Ukrainian trade unions resilience and resistance

John Maloney, Beverly Laidlaw and Christopher Ford With Ukrainian TU Leaders

Amidst air-raid sirens Christopher Ford reports on a PCS-led delegation to the trade union congress in Kyiv

The Ukrainian trade union movement remains resilient and engaged in active resistance to Russian imperialist aggression and employers’ attacks on Ukrainian workers.   I saw this first hand when I visited Ukraine along with an official delegation of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), comprising John Moloney Assistant General Secretary and Beverley Laidlaw a member of the National Executive Committee in late November 2023.

There are two main union federations in Ukraine. The Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU) with four million members, was set up in 1990 as successor of the Soviet state unions, and the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) was set up in 1993 by independent unions established by workers during the collapse of the USSR.

The most inspiring aspect of the old FPU unions is their youth work – a generation of young activists in the Education union and the State Employees Union were organising initiatives such as Youth for Ukraine and the Union Lifeline.  It showed some hope for reinvigoration of FPU through their activities which have taken on a whole new dimension in the course of the war.

The tenth Congress of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) was in Kyiv on 15 November 2023.  This heard from delegates from across Ukraine and the affiliate trade unions, from the Free Trade Union of Railway Workers of Ukraine, the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine, the Free Trade Union of Education and Science of Ukraine, the Free Trade Union of Medical Workers of Ukraine.

The war was constantly present at the congress, an air raid siren sounded for a period and the congress began with a minute silence for members who have died including in the Mine Rescue Service, killed at the front, and 360 workers who died at their workplaces from Russian bombings.

Mykhailo Volynets, Chairman of the KVPU reported on the work of the union in the five years up until the all-out invasion on 24 February 2022.  This included an array of strikes, occupations, protests, and even hunger strikes by miners, medical workers, railway workers, and other workers for wages, jobs, defence of working conditions and labour rights.  What was absolutely clear is that Ukraine has a free and vibrant trade movement.

These activities were interrupted by the Russian aggression, which escalated from the war begun in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and part of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  Volynets reported that: “Despite all these huge losses, the country continues to work. Our trade union organizations also continue their activities. From the first days of the full-scale invasion, some of our trade unionists joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine and Territorial Defence units. Many of our leaders and activists are still defending us and our country at the front. We try to keep in touch with everyone and help them and their comrades-in-arms. Another part of our trade unionists helped evacuate the civilian population, and later almost all of them joined volunteer activities.”

It was noted that “Not a single trade union organization stood aside from helping our Defenders and the civilian population”. Also credited was the solidarity of trade unions internationally – including the work of Ukraine Solidarity Campaign.

The role of the Russian ‘trade unions’ who have actively supported the war on Ukraine came in for strong criticism, with solidarity KVPU had secured their suspension form the ITUC.  “There is no place for such organizations in the trade union family”, it was declared.  

Amongst the delegates who spoke was Dmitry Odintsov from the miners’ union. A wounded soldier, he made an emotional speech on the difficulties of everyday life at the front and the gratitude of the soldiers for their help. Most of those present, listening to Dmytro, could not hold back tears.

There were also reports of struggles on the home front.  The Free Medical Workers Union had won a successful campaign in Novovolynsk to defeat government neo-liberal reforms to close the hospital entirely.  Our delegation visited the children’s hospital in Kyiv, like others they face a choice from the government to accept a pay cut or job cut to keep the hospital running.  These workers have shown immense dedication to keeping a service running during this war despite efforts to deplete the service to create conditions for privatisation. 

Since the all-out invasion 194 medical facilities have been destroyed and 1474 badly damaged. Hospitals, clinics, maternity hospitals are frequently targeted by Russian bombing.  Our delegation visited the Childrens’ hospital in Kyiv where many parents will not leave children overnight due to fear of bombing.

The KVPU congress agreed on the need to build up their ranks, work with young people, strengthen information work and training, pay special attention to soldiers who will return from the front to ‘peaceful’ life and involve trade union veterans in work. We also donated £10,000 in medical aid for the front line.

Overall, trade unionists in Ukraine show a clear resilience, no matter what. They are dedicated to sustaining their movement and resisting the invasion as they said ‘Together we are strong! Together to Victory!’ As one veteran told us – we have no alternative but to fight.

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