The Global State of Workers' Rights - Russia

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While trade union rights are legally protected, they are limited in practice. Given Russia's Soviet legacy, the state exercises the most control over labor affairs, followed by employers, leaving unions in a considerably weaker position. Formally, Russia compares well with other countries in terms of trade union presence; there is a relatively high density of union membership, and collective agreements are successfully implemented at many enterprises. However, unions have almost no influence when it comes to defending worker rights. Instead, they often serve the interests of the authorities. Enterprise managers and owners feel essentially no constraints in determining wages and working conditions.

The 2002 labor code sought to stifle independent unions, which face great difficulty in organizing. The largest Soviet-legacy labor organization is the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR), which brings together 90 percent of union members and maintains close relations with the authorities and the governing United Russia party. The authorities also have close relations with the Sotsprof confederation. Alternative trade unions have grown more active in recent years. Though the Russian union movement remains divided, it is building interregional organizations such as the Russian Confederation of Labor (KTR) and the All-Russian Confederation of Labor (VKT). Nevertheless, FNPR retains its monopolistic position as the only officially accepted voice for the interests of Russian employees within the labor regulation system, especially at the regional and local levels.

Leaders of the alternative trade unions have faced physical assaults and investigations by the tax police, and companies like Ford have sued them following strikes. For example, unknown assailants beat Yevgeny Ivanov, president of the labor union at a General Motors plant near St. Petersburg, in early 2009, just weeks after he helped establish the union there. In late 2008, attackers assaulted Aleksei Etmanov, a union activist at the nearby Ford plant. The General Motors-Avtovaz plant in Togliatti has fired union activists, leading to protests against the management.

Russian legislation has set up many bureaucratic hurdles that make it difficult for unions to strike legally. Worker collectives, rather than unions, have the right to call strikes, which are banned outright in many sectors of the economy. Strikes must focus on collective labor issues and are not allowed to address state policy. Workers cannot engage in sympathy strikes. In line with the labor code, the courts typically support employers' efforts to declare a strike illegal.

Strikes and worker protests, usually initiated by the alternative trade unions, have occurred in prominent sectors including the auto industry, food processing, and domestic-appliance manufacturing. Moreover, they seem to be increasing in the wake of the global economic slowdown. Antiunion discrimination and reprisals for strikes are not uncommon. However, there are also positive trends, as the unions are seeking institutional methods of resolving conflicts, appealing to the courts more frequently, and securing decisions in their favor in some cases.

Russian unions have trouble engaging in collective bargaining because their structure often does not include the primary union at the enterprise level as envisioned by Russian law. Moreover, Russian law does not place a deadline on agreements, so disputes on key issues can be postponed indefinitely without resolution. The Russian media often describe trade unions with foreign links – meaning the alternative trade unions – as "suspicious," making it difficult for them to seek foreign expertise and support.

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