Wed May 22, 2024
May 22, 2024

Ukraine: Report From The Third International Workers’ Aid Convoy To Ukraine

Since Spring 2022, the ILNSS has been in regular contact with Ukrainian trade unions and social movements

By Ignacy Jóźwiak, Hortensia Inés Torres, cooperation: Mateusz Giergowski

Third Workers’ Aid Convoy to Ukraine was organized by the International Labour Network of Solidarity and Struggle between June 14th and June 20th 2023. During this almost one week visit, we held a series of meetings during which we learned about the situation of Ukrainian workers at the time of war, and discussed the possibility of strengthening our cooperation and developing international support for Ukrainian unions. We expressed our sincere solidarity with our Ukrainian brothers and sisters and donated money (for daily activities and development of independent labor organizations), technical and tactical equipment (for union members serving in the military) as well as food and hygiene products. The convoy visited the cities of Lviv, Kropivnytskyi, Krivyi Rih and Kyiv.

Since Spring 2022, the ILNSS has been in regular contact with Ukrainian trade unions and social movements. The idea of convoys was initiated by organizations from Brazil (CSP Conlutas), France (Solidaires), Italy (ADL Cobas) and Poland (IP). At various stages, the initiative was joined by organisations from other countries: Co.Bas (Spanish State), TUC (Liverpool, England), G1PS (Lithuania), STASA (Portugal). The latest convoy also received financial support from the SAC Syndikalisterna union from Sweden and individual donors from all over the world.

Our international group holds regular meetings, organizes fundraising, and holds events to promote knowledge about the situation of Ukraine’s working class and trade union activities in the war-torn country. This is where decisions are taken and further plans are made. The aim of the initiative is to show international support for class resistance against Russia’s imperialist invasion and the Ukrainian government’s anti-worker and anti-social reforms during the war. 

In Ukraine, our partners  are the independent trade unions, some of which are affiliated with the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (Ukr. Konfederatsiya Vilnykh Profspilok Ukraiiny – KVPU), and some operate independently. These are: Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine in the city of Krivyi Rih (ukr. Nezalezhna Profspilka Hirnykiv Ukraiiny – NPGU), the Direct Action student union (ukr. Priama Dia), which operates mainly in Lviv and Kyivv, the Trade Union of Medical Workers and Medical Industry Workers of Lviv Region (ukr. Lvivska Oblasna Profpilka Medychnykh Pratsivnykiv ta Pratsivnykiv Medychnoi Haluuzi) together with the social movement “Be Like Nina” (ukr. Bud’ yak Nina), the Free Trade Union of Education and Science of Ukraine in the city of Kropivnitskyi (ukr. Vilna profspilka osvity i nauky Ukraiiny and the Free Union of Railway Workers of Ukraine (ukr.Vilna Profspilka Zaliznychnykiv Ukraiiny – VPZU). 

The idea of convoys are considered something  more than just the delivery of essential goods. It also means strengthening contacts and cooperation with the Ukrainian working class, trying to understand the situation faced by the union members, and taking up the subject internationally.

Lviv – meeting with nurses and students

On June 14th the delegation consisting of members of the IP and Solidaires  set off from Warsaw. Our first stop, after the border crossing and humanitarian transport procedures, was Lviv. Part of our delegation met there with representatives of the healthcare workers and other part with the students.

Oksana Slobodiana, a nurse and union organizer and journalist Yulia Lipich told us about the work conditions in Ukrainian healthcare and the general state of healthcare. The name of the movement Be Like Nina refers to its initiator, nurse Nina Kozlovskaya, who in 2019 launched a campaign on low wages for medical staff in Lviv. On the basis of the informal initiative, a non-governmental organization was registered (which in itself makes it easier to act and apply for funding), and independent trade unions began to form around it. Now, the movement-association functions as an organizational umbrella and a platform for the development of labor organizations throughout the country. Organizations are functioning in Lviv, Poltava, Chernihiv, Kyiv, and more are being formed in Krivyi Rih and Dnipro. In the future, a nationwide unification of new independent unions in the industry is planned. As we learned from Oksana and Yulia, their organization is open to all medical workers: doctors, nurses, medical assistants and caregivers. Their activity is centred around three main principles: gender equality, women’s rights and direct involvement of members. In Lviv alone, around  200 people belong to the union, but the situation is developing. The union is completely independent from employers, the state and political parties. Nurses initially contacted large trade unions that already existed in the industry, but they had little or no activity.

The main problem for healt care workers is low salaries, for many of them further reduced by the top-down obligation to work part-time. Others, in turn, face long on-call schedules and overwork. Depending on the position, form of employment, seniority and allowances (or lack thereof), salaries range between €50 and €300 per month. By comparison, the prices of products and services in Lviv are quite similar to those in the EU countries, and the cost of renting an apartment is about EUR 400 per month. Low salaries also mean problems for the trade union. All of the union’s “assets” come from membership fees, which amount to 1% of wages.

Among the most urgent needs are the finances necessary for further development. Trade unionists need money to travel around the country, rent rooms for meetings, or purchase electronic equipment to participate in online meetings. However, needs are changing due to the dynamic situation in health care and the situation on the frontline. For the healthcare workers, war means frontline emergency services, treatment and transportation of the wounded, overloaded hospitals and outpatient clinics (due to the wounded and refugees from occupied and frontline areas), shortages of medicines and equipment, and increased workloads.  Paradoxically, access to health care is also limited for those employed in it. Officially, the state provides health care, but in practice little of it is provided. In addition, not all diseases, especially chronic ones, are covered by the public treatment program. Many treatments are performed only in private clinics, which only few can afford.

The Medical Workers Union has received an official invitation to join the International Trade Union Network of Solidarity and Struggle and to participate in an international meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil this September. We have donated money for activities to the organization’s account, and more collections are planned. 

The meeting with the student organization Direct Action was attended by a group of students from Ukraine, Poland and France. The organizers of the meeting were Katya Gritseva and Maxim Shumakov. Maksym told us about the generations of the Direct Action movement. The first generation of the movement was formed right after the collapse of the USSR, the second generation was formed in the second decade of the 21st century and took part in the events on Kiev’s Maidan in late 2013 and early 2014. The third generation was formed more recently and has around 40 members so far, and is distinguished by the fact that it works closely with labor unions at workplaces. In addition to Direct Action, there is also an official student labor union, which is completely politically inactive, only socio-culturally, and is closely coordinated with the university. Nonetheless, many people formally belong to the union, as the university gets money for the corresponding number of student union members. Importantly, studying in Ukraine is paid unless you qualify for a scholarship, so many Ukrainian women and men can’t afford to study. It is also worth noting that renting apartments in Lviv during the war became very expensive, moreover, rent is paid in dollars. During the meeting, Katya also told us about the tragic condition of student houses in Lviv and throughout Ukraine: ubiquitous mould, plaster falling off the walls, most rooms are multi-bedded, and some are even inhabited by stray cats. The youngsters had the opportunity to exchange experiences of university activities and find common ground.

Direct Action has received money from the International Trade Union Solidarity and Struggle Network for its ongoing operations.

Kropivnytskyi – meeting with teachers and delivery of equipment for the miners

On June 15 at dawn we left for the town of Kropivnytskyi in central Ukraine, where we were met by Volodymyr Fundovnyi and Valentina Nahod from the Free Trade Union of Education and Science of the Kirovohrad region (Kropivnytskyi is the administrative center of the region). We met with them at the school where tthe union’s office operate. At the request of our hosts, we brought a power generator, an emergency power kit, a telescopic mast, a GSM repeater, telephones and a set of plugs and adapters. The equipment was destined for uranium miners serving in the army, whose union belongs to the same confederation (KVPU).

The Free Trade Union of Education and Science of Ukraine was established in 2003 in response to a wave of protests and public discontent accompanied by the inaction and conciliation of unions existing in the sector. The union is active throughout the country, is independent of political parties, and belongs to the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, of which Volodymyr is regional chairman. There are 10,000 members in the region. In addition to teachers (5,000 people), there are those working in administration, canteens, technical and cleaning staff. A small group of lecturers at the local university also belong to the union. With the 60 members, they are also the only union at the school where we met.

Education workers  are struggling with low wages. The average teacher’s income is 170 euros, which is just above the minimum wage. Trainee teachers’ earnings are even lower. Pay-raises were scheduled for 2022, but were frozen when the war broke out. As a part of an austerity policy, many are paid a base salary without various allowances.

Due to strong feminization, few people from the union have been mobilized for the army. Therefore, the teachers support local miners serving in the army in the Kherson section.

Krivyi Rih – the city of industry and workers’ resistance

We arrived in Krivyi Rih before dark on June 15th. It is a center of mining, metallurgy and radical social protests. Our main partner in this city is the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine (NPGU), which is a part of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU). There are 2,500 members of the NPGU in the city, including about 800 women.    

On June 16, at one of the union premises, we met with representatives of the NPGU from various mines. The meeting was organized by Chairman Yuri Samoilov and union secretary Natalia Shubenko. We talked about the realities of work in mines and metallurgical plants and the daily life of an industrial city in the shadow of the ongoing war. The main investors and shareholders in the city are: the global giant Arcelor Mittal and Ukrainian oligarchs: Ihor Kolomoisky, and Rinat Akhmetov and Oleksandr Yaroslavsky. The latter  a week before the Russian aggression, became famous for his spectacular escape from the country aboard a private plane. On his way to Kharkiv airport, one of the cars traveling in his column fatally hit a pedestrian. For our hosts, Yaroslavsky became a symbol of the  “Monaco volunteer battalions’  – owners and shareholders of the means of production who took refuge from the war in European resorts and tax havens. It is in these safe places, inaccessible to “mere mortals,” that the decisions on which working and living conditions in the Krivyi Rih now depend. 

Currently, local factories are not using all of their capacity. Many workers are serving in the army (some volunteered, others were mobilized). The city faces periodic power and water supply problems, with Russian rockets and drones (or shrapnels after being shot down by Ukrainian anti-aircraft defence) falling on the industrial infrastructure.  The operations of steel mills and mines are linked to global supply chains, which are disrupted by the blockade of Black Sea ports (for which the alternative is overloaded rail transport). Some workers are employed on a part-time basis, with no guarantee of working hours or wages that meet the minimum subsistence level, and some are on a standstill. Reforms introduced during the war remove the obligation of employers to pay a standstill, provide minimum paid working time or pay wages to employees serving in the military. However, in some companies, unions manage to fight for  these guarantees to be maintained.  

The union regularly supports members serving in the military by sending them missing equipment not provided by the state. According to Yuri Samoilov, “everyone is asking for drones and thermal vision monoculars,” but boots, sleeping bags and other outdoor equipment are also needed. For those remaining “in civilian life,” the union buys flashlights (streetlights along the side streets do not work, which is particularly troublesome in autumn and winter) and pepper spray (petty crime has increased in the city due to the war recession and inoperable street lights). However, these are small expenses compared to the tactical equipment that is on the priority list. Our convoy provided miners and metallurgists with drones, thermal imaging devices, sleeping bags, sleeping pads and tents.

The meeting stressed the importance of international cooperation and solidarity. Chairman Samoilov expressed the intention of joining the International Network of Solidarity and Struggle, which the Confederation submitted on our return from Ukraine.

The next day we met with Vyacheslav Fedorenko of the Free Trade Union of Railway Workers of Ukraine (VPZU), who showed us around the locomotive depot and shared information about working conditions on the railroad. With strikes and industrial action banned, the unionists are focusing on legal spheres of activity and regularly win court cases against Ukrainian Railways[1] for back wages and unpaid allowances. Like other labor groups, railroaders support their members in the military. In addition to binders of documents, the union premises contained boxes of tactical equipment, special clothing and footwear.

On the same day we took a tour of the town and the mine spoil tips, during which Gleb Kozlov, an enthusiast of local history and son of a miner, told us about the peculiarities of the local industry and its impact on the environment.

On June 18, we visited the Sotsmisto neighbourhood, which in 1963 was the scene of workers’ protests and riots against the police and local authorities. We were also shown the site where revolutionary and peasant movement leader Nestor Makhno spoke in 1917. On the same day, we also met with anthropologist Denys Shatalov, who gave us a tour of sites and memorials related to the 1917-1920 revolution and Jewish cultural monuments. Denys also told us about his research on public perceptions of the war.

Kyiv – meeting with railroad workers and return to Warsaw 

On June 19, we left for Kyiv, where we met Volodymyr Kozelskyi and Valery Petrovskyi of the Free Trade Union of Railway Workers of Ukraine. The union is active throughout the country. In Kyiv, it unites 300 railroad and urban transportation workers. With the Russian occupation of Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the union’s activities in these areas froze. With the outbreak of war, train drivers ran evacuation trains and humanitarian aid deliveries in the frontline areas (often directly under shelling). Today, many male railwaymen are serving in the military and more and more technical duties are being taken over by women. Until recently, they worked almost exclusively as conductors and customer service. As in Krivyi Rih, the Kyiv, the union is fighting for payment of back wages and unpaid allowances, and opposes excessive workload. Valery, technician at a passenger train depot, is currently serving in a military unit stationed in central Ukraine, from where he came to meet us. His wife, a conductor and union member, and a group of a dozen men and women working on the railroad serve in the same unit.

During the meeting, we donated food and cleaning supplies to our hosts, destined in part for the front and in part for lower-paid union members. We had the opportunity to meet with Valery and his wife Luba soon in Warsaw.

In the evening, we had a short meeting with Serhiy Movchan of the Solidarity Collectives, an organization that provides humanitarian aid in the frontline areas and delivers equipment to union members and social activists serving in the army. In the morning we had a brief meeting with Denys Pilash of the Social Movement (Sotsialnyi Rukh) organisation and left for Warsaw. On the way back, we visited Bucha and Borodianka – the towns that were particularly affected by the Russian occupation forces in the spring of 2022.

Ongoing cooperation – ongoing struggle

Cooperation with Ukrainian trade unions is not limited to convoy visits. Upon our return, the International Trade Union Network for Solidarity and Struggle donated money to the Medical Workers Union. With funds from French Solidaires, members of the IP  bought a wheelchair, which was sent to Lviv. In late June and early July, Valery and Luba of the Independent Railway Workers Union of Ukraine visited Poland and Italy. In Italy, they met with representatives of ADL Cobas and CUB Transport. In Poland, they were given thermal imagers purchased from an international fund.

A wave of protests and strikes has swept across Ukraine, despite the official ban. On June 23, a protest by medical personnel from the village of Velikyi Lubyn in the Lviv region blocked the road between the towns of Sambor and Turka. The protesters demanded the resignation of a clinic director blamed by subordinates for corruption and mismanagement. On July 15, 2023, a demonstration of healthcare workers took place in Krivyi Rih, demanding payment of back wages. Several hundred people gathered in front of the city council building, from where they marched through the city chanting, “Salary!”. At the same time, in nearby town of Zhovti Vody, uranium miners refused to go underground until they received their back pay. The list of protests and campaigns is much longer and it deserves a separate publication.

Some concluding remarks

Since March 2022, Ukrainian society has been coping with policies of social cuts and deregulation of the labor code. At the same time, it is the working class that keeps the country running by providing functioning infrastructure, products and services. These are the workers who fight and die on the frontline. Under these tragic circumstances, we are witnessing an unprecedented grassroots mobilization of the society, in which trade unions play an important role. This social mobilization fills the void left by the authorities. It can be expected that when the war ends (hopefully with Ukrainian victory), the reconstruction of the country will have a neoliberal shape. Ukrainian authorities are already inviting international investors and promising to make huge profits. Unions will definitely have their hands full of work, and they will need international support. There are many indications of growing social discontent in the war-torn and economically depressed country. As we have reported more than once, Ukrainian workers are currently fighting a battle on two fronts. The first is the front of armed resistance against the Kremlin invaders. The second is the front of labor and social rights in the face of deregulation of labor laws and cuts on social spending. International solidarity is needed on both fronts!  

[1] Despite partial privatization, the Ukrainian railroad has managed to avoid being split into separate companies. 

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