Stirrings of Labor Unrest Awaken as Russia’s Economic Chill Sets In

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Source: The New York Times – by Andrew E. Kramer (Stirrings of Labor Unrest Awaken as Russia’s Economic Chill Sets In)

Workers in this city that calls itself the “birthplace of the trains” gained fame some years back for helping birth something far different: President Vladimir V. Putin’s drive to crush and marginalize a budding democracy movement. Recently, after a year with little or no work in the city’s giant train factory, they staged a protest of their own, aimed straight at Mr. Putin and his wealthy cronies in the industrial sector.

“They say they have orders, but they also cut our salaries,” Yevgeny M. Shukhin, a burly, mustachioed worker said of the factory’s management, stomping his feet against the cold at a labor protest this month on Machine-Builders Square.

Day after day, he said, the workers trudge to the factory by the thousands, only to sit out their shifts at idle assembly lines.

In 2012, when Mr. Putin was still campaigning for the presidency, a shift foreman at the factory here in the northern Ural Mountains appeared on a nationally televised call-in show and said that he and his “boys” from the factory were ready to come to Moscow and beat up urban protesters.

“You showed who the Russian people are, who the Russian working man is,” Mr. Putin told the foreman, Igor R. Kholmanskikh.

They never did beat up any protesters. But thousands of strapping, fur-hat-topped workers from the factory, Uralvagonzavod, were bused to rallies supporting Mr. Putin in his campaign. And in his first decree after his return to the presidency, Mr. Putin named Mr. Kholmanskikh the Kremlin’s representative in the Urals region, the most senior federal position in the district.

Now, as far as many workers at Uralvagonzavod are concerned, all that might as well have occurred in a different country, or lifetime. “I don’t think Uralvagonzavod will vote for Putin again — we saw what that led to,” Mr. Shukhin said. “This is the opinion of a lot of workers, but a lot of them are afraid to say it. We just don’t understand why they are firing people.”

Back then, as oil prices flirted with the $100-a-barrel mark, cash was rolling in and work was plentiful. Mr. Putin, his government sitting on far larger cash reserves than today, was burnishing his image as the savior of factory towns, often arriving at troubled industrial centers in a swirl of television reporters to announce miraculous bailouts.

Even with the collapse in oil prices last year, Russia coasted through a nasty recession on hard currency reserves, with officials from the Kremlin down to company bosses brushing off the economic problems as manageable.

But the economic slump is now starting to bite. Real wages, or salaries adjusted for inflation, a common gauge of how working people feel the economic slump, dropped 6.3 percent in January, compared with the year before.

New automobile sales are down a staggering 40 percent, in a country that was recently seen as sailing on a trajectory of growth that would surpass Germany as Europe’s biggest car market. With fewer goods to move, railroads are shunting rolling stock onto sidings and canceling new orders.

The economic chill has settled on Nizhny Tagil like a Siberian cold front.

The result, here and scattered throughout Russia, has been stirrings of labor unrest, the once widespread scourge of the late Soviet period.

Nizhny Tagil has two pivotal industrial plants: one making steel and the other, Uralvagonzavod, turning out train cars and tanks. Both have announced layoffs, though Uralvagonzavod has since said any “optimization” of its work force of roughly 30,000 will be voluntary.

The fate of the plants reflects another broad economic trend, as Mr. Putin’s reluctance to cut military spending despite the recession and budget crunch has left that side of the Uralvagonzavod humming. While workers on the train-car side of the factory have been put on two-thirds pay — about $260 a month — the tank assembly lines are still rolling full speed, and workers are paid in full.

Out on the snowy streets not far from the factory gates, at the recent protest’s scheduled start time, more police officers than protesters appeared on Machine-Builders Square. A surveillance van pulled up.

A crew of street cleaners in orange vests blocked the pedestrian walkway to the factory, as if clearing snow, lest workers wandered over after their shift.

In the end, a hundred or so people turned out, looking over their shoulders at the uniformed and plainclothes police officers mingling in the crowd, grinning and ostentatiously filming the scene on video cameras.

Ilya Korovin, a local activist, stretched a red banner reading “For Workers’ Rights!” across the pedestal of a statue of Lenin. People milled about on the sidewalk beside a berm of sooty snow; whether taking in the spectacle or joining the protest, it was hard to tell.

The assembly lines were idled, the workers’ pay was cut, and the prices of groceries was sky high, Mr. Korovin said. And the management had no plan.

“For more than a year, people go to work but do nothing,” Mr. Korovin said.

“The factory is just broke. But some still think, ‘Putin loves us; he will throw us some money,’ ” he said. “But we have a market economy. You cannot force somebody to buy our products. Most people are counting on Putin, but my comrades, we cannot remake the communist economy.”

Mikhail G. Scherbakov, a retired shift boss at Uralvagonzavod, said that after 43 years on the assembly line he had a pension was 13,600 rubles, or about $175, a month. “They either have no conscience, or they have no money,” he said.

“They are just hanging spaghetti on our ears!” Nikolai I. Kalugin, from a political group called the Party of Pensioners, said of the management’s claim to have a pipeline of train car orders, using a Russian expression meaning playing people for fools.

In Moscow, Ilya V. Yashin, a leader of the opposition movement that Mr. Kholmanskikh had threatened to crush with his “boys” from the factory, had a message for the laborers.

“Dear Workers of Uralvagonzavod!” he wrote on Facebook. “In the end, the workers who not so long ago threatened to scatter the protesters were themselves forced to go to protest against layoffs and violations of their labor rights. Time put everything in its place.”

Stirrings of Labor Unrest Awaken as Russia’s Economic Chill Sets In


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