Russian trade unionist Valentin Urusov won the 2013 Svensson Prize for Trade Union Rights. Credit: Russian Confederation of Labor
Valentin Urusov, the Russian electrician and trade unionist unjustly imprisoned for years in a Siberian penal colony, received the international Arthur Svensson Prize for Trade Union Rights in 2013. Urusov led the trade union Profsvoboda at Alrosa, the world’s second largest diamond mining company, based in the northern Sakha province of Russia.
Urusov, who was released from prison in March—after he was nominated for the prize—was jailed in 2008 for allegedly possessing narcotics. However, his arrest coincided suspiciously with preparations for a protest rally by workers at the state-owned Alrosa—a rally which Urusov helped organize. He was sentenced to six years in a penal colony.
In awarding the prize, given by the Norwegian trade union movement, committee chairman Lief Sande said “Urusov has become symbolic of the struggle for workers’ rights and freedom of association in Russia.”
Further, the award committee noted its concern about the workers’ rights situation in Russia, writing, “Freedom of association and the right to strike have long been under pressure, and “it may appear that conditions are deteriorating further.”
The global union, IndustriAll, a strong voice among unions leading the fight for Urusov’s release, congratulated Urusov, calling him a “heroic Russian trade unionist.”
The prize is named for the former leader of the Norwegian Union of Chemical Industry Workers, Arthur Svensson, who was especially engaged in international solidarity.
Valentin Urusov was detained prior to the start of a rally he was organizing. Credit: CSID
Trade unionist Valentin Urusov is proof that in Russia, it’s still possible to be imprisoned in the 21st century equivalent of the gulag for standing up for worker rights on the job. An electrical fitter at an ore-processing mill owned by the diamond mining company Alrosa, Urusov has spent more than four years of a six-year term in a penal colony in Yakutia in far northern Russia.
Described by friends as an intelligent and persuasive leader, Urusov in June 2008 formed the Profsvoboda trade union, affiliated with the Russian Metalworkers Trade Union. Profsvoboda sought to represent workers at the Udachny Pipe Diamond Mine, where workers toil in brutal cold in an open diamond pit just outside the Arctic circle.
Days after the union was founded, workers in one of the mine’s vehicle depots, dissatisfied with low pay and working conditions, announced a hunger strike. Alrosa refused to meet with them and instead unleashed a crackdown against trade union activists. When workers responded by preparing for a large-scale protest rally, Urusov was detained on suspicion of narcotics possession. The company’s deputy director for economic security was “coincidentally” present when the drugs were allegedly found on Urusov, enabling the deputy director to serve as an official witness, which is required under Russian law during police searches.
According to the Russian Confederation of Labor (KTR), which for years has engaged the international labor community in pressing for Urusov’s release, Urusov told his lawyer that the men who arrested him threatened to kill him if he refused to sign a document stating he possessed the drugs. They took him to the woods, and shots were fired near his head. He was beaten with batons and told he should get ready to die. Further, they demanded that Urusov confess that his union deputy had given the packet to him, but Urusov refused to give false testimony against his co-worker. After Urusov’s conviction, a higher court set aside the verdict, finding that there were serious procedural errors in the handling of his case and referred the case back for retrial. But in a retrial, the lower court did not change the verdict. In 2011, Urusov applied for parole and was denied. Urusov, who suffers from chronic kidney disease, remains in prison.
With Urusov behind bars, the KTR says Alrosa continued its campaign to destroy the union. Management representatives threatened union supporters and even those who had applied to join the union. By March 2009, the company fired the last 13 union activists. They appealed their dismissal in court, but lost. Those dismissed failed to find jobs because all enterprises in the city are linked to the Alrosa company.
The KTR filed Urusov’s case with the International Labor Organization (ILO) which in November issued a report requesting the Russian government indicate whether the allegation of anti-union persecution had been investigated. If not, the ILO recommended the government conduct an independent investigation. Russia’s Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights in January sent an appeal signed by journalists, human rights activists and other public figures to Russian President Vladimir Putin urging the government follow the ILO recommendations. A recent Human Rights Watch report harshly criticized Russia’s use of laws to restrict civil society.
Russian trade union activists face many types of workplace harassment, sackings and beatings by company thugs. But this is the first time in recent years, trade union activity has been “punished” with a lengthy jail sentence.
This is an excerpt from the Global Labour Column by Anna Wolañska, international secretary of NSZZ “Solidarnoœæ” and a member of the governing Body of the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Like Russian politics, labor relations in Russia are rife with contradictions.
On the one hand, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin addressed the International Labor Conference in 2011 and marched with the trade unions in a 2012 May Day demonstration, portraying himself as a supporter of progressive labor legislation and the notion of social partnership. Russia has an established system of tripartism: no social issue can be decided on without being discussed by the country’s permanent tripartite commission….
On the other hand…the International Labor Organization (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association issued its report on a complaint from Russian and international trade unions. The complaint, filed with the ILO in 2011, is brimming with facts that paint a picture at odds with the official one: constantly increasing pressure on trade union activists, harassment and persecution, threats of physical violence, repressive rulings against trade union organizers by local courts, and a ban on distributing trade union leaflets and educational materials for workers. This is all happening in parallel with the destruction of the social welfare system in a country where wages are shamefully low for a developed European nation.
The complaint submitted to the ILO describes, among other cases, the story of independent trade union activist Valentin Urusov (born 1974). Trade unionists in Russia and around the world have been campaigning for his release for several years. His story is not only an example of determination and sacrifice, but also a vivid illustration of the true relations between capital and labor in today’s Russia, where the largest employers are colluding with corrupt government officials to purposefully and methodically destroy the seeds of the new trade union movement, while Kremlin officials speak about social partnership.
Continue reading the full article from the Global Labour Column by Anna Wolañska.