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Ukraine: miners strike back against wage arrears

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, August 4, 2017

Miners in eastern Ukraine have responded to the build-up of wage arrears and steep inflation with strikes and underground protests.

At the Kapustin mine in Lugansk region, 54 miners staged an underground sit in, and forced from their employer, Lisichanskugol’, a promise to cough up wage arrears dating back two years in some cases.

The cash was promised for Wednesday (2 August). But when it came, it was 10% short of the total, and yesterday (3 August) miners again refused to start work.

Vladimir Ivanshin, head of the local Trade Union of Coal Industry Workers (the “official”, government-linked union) said that the 10% shortfall was a “breach of the first point of the agreement” made after the sit-in.

The dispute at Kapustin first erupted on 16 July. A group of face-workers and ancillary underground men refused to leave the pit. The action began “spontaneously” and without any trade union involvement, local media reported. Miners at the Novodruzheskaya pit, owned by the same company, came out in solidarity.

The sit-in at Kapustin lasted six days. All work stopped, except for water pumping and ventilation needed to keep the mine open. A representative of the occupation came up the pit to join talks with the employers and the energy ministry in Kyiv.

The company began by saying that face workers’ pay would be cut by one third for the strike days, and the ancillary workers would lose all their pay. Mikhail Volynets, president of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, called on the strikers “not to accept these conditions and to demand average pay for the time on strike. Also let us demand an agreement that the management agrees that no [striker] will be victimised.

“Let’s demand an increase in wages. It’s high time for one, given the fall in the value of the hryvna and constantly rising prices of municipal services and consumer goods.”

Pavel Lisyansky, a lawyer and community activist, told local journalists: “The miners’ wives are saying that their husbands take cutlets with marrow filling for their lunch. They are doing hard physical work, but families just don’t have the money for more substantial meals. They are going to work half-starving.” (More from Pavel here.)

The talks in Kyiv ended on 20 July with a commitment from the employers to pay up what was owed, and the occupation ended.

On 2 August miners at the Artem-1 pit at Krivoi Rog – which is owned by Arcelor Mittal, the multinational steel and mining conglomerate – also threatened strike action, demanding a pay increase to the hryvna equivalent of 1000 euros a month. They declared an industrial dispute under law, but management would not talk to workers’ representatives.

In a letter to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, the workforce denounced the company’s refusal to negotiate on a series of workplace issues and its breaches of labour laws. Local news media reported that there were 40 workers at the meeting that adopted the letter – watched by an equal number of police.

In May, miners and metal workers at Arcelor Mittal’s complex in Krivoi Rog demonstrated, demanding parity with their European colleagues. Management announced a new set of pay grades that they claimed would provide rises of between 20% and 80% – but fell far short of that in reality.

The background to these recent protests is a catastrophic situation in the Ukrainian coal industry, caused by the combination of economic crisis and military conflict.

Many of the most modern pits, and most of those producing anthracite coal required for most Ukrainian power stations, are in areas under separatist control. There are reports that many of them have stopped working.

The Ukrainian government, in accordance with budget tightening demanded by the International Monetary Fund, has produced a plan to close ten of the 49 working pits that remain on territory that it controls. Union officials estimate that 25,000 mining jobs, and even more in the supply chains, are in danger.

The picture may change slightly if power stations are adapted to take non-anthracite grades of coal. But the re-fit required is expensive, and power companies may opt e.g. for gas.

Meanwhile, production continues to slide. At Lisichanskugol’, the largest producer in Lugansk, production at the mines on the Ukrainian side of the front line was down 27% in the first five months of this year, compared to last year; at Pervomaiskugol’, another big employer, it was down 38%. National total production was 3% down.

Note. I compiled this from reports in local media, from activists and from the mining unions. In Russian, the fullest reports I found from Lisichansk are here, here, here, here and here, and from Krivoi Rog here and here. GL, 4 August 2017.

See also: ‘We need new ways of organising’: interview with Pavel Lisyansky

More about Ukraine on People & Nature

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