The Role of Trade Unions in Ukraine

Colin Turbett reports on how Ukranian trade unions believe solidarity can help them build their potential to support the country’s workers during and after the war.

The author with Ivanna Khrapko and Yuri Pizhuk of the State Employees Union in front of the Motherland Statue in Kyiv. The flag is at half mast in tribute to the deaths of 18 people that occured the previous day in the city of Chernihiv.

I recently visited Kharkiv in north-eastern Ukraine, the country’s second-largest city and a centre of metallurgical and defence manufacturing going back to Soviet times. When there I met with trade unionists and community activists who are intent on building a better Ukraine, free of the corruption endemic since the break-up of the USSR over thirty years ago. Whilst successive governments have turned to neoliberalism as an answer to Ukraine’s economic problems, the hope of the people I met is that a different country might emerge from the ruins of war. That hope is a long shot: the price of the arms supplies from the West that are their only hope of freedom from Russian domination, is likely to be deeper marketisation of their troubled economy, and everlasting debt repayment.

These problems and issues are now being discussed between trade unionists in the UK and in Ukraine. The idea of calling for an abstract peace on the basis that this is a “proxy” war that we should not take sides in (or even taking the view that “our enemy’s enemy is our friend” and supporting Russia), and consequent rebuttal of Ukraine’s pleas for aid, is being rejected by a majority within the movement. This is witnessed at recent STUC and TUC congresses, and trade union conferences, and has opened up dialogue.

Kharkiv is itself interesting: a Russian speaking city whose population were expected by the Russian invaders to welcome them as liberators from a mythical Nazi domination. That never happened and after fierce popular resistance around and within the city, Russian forces were forced back to their border 30 kilometres away in April 2022. However, their attacks have increased again in intensity in recent months and the city is again under siege from missiles fired from within Russia, some targeted and some not. Such terror tactics have resulted in fear and anxiety, and again people are leaving for safer areas. The people I met seem determined to stay for as long as possible, and all support the resistance of their army as they genuinely fear the alternative of Russian occupation. According to Medvedev, the former Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, whose outspoken media comments are thought to echo Putin’s thoughts, Kharkiv is one of the regions of Ukraine that Russia believes to be historically its own, regardless of the views of its people. The political leadership of the region, who are said to enjoy popular support, have worked hard to protect the population and maintain services, despite the total absence of air defence. Public transport is largely free and some of the social services I saw demonstrate innovation that we could learn from here in Scotland.

Ukraine’s trade union movement needs some brief explanation: the largest trade union federation is the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU), the reconstructed successors to the trade union federation that existed in USSR times. At the time of Ukraine’s formation as an independent nation it had 25 million members, but that number had reduced to 4.5 million by 2021. Reasons for this reflect creeping neoliberalism, populist anti-trade union rhetoric, decline in industrial production, and the growth of ‘free’ trade unions. Under the Soviet system the trade unions were responsible for welfare, leisure and general support for workers, and not for collective bargaining and the defence of workers’ interests. The transition to the type of trade unionism we know in the UK has not been easy, particularly when the social benefits and guarantees enjoyed by workers in the USSR were all removed with its fall in 1991. The USSR origins of the FPU are also an important factor in that it inherited a very considerable property portfolio, including palatial trade union offices, holiday centres and sanitoriums, which are all the subject of ongoing litigation as the government seeks ownership. This throws up issues about the repair needed to properties damaged by the war. The massive city centre Palace of Labour in Kharkiv was very badly damaged by Russian missiles in 2022 and most of it still lies in ruins.

The other large trade union grouping is the KPVU (Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine) whose origins lie in the free trade union movement that began in the final USSR years; emulating others in Eastern Europe, they were established with the clear intent of fighting in the interests of workers. They have fewer members than the FPU but incorporate some strong trade unions in particular industries like coal mining and, in Kharkiv, the defence industry. These two federations represent most unionised workers in Ukraine and come together in the JRB (Joint Representative Body) that negotiates with government and employers at national level. Both are also represented on the principal international and European trade union organisations: the ITUC and ETUC.

I met with representatives of both the FPU and KPVU and found both helpful and keen to further relations with trade unions and solidarity organisations here. Their activities are curtailed by a series of emergency decrees that were passed by Ukraine’s parliament at the start of the war. These outlaw the right to strike and withdraw labour, and curtail certain other freedoms that could benefit Russia. This should be no surprise given the infiltration of Russian covert forces at the start of the war whose aim was to spread disinformation and even assassinate the Ukrainian President. Leading Ukrainian politicians also argue that at a time of war and the need to focus on the production of arms, there is no money to spare to address social protection and labour rights issues. This argument is not without foundation – the war has already cost the economy hundreds of billions of pounds. As in the UK during the Second World War, where similar laws were operative, this makes trade union organisation problematic but seems to be generally accepted as a necessity at this time. The other side of that, however, is that businesses (including defence industries abroad) have profited from the war and the absence of labour rights has pushed forward the neoliberal agenda in Ukraine itself.

Trade unions still have a role in Ukraine and have risen to the challenge of supporting their members in a time of war. I saw evidence of this, and the problems they encounter, in Kharkiv. The KPVU Kharkiv Region convenor, Igor Prihodko, took me to his own workplace – or what was left of it. The sports academy he heads was totally destroyed in a multiple missile attack two weeks previously. Quite why is a mystery as it had no military purpose. Fortunately, the students were dispersed at the start of the war and are being taught online and in other centres that are safer. His main concern was in ensuring that their work can continue and that the promising athletes they were teaching can be kept together in training and study even though dispersed across Europe. His own son, a young footballer, is now abroad. Igor took me to other workplaces organised be other KPVU affiliates, including industrial settings. One was the Kharkiv Coking plant, on a sprawling site outside the city and in private ownership. Most of its 350 production workers, men and women, were laid off at the start of the war despite its important contribution to the city’s metallurgical manufacturing. The supply of coking coal from the Donbas dried up and although supplies from Poland were a possibility, there is simply not enough electricity available to keep the process going on the 24/7 basis required. The main concern of unions and management, I was told, is the welfare of the laid-off staff.

Igor’s members are busy in the area’s defence plants where health and safety and work conditions are the main considerations for the union. Although there is unity of purpose in support of the ability of the country to effectively defend itself, Igor was clear to me that the interests of workers do not always coincide with those of their managers, and negotiation over industrial issues is still required. Due to security issues, it was not possible to visit any defence plant.

I also met with Ivanna Khrapko, an official of the State Employees Union (SEU) which is affiliated to the FPU. She introduced me to city officials and trade union representatives from the education and social work unions. Again, the main concern was maintaining work under wartime conditions where pressure is great and resources scant. Regular power cuts (particularly after the Russians knocked out the main power supply to the city shortly before my visit) are highly disruptive to work and home life. Large capacity generators and powerbanks are in short supply as there are not funds to purchase them in the quantities needed. Everywhere I was asked if we in Scotland could help with that problem.

Ivanna is the chair of the FPU’s national youth committee, and also has an education and international relations role in the SEU. She uses all of these to promote training and education for members and representatives, and visits Kharkiv regularly from her base in Kyiv. She takes very seriously her role to build for the future, and imbue young people with a trade union consciousness and knowledge about the role they will play once the war is over. She is young, enthusiastic and keen to learn from comrades across the world. Like Igor from the KPVU, she is fully behind the country’s defence and committed to peace on terms that are just and give no concessions to Russian aggression.

I found this to be the view of all the people I met in Kharkiv despite the worry that lies not far beneath their good humour and resilience. Their lives are set against the regular wail of air raid sirens, and missiles that can explode anywhere at any time. They all want to lead a normal life but count on our support to make this a possibility. The leader of the SEU, Yuri Pizhuk, gave me a message for Scots: value your own lives and those you love, but also help save the lives of his people by continuing and increasing aid to Ukraine – including the arms needed to do just that.

Colin Turbett is a lifelong trade unionist and socialist who spent 40 years as a social worker in the West of Scotland. He writes about social work matters and 20th century social history.