arcelor Mittal we have a committee of about 400 people, including outsourcing companies. There are about a thousand people directly employed there, and in outsourcing it could be as many as 20,000. Most are in outsourcing, and the outsourcers are local companies. At the moment we have two committees there.
IJ: How many members does your union in Kryvyi Rih have?
YS: About 2,400.
IJ: You once mentioned that there are strikes in the city every year, when was the last one?
YS: The last big strike was in 2020, with a group of workers staying 46 days underground. Initially there were about 500, and by the end of the strike there were about 50 people underground. In addition, there were protests, storming the presidential palace, that is, we were in Kiyv for a meeting with the president. There were conflicts with the police. We fought for a wage increase of 30%, and the protection of social guarantees for male and female miners. Employers came up with the idea that working underground is no longer harmful, that people do not work in harmful conditions, and this provoked a conflict. This conflict is still going on, only now it is in a muted phase. I think that in the next two years, this story with social guarantees will repeat itself. Now employers are using the war situation to take away some rights and guarantees from workers, both financial and social.
IJ: What is the situation Kryvyi Rih industry now?
YS: The industry is operating at about 30% of capacity. Some workers are on furlough. Where we are present as a union, this is done in a fairly civilized manner, where we are not, people are simply thrown out without being paid their wages. A lot of men from the Kryvyi Rih serve in the military. People are under constant stress, because there is "some" job for "some" money. I emphasize - "some". There may also not be work and money at all. There are a lot of internally displaced people, refugees in the city. From Zaporizhzia, from the Donetsk region. Most of them are looking for work. This is creates also some pressure, because the employers can always employ someone, especially in small businesses. Salaries are now being cut almost everywhere.
IJ: What kind of salary do workers receive during the downtime at work?
YS: About half of what they received while working. Or nothing at all.
IJ: And this is legal?
YS: Yes, it is now legal. Some of the social guarantees have been taken away at the level of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) and the authorities.
IJ: And how have labour relations and wages changed during the war, among those male and female workers who kept their jobs?
YS: If we talk globally, there is a labour protection fund, and maybe someone will keep their salary. But among most of the workers, the salary was reduced. This is mainly related to the fact that various allowances and bonuses have been reduced or completely eliminated.
IJ: And how have working hours changed?
YS: It varies a lot, starting with the fact that some people work one or two days a week. There are also those who work twelve hours a day six days a week. Legislation in general has stopped working here. People work underground not for seven hours, but ten hours. On the surface, people work for twelve hours. They explain it with a curfew. For six months now they can't figure out the logistics of the curfew, and somehow they're not going to do it. Instead, companies are adapting to it as best as they can. Longer shifts underground are appearing. We have a curfew in the city from 10 pm until 6 in the morning.
IJ: And there are no special passes?
YS: No. It's hard to establish anything here, it's a military issue now.
IJ: And what are the main tasks for the unions in Kryvyi Rih now?
YS: Just as at the beginning of the war, our task is to help our members who are now serving in the army. I will say this, the supply of the army at such a basic level - clothes, clothing, warm things - needs to change for the better. The winter season has already started and it's tough. Before the war, an employer didn't have the right to fire an employee without the union's approval. Now they have been given this right and are very eager to exercise it. They say there is no work and that's it. They don't have to give a reason for the dismissal. Elon Musk would be happy, because these are his methods - liberalizing labour relations.
But what else do union do now? Sometimes, for example, various people call me and say, "my relative has fallen on the front and his body is lying somewhere on a neutral strip not far from the city, help me pick him up." You see, in Europe trade unions might even be afraid to think about it, and here it has to be handled somehow, and we do it somehow.
There are a lot of different issues related to the army, but why are we even talking about the army? Because several hundred members of our union have been drafted into the army, but they are still employed at their jobs. Their employment contracts are not on hold. They are not yet, but anything can happen. They are members of our union and remain so. It's all intertwined here: labour relations, the situation in companies, the situation in the city, various personal relations. You could say that the union deals with everything. Legislation in Ukraine is heavily liberalized. Soldiers are also workers, and the labour union in the army is not recognized. Admittedly, a soldier in the army cannot be dismissed, he can only be killed or wounded.
When dealing with humanitarian aid, we perform tasks with our trade union members in mind. It can be said that we have shifted the activities of the trade union into the military area. I don't know how it is in other countries, but in Ukraine there is no such thing, here there is even a ban on trade unions in the army structures. We used to try to establish such unions, but they were quickly destroyed.
IJ: And where do your union members serve, do they serve together or in different units?
YS: 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. This may seem ridiculous, but I was talking to our activist today, and there are a lot of legal nuances with this. On the one hand they are military, on the other they are not, and on the third it's not clear at all. But anyway, our people are everywhere, from Kharkov, to Kosy Kinbursk. I have contacts practically along the entire front line.
IJ: What is the attitude of your union members to the war now, what are they hoping for, what are they expecting?
YS: The majority of people are waiting for victory. We are hoping for victory, but we also have a class approach.
IJ: And what can change after victory, in Kryvyi Rih and in Ukraine?
YS: I personally hope for an increase in self-confidence among the people. Over the past decades, people have lost faith in themselves and those around them. In social institutions, in the trade union, in the army. The army now has a very large support, although everyone knows what problems there are. 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 they are not at the front, helps. And this is also what I wanted to talk about, that here we have an internal and horizontal mobilization that can correct the mistakes made by the authorities. Here I am thinking more of the economic area, not the military.
IJ: And what is the situation in the Kryvyi Rih now, there seems to have been shelling again?
YS: The situation is very difficult. There is no electricity in half of the city, six hundred people, miners are underground. Half an hour ago I had the last information that they were evacuating them there. Today I thought we could use Starlink, because very often there is no communication. Anyway, you saw some of our guys, I recently couldn't communicate with them, the internet was off, even the mobile network was off. We are increasingly having problems with electricity and connectivity, and all indications are that the winter period will be very tight.
IJ: Did anything change in the city after the liberation of Kherson and the surrounding towns? (The conversation took place four days after the withdrawal of the Russian army from Kherson).
YS: The mood has changed. I met with people from Kherson Oblast who now live in Kryvyi Rih, they were preparing to go home, to the countryside, to small towns. But what kind of mood can there be, when you arrive home, and home is not there. In some villages there are no houses at all, like during the World War II. Not even that the roofs are gone - there are no buildings at all. Volodya, a miner from Kryvyi Rih, was in the south. He said the stench was terrible from the corpses. That's why there is no euphoria, even if there is joy from the liberation of Kherson. It's hard there, there is no water or electricity, no gas - in a city where some 350 thousand people live. Now it may be 150 thousand, because more than half have left. They say that more than 100 thousand left to Russia, but as far as I know, most of them went straight to Poland via Latvia and Lithuania. Now everyone is afraid that we will be forced to conduct some negotiations. The situation in Ukraine may remain like this for several more years.
IJ: I would still like to ask about the situation and the role of women in the labor movement in Kryvyi Rih.
YS: In the Kryvyi Rih, women miners have a leading role in our organisation. The 2020 strike was largely based on the shoulders of women. They were very active. There are mines in our city where more women than men work. Women feel the protection that the union gives them. They understand that if there were no union and a strike in 2020, they would have to work five years longer, they would have two weeks less vacation. Now miners have an average of 52 days of vacation, and there was a proposal to reduce it to 28 days. It is obvious that there is something to fight for. In our union, women make up about 30%, of the members, they are female miners and metalworkers.
IJ: And how has the war affected them?
YS: There are women who went to the front, there are members of our union who are now fighting. Some women went to Poland and the Czech Republic at the beginning of the war. Most have returned. The majority of women are now here and working.
IJ: Would you like to add anything else, maybe there is something you would like to say that I didn't ask?
YS: I'm very grateful to your organisation, I'm glad we met. We have already had your delegation with us a few times, and they are making a film about us. That way more people will know about us. We have been fighting for several decades. Now they know more about us and this gives more strength, both to us and to you. The more we talk, the stronger we will be, I am convinced of that.
IJ: What then do you expect from the international labour movement?
YS: I look forward to the international consolidation of the independent trade union movement, this is very important. The trade union movement in the world has been established long time ago, but from my point of view, it's all been bureaucratized. These structures do not deal with trade union activities, but more with some cultural and literary activities. There are trade union structures and there are trade union members separately. We are now, together with you, changing this. I hope that our meetings and discussions will help create all this from scratch.
IJ: Thank you - a victory for all!
Interview by Ignacy Jóźwiak (IP – Workers’ Initiative union)