Ukraine workers mobilize to
defend wages, jobs, sovereignty

BY NAOMI CRAINE  The Militant  (USA) March 16, 2015
Miners and airport workers in Ukraine are fighting to defend their jobs and against the rapid erosion of living conditions amid a deepening capitalist economic crisis. A cease-fire between Moscow-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces is, for the moment, giving some respite to working people from a war that has cost some 6,000 lives. In the separatist-held areas miners and others continue to try to build unions and defend themselves, despite threats and obstacles from pro-boss “people’s republic” officials.

A March 4 explosion in the Zasyadko mine in the separatist-held city of Donetsk left several miners dead and dozens more missing and feared dead. In 2007 a methane explosion at the mine killed more than 100.

The Ukrainian government dispatched rescue workers to the scene, but they were refused access by the separatists.

Hundreds of miners from across the country demonstrated in Kiev March 2, as parliament debated the national budget. Workers are demanding financing to keep state-owned mines open and operating, as well as payment of back wages. The same day miners went on strike at two mines in the western region of Lviv, demanding funding for the mines.

“Today miners can’t feed their families and don’t know if they’ll be working tomorrow,” Mykhailo Volynets, chair of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine (NPGU), told the Kiev rally, as miners banged their hardhats on the wall and pavement. Miners are holding meetings and protests across Ukraine.

Members of the Independent Trade Union of Aviators at Boryspil International Airport in Kiev carried out their first legal strike Feb. 25-28. More than 100 workers took part in the action demanding the reinstatement of illegally fired workers, the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine reported.

Workers at Boryspil have been resisting attempts to “privatize” operations and eliminate their jobs ever since the government of former President Viktor Yanukovych appointed an airport director previously known for selling off the Odessa airport.

“The Maidan disrupted the existing schemes,” said a Feb. 23 article in Ukrainian Week magazine, referring to the mass popular protests that overthrew the pro-Moscow Yanukovych government a year ago, reasserting Ukrainian sovereignty. Now Yevhen Dykhne, a new airport director, is pushing to “optimize” operations by outsourcing ground crews and passenger service to contractors that are direct or indirect subsidiaries of Ukraine International Airlines. The union says this could mean up to 700 job cuts.

Workers pay for capitalist crisis
These fights take place as workers are bearing the brunt of a spiraling economic crisis. Ukraine’s national currency, the hryvnia, plummeted to a new low of 34 to the dollar Feb. 26, boosting soaring inflation and eating into workers’ already insufficient wages and pensions.

As part of “reforms” demanded by the International Monetary Fund, Washington, Berlin and other imperialist powers in exchange for loans, the government raised domestic natural gas prices 50 percent in 2014, and plans an additional 40 percent increase this year. As part of the new budget, parliament decided March 2 to cut workers’ pensions by 15 percent.

Less than a week after Yanukovych fled, Russian troops on Feb. 28, 2014, occupied the Crimean Peninsula, and within weeks Moscow annexed it. Opponents of Russian domination, including the Crimean Tatar people, have faced bannings, denial of the right to meet and protest, and other attacks in the year since.

Boris Nemtsov, one of the main bourgeois politicians opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin, was assassinated Feb. 27 in a drive-by shooting in Moscow. His supporters say he was preparing a report on Moscow’s responsibility for the war in eastern Ukraine, with evidence showing Russian soldiers are fighting there. Tens of thousands rallied in Moscow March 1, turning a planned anti-war protest into a vigil for Nemtsov. Many walked past the Kremlin carrying signs reading, “I am not afraid.”

During the final days of February the separatist forces and Ukrainian army and volunteer units began pulling back their heavy artillery, as a cease-fire originally declared for Feb. 15 largely took effect.

A Feb. 24 interview with Mykola Koziuberda, leader of the NPGU at the Nikanor Nova mine of the Luhansk Coal Association, describes some of the challenges workers in the separatist-held areas in eastern Ukraine are facing. The interview was translated by the U.K.-based Ukraine Solidarity Campaign.

“Nikanor Nova mine is one of a very few belonging to the Luhansk Coal Association which hasn’t stopped working and has suffered practically no damage from the war,” Koziuberda said. Nevertheless, since late July some 1,200 of the 1,500 workers at the mine have been idled and are not getting paid.

The union, officially registered at the mine since 2000, had 600 members at its peak. “We experienced heavy repression from the mine management over the years,” Koziuberda said, including bosses bribing workers to quit the union. By the summer of 2014 membership had declined to 220.

Asked about correspondence that shows officials of the self-styled Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) are refusing to recognize the Independent Union of Miners, which some “left” publications have claimed is a fraud, Koziuberda said, “The document is genuine. Moreover, I have personal experience of the leaders of the LNR not even wanting to hear anything about a social dialogue with independent trade unions.”

Koziuberda said he was forced to leave Luhansk because of death threats “linked directly to my activity” in the union.