Tamar Barisashvili, Georgian language teacher and ESFTUG member, in the classroom. Credit: Lela Mepharishvili
In a precedent-setting move, the union representing teachers in Georgia signed a pact with the education ministry last month, signaling the new government’s willingness to partner with teachers—although unions in other sectors, including the railways and postal sector remain under attack. Unions in Georgia have struggled for their right to organize for more than a decade now, including under former president Mikheil Saakashvili.
“The decision of the Minister of Education and Science to sign the sectoral agreement shows clearly how democratic processes are developing and the democratic management in the education sector is being established,” said the president of the ESFTUG education union, Maia Kobakhidze, representing teachers.
Committing the ministry to work in partnership with the ESFTUG, the agreement sets a path for cooperation on laws and regulations affecting teachers, collective agreements with the union regarding teachers’ compensation, work conditions and benefits, as well as any new education initiatives.
The agreement reverses more than a decade of an anti-union campaign by the former administration, as a result of which the country’s labor federation, GTUC, lost more than 100,000 members, and the teachers’ union came close to collapse.
In recognition of the significance of the agreement, the signing ceremony in Tblisi on March 16, 2017, by ESFTUG’s Kobakhidze and Education Minister Aleksandre Jejelava was widely covered by media, and gathered together 300 guests. Attendees included representatives of the teachers, ministry officials, members of the diplomatic corps, including the U.S. Embassy, the International Labor Organization (ILO), the global union federation Education International (EI) and several nongovernmental organizations.
Jejelava thanked ESFTUG during his speech for giving his ministry the opportunity to work with the union to create better conditions for teachers and defend their rights, so they may better serve Georgia’s children.
The Solidarity Center has partnered with Georgian trade unions for almost two decades, providing programs that support legislative research and training in defense of worker and union rights, promote activities designed to increase union integration and coordination, help unions represent their members and reach out to unorganized workers, and educate workers about principles of democratic trade unionism.
Some 350 workers at the Georgia chemical company Rustavi Azot recently were dismissed without notice or compensation and nearly 2,000 more threatened with firing unless they accept new, short-term contracts. The actions by the company, which produces mineral fertilizers, ammonia, sodium cyanide and nitric acid, generated protests in Rustavi and Tbilisi, garnered international support and prompted local media speculation about potentially questionable business dealings by the company’s former owner, Bank of Georgia.
The workers did not receive notice or access to union representation before being fired in January. Instead, they learned they had been dismissed when their passes failed to grant them access to the plant. Workers protesting their dismissals on February 2 suffered broken ribs and other injuries after they were violently removed from the company building by police.
Workers still employed at the plant say they were confronted with new contracts and threatened by their employer with firing if they refused to sign, and denied union representation and legal consultation. They say their future with the company is now uncertain.
Solidarity Center partner Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) is leading a legal challenge on behalf of dismissed workers, asserting that the firings violate Georgia’s labor code and the employer’s collective bargaining agreement with the Trade Union of Metallurgy, Mining and Chemical Industry Workers of Georgia (TUMMCIWG), a GTUC affiliate. With Solidarity Center assistance, the GTUC is preparing lawsuits against the company, demanding reinstatement or the compensation to which workers are entitled.
Workers from multiple unions, including representatives from IndustriAll affiliates in Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan joined members of TUMMCIWG and the GTUC for a global solidarity rally this week in Rustavi, presenting to fired workers letters of support from trade unions in Moldova, Russia and Ukraine.
Some Georgia media outlets are questioning how Rustavi Azot changed hands last September through a secretive auction shortly after receiving a $155 million loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
Rustavi Azot, located 14 miles south from Tbilisi, generated 84 percent of its sales last year from exports, including to some European Union countries.
Whether building a towering office building in downtown Zimbabwe, sewing garments in a Bangladesh factory or digging for phosphate in Mexico mines, the world’s unsung working people demonstrate, time and again, the dignity of work. Here, we celebrate some of the amazing women and men we partnered with in 2015, and showcase their efforts to improve their lives and livelihoods and tip the scales toward greater equality in their countries.
As Mervat Jumhawi, a former garment worker and union organizer working with the Solidarity Center in Jordan, described her own experience: “When I became member of the union, I became stronger.”
Irakli Petriashvili, president of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation, a Solidarity Center partner, was elected president of the Pan-European Regional Council (PERC) this week in Brussels, Belgium.
Describing the persistence of Georgian union members in championing worker rights during a politically difficult time over the past 10 years, Petriashvili said only strong unity “could stand the pressure of the radical anti-union regime.” Georgian union members’ “uncompromised persistence and firmness encouraged by the (European Trade Union Confederation) ETUC’s and PERC’s leaders’ and its affiliates’ coordinated and unwavering support,” he said.
“This makes me fully confident that once we could win this battle in Georgia, the victory can be repeated in any country and also internationally.”
More than 120 participants from around Europe took part in the third general assembly of PERC, an organization of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). PERC members also expanded the leadership team, a move Petriashvili supported.
“It is important that existing union diversity is turned into our advantage for deepening democratic development of labor movements across the region,” he said. “For this purpose, it will be a right decision to have more vice-presidents of the PERC as this will increase the interest and the level of involvement of different unions into PERC’s matters.”
Petriashvili was elected president of the GTUC in 2005 and began the democratization of the union movement. Before leading the GTUC, he headed up a union at the Tbilisi-based energy distribution company Telasi. Under his leadership, the union became a more vocal advocate for its members’ interests, and he even led a groundbreaking hunger strike that resulted in a contract that bolstered worker rights. In 1999, Petriashvili attended a course for young trade unionists, organized jointly by the Solidarity Center, the AFL-CIO and the International Labor Organization.
Earlier this year, the Solidarity Center launched a new project in Georgia focused on improving worker occupational safety and health and training workers in negotiating contracts and broadening unions’ ability to promote effective
A new Solidarity Center project in Georgia to strengthen respect for worker rights through union, government and employer engagement will ensure the voice of workers is “a critical part of policymaking” so that “the benefits of economic growth are shared,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau.
The Georgian Minister of Labor, U.S. and Georgian government officials, diplomats, nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives and leaders of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) launched the three-year venture, Strengthening Worker Organizations in Georgia, on March 4 in Tbilisi, the country’s capital. The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and will be implemented by the Solidarity Center in cooperation with the GTUC.
The project focuses on improving worker occupational safety and health. Some 273 workers have been killed on the job in the past six years, and many more seriously injured, likely draining Georgia’s ability to boost its stagnant gross domestic product (GDP). Key elements of the project include increasing GTUC job safety and health inspectors and expanding the number of joint union-management occupational safety and health committees.
In addition, the project involves training workers in negotiating contracts and broadening unions’ ability to promote effective labor law enforcement.
Speaking at the launch, GTUC President Irakli Petriashvili said, “It is very important that the international community keep an eye on any violations aimed at employees.”
“Ultimately, the project, which will build on recent improvements in Georgian labor law, will lead to greater compliance with national labor law and internationally recognized norms and standards,” including the right to form unions, says Stanislaw Cieniuch, Solidarity Center Georgia program director. “Over time, these and other measures will contribute to building a modern, cooperative system of labor-management relations.”
The city’s metro transportation hub, the site of the launch event, was chosen because it is a workplace “where workers and employers have come together in a commitment to decent, safe and productive employment—through collective bargaining,” says Bader-Blau.