What do Ukrainian trade unions expect from their European counterparts?


Alfons Bech

September 22, 2022

Understanding. That is what they mostly expect. It seems to be little, but it is the most important thing for them. The president of the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU) is an old trade unionist. By virtue of his position and tradition, he has had international contacts for years. I had the opportunity to have an interview with him and other leaders. It was with him and those responsible for communication and organisation, international work and the construction sector.

They appreciate the international campaign that has been done by sending convoys of solidarity, and also the petition asking President Zelensky not to ratify several laws. In particular Law 5371, which makes it easier for employers of companies with up to 250 workers to dismiss their employees. They are aware that these campaigns were developed by the European Network of Solidarity with Ukraine (ENSU) and Labour Start in parallel. They are also aware that ENSU and Labour Start have agreed to work together to continue solidarity with Ukraine.

They believe that because the struggle of the Ukrainian trade unions has gained international support, Law 5371 will only be in force during the period of martial law.

When asked what they expect from Western trade unions, the president tells me: "We have sent about seventy letters to trade unions in Western Europe asking them for support in the face of the aggression we are facing. And they have replied that they support us, that they are with us in the internal conflict we have. But we don't have any internal conflict as a country. What we have is external aggression. That is what our trade unionist colleagues must understand.”

Olesia Bryazgunova, the young international head of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Ukraine, KVPU, also answers us in the same way: "Western trade unions must understand that we are under a war of aggression from another country. If Russia were to win, the lives of Ukrainian workers would be much worse. In the occupied territories you can clearly see this.”

Belarus understands

She tells me that there was a quick response of full support for their struggle against the invasion from the independent trade unions in Belarus. They understood that Ukraine had to resist and win against the Russian empire.  This is no coincidence. Russia has always supported Lukashenko as a loyal ally at the head of Belarus, but particularly after the last elections where the results were changed to prevent the fall of a semi-dictatorial regime. When people took to the streets en masse to protest the vote rigging and the regime might have fallen, Putin sent in his troops in support of his beloved Lukashenko.

Lukashenko then began a repression that has been reinforced by the war against Ukraine. All the leaders of the independent trade unions in Belarus are in jail and the union is banned. The Belarusian trade unions understand the need to fight against the Russian occupation because they themselves are in a regime that depends on Putin and that conditions the whole struggle for social improvements.

The president of the FPU explains to me that in 2014 there was already a war in the Donbass. And also, that Russia occupied Crimea without war. But that did not appease the Russian regime's appetite. They wanted the whole of Ukraine. That is why he believes that Western trade unions and workers must now support Ukraine's victory over Russia, because if the aggressor is not defeated, it will continue to try to expand.

He also sees this as a security problem for the whole of Europe. It is not true that it only affects Ukraine. If there is a change of borders by force due to a military invasion, there will be no stability in Europe. If Russia were to win, it would affect other European countries.

Victory over Russia comes first

Olesia from the KVPU is also grateful for the humanitarian aid received from the trade unions. They show me the room where they keep all the materials and equipment and tell me that last week the room was full to capacity. They are distributing it as fast as they can. Also, like the FPU, they are grateful for the petition campaign ENSU led against the ratification of the anti-worker laws.

I explain that there is debate and reluctance among some of my trade union colleagues who have signed against these laws: they are reluctant to support Ukraine's victory. He does not understand. He is surprised that there are people who can support working people in the face of neoliberal laws but abstain in the face of an occupation and an absolutely unjust war. Can you be against Zelensky but not for Russia's withdrawal from Ukraine?

Olesia considers that the war is much worse than any other attack: people die, factories and companies are destroyed, very important infrastructure is wrecked, the normal chain of production is broken, many services are paralysed. The whole country suffers and those who suffer most are the working people. So, supporting the Ukrainian workers against the Zelensky government in its neoliberal attacks is all very well, but it is not consistent to stand idly by and watch the destruction of the country by a foreign power. The war conditions everything. If this imperialist war, the Russian occupation of the Ukrainian territories, is not stopped, it is not possible to improve the life of the working class.

That is what the people who lead the two main trade union centres in Ukraine think. They are different trade unions, sometimes in competition with each other, as is the case in many other countries. But their discourse on the war and on what they are asking of international workers and trade unions is the same: that they understand that they must support their country in the face of the invader, that they should not abstain. This is how they can support the working class in Ukraine. Once they win the war, the other problems can be better solved. Among them the Donbass or Crimea. Also anti-labour laws.

But if Russia wins it would mean living under occupation and semi-dictatorship. Like in Belarus or worse.