Trade Union and Democratic Left Conference in Kiev

The “New Trade Unions and the Democratic Left: Historical Roots and Ideological Landmarks” conference occurred November 2-3 in Kiev. The conference brought together around 200 trade unionists, activists and academics for the two day event, mostly from Ukraine and the former USSR. The organizers of the conference included the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU), the Russian Confederation of Labour (KTR), the Belorussian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), the Confederation of Trade Unions of Georgia (KPG), the social critique magazine Spilne (Спiльне), the Global Labour Institute/the Praxis Centre, the International Memorial and the workshop “Russian Left in History and in Modern Times”.

Despite the decisive role the workers movement played in the revolution of 1917, workers ‘democracy and activism were crushed by the civil war and the rise to power of the Stalinist bureaucracy during the 1920s. One of the most important ways in which the bureaucracy consolidated its power was transforming the soviet structures into transmission belts for their interests. These kinds of structures can be seen today in the trade unions left over from the USSR. One of these is the Federation of Ukrainian Trade Unions (FPU). While claiming 8 million members, the organism stands for worker’s interests only in words, displaying almost no militancy and using exclusively a strategy of negotiating with the bosses and government (which in the Ukraine are often one and the same person). With the restoration of capitalism, the leaders of the FPU have transformed themselves from serving the USSR bureaucracy to serving the interests of the oligarchs.

As a result the trade unions movement in the former USSR has had to function in extremely difficult conditions. Although the labour code offers some degree of protection, organizing in workplaces presents many challenges. Workers having their rights infringed upon will find no help in the corrupt legal system. Workers found to be organizing new unions will often be fired, illegally or not as it often makes no difference to the employer. These issues are not at all new to the trade union movement as history has shown that laws are only as valid as the force behind them. As one energy worker said “If you show up alone they tell you to get lost, if you convince ten people to come with you, they are forced to listen”.

The discussions at the conference covered a wide range of topics, both historical and current. In the former USSR, there are many workers that have drawn the conclusion that it is not possible to organize in the traditional sense. Demonstrating the need for novel organizing methods were representatives from organizing initiatives of agricultural workers (Moldova), home workers (Bulgaria) and street vendors (Ukraine).

A severe example of worker repression was the Zhanaozen massacre in Kazakhstan ( On December 16, 2011, striking oil workers for the KazMunaiGaz company were shot at by police, resulting in the deaths of more than 14 people, while other workers were arrested and remain in prison to this day. A documentary-debate session was held at the conference and an assembly was called for the next day at the Kazakhstan consulate in Kiev calling for the release of the workers.

The books presented at the conference included the publication of Leon Trotsky’s writings on the Ukraine entitled “Ukrainian Trotsky”. The book, presented by members of the Ukrainian group “Left Opposition”, is intended to combat the right-wing propaganda against the Bolsheviks and Trotsky as well as educate people in Marxist ideas. Trotsky was in fact, among the first to write about the Stalinist terror in the Ukraine, including “holodomer” - a famine caused by the economic policies of Stalin in 1932-33 which resulted in the death of millions of Ukranians - and to support Ukrainian self-determination against the regime. This book has already been presented in several cities across Ukraine (including the nationalist focal point of Lviv) and has reached the top-15 best seller list. This kind of publication can go a long way in rehabilitating the Bolsheviks and Marxism in post-soviet Ukraine.

Although the conference allowed for some interesting discussion, as one Bulgarian delegate pointed out towards the end, it featured relatively few interventions from workers themselves. Despite this, there were quite a few young Ukrainian left-activists present, which was encouraging for the building of the revolutionary movement in Ukraine in the future.

The working class in the former USSR has been dealt a hard blow by the restoration of capitalism. While many workers initially had faith in the bourgeois (oligarch) democracy, this system is being unmasked each day for what it is. The way out of their misery is through working class organization along with the left-movement leading towards overthrow of the capitalist system. While this organization is at its early stages, it will no doubt grow and clarify its ideas as the inability of capitalism to improve people’s lives becomes more apparent. The mosy important task is to show the workers that a real alternative is possible.

6 November 2013 Kiev