“There are differences between east and west Ukraine,” Samoilov Juriy Petrovych, the leader of the Independent Trade Union of Miners in Krivii Rig, an iron-ore mining center some 85 miles southwest of Dnepropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine, told the Militant in the union’s office here March 26. “For example, there are some 200 newspapers in this region, but only 10 or 15 are in Ukrainian. The others are all filled with Russian government propaganda calling the Maidan protesters in Kiev fascist, claiming they are a threat to Russian-speaking people in the east.”
“Here in the east we have closer ties to Russia,” he said. “Many of us have relatives in Russia and have long considered Russians as our brothers. But today the Russian government is threatening an invasion of Ukraine, and the majority of workers here agree that we will do our best to defend our country.”
“We are organizing workers into self-defense units to prepare as best we can,” said Bondar Vitalievych, another union leader. “We began a couple months ago so workers could defend themselves against gangs of thugs organized by the mine bosses.”
“We put out a statement saying we needed to organize to stop separatist manifestations in Ukraine,” Vitalievych said. “Pro-Moscow thugs came out, including some armed snipers, to confront our Maidan demonstration here Feb. 24, but hundreds of workers organized in our self-defense units prevented them from killing anyone.”
“We put out a flyer calling on workers to come to the city council meeting the next day to demand the local government act on the will of the people or resign,” continued Vitalievych, pointing to a photo on the wall of hundreds of miners and others voting at the meeting. Members of the city council, he said, were supporters of former pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, who had fled the country two days earlier.
The unionists are determined to step up efforts to organize workers and others prepared to defend Ukraine’s national sovereignty, come what may.
The miners organized a tour for Militant correspondents of the EVRAZ iron-ore mine. The mine is run by Russian capitalists who own ore and coal mines, processing plants and steel mills in Ukraine, Russia, Canada, South Africa and the U.S.
“This mine is extremely dangerous,” Vitalievych said. “Two years ago we had 23 ‘accidents,’ and the government was pressured to come and carry out some inspections.
“Our union fights for safer working conditions, as well as to ensure the company and government provide health care and pensions when you leave the job,” he said.
“Three hundred fifty women work underground in the mine,” said Elena Maslova, a 15-year veteran in the mine and the local’s director for gender equality. “There are some 40 positions that women are barred from. Most work in pump stations, on conveyors and in the explosives warehouse. Among underground miners, 10 percent are women.
“When we demanded improvements in pay and working conditions for women, the company told us if we kept complaining they would just replace us with men,” she said. “So they hired a man and put him in a position usually filled by women, at the pay women get. But he refused to stay on the job.”
“The existence of our independent union is important,” she said. “The old unions, dating back to before the Soviet Union collapsed, just parrot what the government and the bosses say.”
“The official unions, and the educational system in the country, are only good at preparing future slaves for industry,” Vitalievych said. “We’ve got to involve the younger workers, the younger miners.”
The Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine (NGPU) was born out of strikes, protests and massive marches in 1989-91, which were at the center of political ferment that helped prepare the way for an independent Ukraine. Miners coupled demands for higher pay, better working conditions and the right to strike with political demands, including the end to Russian domination.
In October 1990 members of union strike committees across the country met in Donetsk and established the new, independent miners union. The Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, which the NGPU is part of, was “created literally in the tent camps of the working-class people,” the federation explains on its website.
Coal production crisis hits workers
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the coal industry in Ukraine has taken big blows. The number of mines has tumbled from over 300 to 143. Forty-three of the more productive mines have been privatized. One company, DTEK, owned by a syndicate run by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest capitalist, accounts for almost half of the country’s coal production.
Thousands of miners were thrown out of work in the transition, leading to widespread unemployment in coal regions in the east and west of the country.
Explosions, roof falls and silicosis lung disease take a heavy toll on miners. Mines in Ukraine, along with those in China, are the most dangerous in the world.
Since the 2008 worldwide financial crisis, sagging demand and falling prices for coal have hit the industry hard in Ukraine. The government closed nearly 20 percent of state-owned mines and cut production in the others. Akhmetov said DTEK plans to both raise production and “seriously decrease the number of employees,” industry journal Coal Age reported in December.
Miners in the U.S. are facing similar assaults, Militant correspondent Frank Forrestal, a former coal miner in western Pennsylvania, told the Ukrainian miners. “Coal bosses have closed less profitable mines in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where the union has had a base, and opened nonunion ones in the West. At the same time working conditions have gotten worse as bosses cut corners to defend their profits.
“Forty years ago there was a big social movement in the coal fields to enforce safer conditions to lower the prevalence of black lung that strengthened the union,” Forrestal said. “But today black lung is coming back.”
“The more we talk,” said Elena Maslova, “the more I’m reminded of something we used to think about — the need for all proletarians of the world to unite.”
Ukrainians answer Moscow provocations in east, south:
Ukraine rulers, IMF foist debt burden on workers
Cuba’s aid to victims of Ukraine nuclear disaster ‘is unparalleled’
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home