Ukrainian workers’ war on two fronts

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, social conflict inside the country was not put on hold: any illusion that its defence needs might produce a truce in the class struggle soon vanished.

If anything, embattled Ukraine’s war of resistance against Putin’s “special military operation” has intensified a pre-existing domestic confrontation.

This is due to what could be called a “special politico-legal operation” against worker and trade union rights, waged by the most militant neoliberals within the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky, with the apparent blessing of their chief.

It was launched in 2019 to entice foreign investors to Ukraine but stalled in 2020‒21 when the government’s initial attempt at labour market deregulation was repulsed by trade union protests.

The offensive has sped up since the invasion, but now under cover of martial law and in the name of the sacrifice needed to win the war against Russia.

According to Nataliia Lomonosova, of the Ukrainian thinktank Cedos, the talk in government circles is that the Ukrainian state “cannot afford welfare, employment benefits or protection of labour rights” because of the war.

It seems clear from this experience that, however it defeats or survives Putin, Ukraine’s neoliberal government and its friends in the European Union (EU) are determined to turn the country into a business-friendly playing field as soon as possible — starting the job while the war against Russia is yet to be won.

Proof was the July 20 adoption by the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) of two laws, one introducing zero-hour contracts, the other effectively eliminating union coverage of the 70% of workers employed in firms with fewer than 250 staff.

Law 5371 withdrawn...

Yet, for a brief period it looked as if the champions of this sweeping labour market deregulation might have suffered a setback.

Their biggest weapon — the ominously named Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts to Simplify the Regulation of Labour Relations in Small and Medium Enterprises and Reduce the Administrative Burden on Entrepreneurship bill — was withdrawn on July 9 from the Verkhovna Rada by its backers.

The chief of its backers is Halyna Tretiakova, drafter of the legislation. Head of the parliamentary committee for social policies and protection of veterans’ rights, libertarian right-winger Tretiakova is a member of Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, which enjoys a majority of 240 in the 450-seat parliament.

The withdrawn bill (Law 5371) had already passed its first reading on May 12 with 246 MPs in favour and had been submitted for amendment during the Verkhovna Rada’s June 13‒17 plenary session.

What then happened to produce its temporary withdrawal? Why did Servant of the People MPs get cold feet and drop their support after backing the bill in May?

…in response to protest

Part of the explanation was the mobilisation of international trade union opinion against anti-worker legislation which, from an Australian viewpoint, amounts to a nastier version of the John Howard government’s Work Choices law (see this analysis by Ukrainian labour lawyer Vitaliy Dudin).

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) were already condemning Law 5371 and other labour “reforms” in September 2021, as “simply not compatible with international labour standards”.

Such a statement would have produced a certain nervous reaction in a government anxious to show it wants to meet the criteria of the European Union (EU).

Within Ukraine, even though the two main trade union umbrellas — the Federation of Trade Unions (FPU) and the Confederation of Free Trade Unions (KFPU) — have been concerned not to appear as opponents of the very popular Zelensky, defeating the bill was a critical concern for them as organisations.

In a May 18 letter to MPs, the “common representative body” of Ukraine’s trade unions “warned the people's deputies of Ukraine against wrong decisions”, adding that these could “lead to discrimination against employees of small and medium-sized enterprises in labour rights and unwanted destabilisation of the situation, which is unacceptable in the conditions of martial law.”

The statement added this apparently unanswerable argument:

“In this regard, we once again draw your attention to the speech of the President of Ukraine V. Zelensky before the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine on May 3 of last year, in which the head of state urged the people's elected representatives: ‘Do not waste your time, and my time, and the time of the people of Ukraine on secondary initiatives and unimportant things’.”

Did that description fit labour market “reform” backed by senior figures of Zelensky’s own party?

Worker reaction

The reaction of Ukraine’s trade unionists to Law 5371 was more vigorous than that of their officials. A Facebook post after parliament’s first reading vote — which was translated by the British Ukraine Solidarity Campaign — said: “While we trade union activists, miners and metalworkers, teachers and doctors, are defending the freedom of Ukraine at the front, fat-arsed rats in the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine are stabbing us in the back.

“On May 12, 246 deputies voted in favour of the infamous Halyna Tretyakova Law 5371, which deprives most Ukrainian workers of all labour rights. We will never forget that and will not forgive anyone who votes for this project in the second reading.

“We demand its rejection. Death to our enemies!”

The role of workers and trade union activists in the defence of Ukraine during the critical first weeks of invasion is a story largely still to be told. However, enough is already known about their heroic action to explain that outraged Facebook post.

Worker defence at Kryvyï Rih

One example was published by the International Labour Network of Solidarity and Struggles on April 12. It explained the reaction to Putin’s invasion of workers at the ArcelorMittal plant in Kryvyï Rih, in eastern Ukraine, one of the largest steelworks in the world.

“Shortly after the Russian invasion on February 24, Russian troops advanced to within 10 kilometres of Kryvyï Rih. The company's senior managers, many of them expatriates, evacuated to Poland, leaving local managers, the union, and the workers behind.

“Mining operations were initially shut down for fear that miners would be trapped underground if the electricity supply was interrupted. Then, on March 3, workers carefully shut down the blast furnaces — a complicated process that takes seven to ten days to complete safely — dug anti-tank defences and built shelters.

“Despite air-raid sirens and bombs regularly landing near the site, union activists stayed behind to coordinate relief efforts for the military, territorial defence forces, hospitals, and workers, and to help evacuate women and children.

“About 1600 workers were incorporated into the territorial defence forces and had to urgently find protective equipment.

“By the end of March, Russian forces had been pushed back about 70 kilometres from the plant, and although the danger remained, the union argued strongly that production had to restart in order to maintain the city's economic base.

“On April 2, work began on restarting blast furnace No. 6. The furnace was restarted on April 9, and pig iron began to be produced and steel manufactured.

“The union demanded that the management return from exile to run the plant.”

This unending offensive

Such worker anger was never going to stop the labour market deregulators, especially as all public mobilisation is illegal under Ukraine’s martial law.

Probably stung by being forced to initially withdraw Law 5371, the country’s enemies of trade unionism took only a week to launch their next attack.

Dmytro Natalukha, head of the Verkhovna Rada’ś Committee on Economic Development, announced on July 17 that parliament would have to revisit the legal status of trade union property, which he believes should belong to the state and which is being used illegally.

The clear purpose of the threat to union property is to weaken union leadership resistance to Law 5371. In finally adopting the law, the parliament also added a small carrot — it would only apply for the duration of the war.

Zelensky must now decide whether to sign the Verkhovna Rada’s anti-worker legislation into law, as Ukraine’s radical and activist forces mobilise to remind him of the possible effect of its adoption on the morale of the men and women confronting the Russian invader.

Will they convince him that his colleagues’ crusade for radical labour market deregulation is, after all, “secondary” and “unimportant” compared to the war effort?