Alone among former Soviet Union member nations, only Georgia has seen its ex-official union federation democratically reform and emerge as the biggest civil society voice in the country. However, its efforts to promote worker rights and democracy have apparently rubbed the Georgian government the wrong way.
||Maia Kobakhidze was elected president of ESFTUG in 2010. Photo courtesy of Maia Kobakhidze
Since 2008, the Georgian government has waged a wholesale and vicious attack against the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) and many of its affiliates, including the largest union, the Educators and Sciences Free Trade Union of Georgia (ESFTUG). In the public sector (e.g., railways, hospitals and schools), the government has blocked dues deductions from union members to the unions, starving the organizations of funds. The government also has installed police watchdogs in schools and intimidated union representatives and teachers, all while promoting a fake, government-controlled union and encouraging or threatening members of the legitimate union to disaffiliate.
This attack follows a wholesale gutting of the Labor Code in 2006. Meant to attract investment, the new code leaves workers and trade unionists with few rights on the job in law or in practice. A compliant judiciary, viewed generally to issue rulings to support government policy, has left workers without effective recourse.
In response to this troubling situation, the AFL-CIO filed a petition with the U.S. Trade Representative to remove trade benefits for Georgia. The AFL-CIO's Jeff Vogt and the American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) Shannon Lederer were in Georgia recently and saw the intimidation and repression firsthand.
From Georgia, Lederer and Vogt reported:
In Tbilisi, our meetings were disrupted when 22 Soviet-era board members who oppose the new union president, Maia Kobakhidze, occupied the first floor of the building. Notably, the leader of this faction — Ekaterine (Eka) Cherkezishvili — was the government’s hand-picked choice to lead the union. These 22 board members came from across the country, evidence of a well-organized and well-financed plan to attack the union. Of course, pro-government media were on hand to watch the proceedings. The GTUC sent over three security guards, who blocked the stairs to keep the women from seizing the building. The shouting and intimidation continued for several hours, and ended only after GTUC President Irakli Petriashvili appeared on the scene.
One of the 22 yelled, “I don't care who the president is, I just want to get paid!" Because the Georgian government has blocked dues deductions since May, these people have been without their long-accustomed salaries. They were assured that if the Education Ministry-supported candidate, Cherkezishvili, became president, their money would begin flowing again. According to the union constitution, however, she does not meet the criteria to stand as president. Thus, the women came to demand changes to the constitution and facilitate what would, in practice, be a government takeover of the union.
This development follows closely on the heels of a series of escalating threats by Education Ministry officials to the democratically elected ESFTUG president, Kobakhidze (elected last year at an AFT- and Education International-observed congress). She told us that she had been called to a meeting and told that she would receive a cushy job at the ministry if she agreed to step down and allow the state-supported candidate to lead the union. When she rejected this offer, she was told that they know how to play nice and they know how to play rough. By phone over the weekend, she was reminded of a prominent recent case in which a young man was murdered by the police, who were freed after serving little time in prison.
Over two days, the AFL-CIO, the Solidarity Center, and AFT met with both the U.S. and E.U. embassies. The diplomats are well aware of the threats and are following the situation closely. They have demonstrated strong support for the new leader of the ESFTUG through both public and private efforts. They encouraged us to continue to call as much attention to the situation as possible and to share any evidence we can of intimidation and interference in independent union affairs.
The situation is highly volatile, and the union staff feel very much under siege. We have nonetheless had a number of constructive meetings to strategize ways to strengthen the reformed portions of the union, regain the confidence of members, and re-establish a revenue flow.
Amazing people work for this union, and they remain committed in the face of daunting challenges. They are quite an inspiration.
The court "decides" on March 17 whether Kobakhidze legitimately holds her position as president of the ESFTUG.