Winter and humanitarian aid


Alfons Bech

September 21, 2022

I am in Ukraine on a mission to interview trade unions and to find out what kind of help we in Western European trade unions can provide. This is not a visit on behalf of a trade union but as coordinator of the trade union action group of the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine (ENSU).

For most of the days I have been in Kiev it has been raining. Rain that is sometimes light, but which soaks you to the bone. The Dnieper River usefully collects this water and the scenery from above Kiev is magnificent, with the wide river and green trees. Comrades from Sotsialny Rukh (Social Movement) have accompanied us on a walk around the city on Sunday and explain to us some of the social battles that have been fought there and other aspects of Ukrainian history.

I ask Social Movement leader Vitaliy Dudin what will happen in winter in the middle of this war. He closes his eyes and says it will be very hard. When I ask the president of the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (KPU) what kind of help they need, the first thing he tells me is that they need Western trade unions to understand that this war is not an internal conflict between Ukrainians, but an aggression by one country against another sovereign country.

I will talk about this at greater length in another column, but I am surprised that he does not start by making material demands.

After meeting the leaders of the FPU, I meet the leaders of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU). They are the second largest federation in Ukraine. Both unions are providing humanitarian aid to their members and to civil society in general. For example, if the electricity doesn't work in a neighbourhood or in a region, everyone suffers because it means no heating system, centralised or not, and domestic appliances don’t work.

Russian destruction

Olesia Bryazgunova, the KVPU's international officer, explains to me that the Russian army has not only bombed and destroyed civilian buildings, blocks of flats, schools, but has also expressly destroyed energy distribution centres. The most blatant case is that of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, whose surroundings are being bombed with grave risk that of hitting the plant itself.

Just a few weeks ago, the Russians bombed a dam on the Dnieper, and this caused an avalanche of water, flooding many kilometres downstream. Did such destruction make any military sense? No. This is a violation of international law. It is an attack on the civilian population. Luckily the population near the river and the dam was warned in time and were saved, but not their homes.

A railway trade unionist from the Confederation shows me on his mobile phone what a colleague's house looked like after a Russian attack. The inside is all smashed, although the walls are still standing. But the roof is completely gone. He tells me that the union is helping him to rebuild the house before winter arrives. And he shows me the figure of what they are collecting, which seems very low to me: €1250 euros. But that is only the cost of the material; the work is done by the comrade and others who are helping him to rebuild.

He also tells me that official aid doesn't arrive or arrives very late. In addition to the fact that little aid arrives, there is corruption in some of the authorities. And bureaucracy. A police chief in one neighbourhood rebuilt his house quickly while his neighbours have been waiting for months for aid.

Aid needed

During my visit to the Confederation, I was shown a room where different items are stored to be distributed as humanitarian aid: food, clothes, heaters. Some of these materials have arrived from Poland, brought by solidarity organisations or trade unions. Others have been bought in Kiev with money collected from international aid. I also see in another room several large rolls of plastic: they are to put over broken windows if they can't be reglazed. I am thinking about winter again. Without covering the windows, there is no way to live.

Vasyl Andreyev, the leader of the FPU's construction branch, tells me that the trade unions can offer technical help to rebuild the damaged infrastructure. The shelling has a knock-on effect on all services: electricity, water, heating, rubbish collection, etc. Repairing these services is key to making it through the winter. And there is not enough help or workers dedicated to the job.

In reply, I tell them that I don't have any money, that I don't know if I can get any, that I'm only on a fact-finding visit. I tell them that it is necessary that some important trade union in Western Europe, or some who want to work together, take responsibility for making a submission to institutions in their countries, to manage the project and to be in permanent contact to solve the problems that may arise. They understand perfectly.

Winter is already approaching with the first autumn rains. I am from the South. I have never experienced winter in a country so far north in Europe, but I imagine that the temperature plummets. If in Western Europe people are preparing and buying firewood, in Ukraine the lack of gas, oil or the breakdown of the nuclear power plant could be as deadly as the war itself.

Humanitarian aid must come by all possible means and in greater quantity and quality. The valuable convoys of trade unions and organisations in solidarity with Ukraine will be even more valuable if they can be realised. But the big trade unions must become more involved in raising financial support, collecting money from the membership as well as from the institutions.

A key role for unions

At the moment there is no official funding other than for humanitarian aid. I have asked in Catalonia and all the technical people and experts tell me the same thing. Post-war reconstruction projects are being discussed at the top, but there is still nothing official. It's possible that the governments are talking about which parts and companies will be the responsibility of each country.

But trade unions must be involved in the management of the aid that is provided on behalf of the whole society. We cannot leave all this money in the hands of the bureaucracy of the states or the European Union alone. The management of trade unions and direct aid has proved to be as or more effective than other channels. And, above all, with far less corruption.

Getting into the management of official humanitarian aid offered by municipalities, regional governments, national governments or European institutions is a battle of paperwork, proposal writing, overcoming bureaucratic hurdles... but it is worth doing. It is also our money as part of society. And we know that we can put that money to good use, that it will go as directly as possible to working people.

Shouldn't we try to use some of these public funds for humanitarian aid through trade unions? In my opinion, this is part of the struggle for Ukraine and to resist Russian aggression. In view of the coming winter, it is very important...and urgent.