Trade Union Rights in Russia: Past and Present
15th World Congress of the International Industrial Relations Association 'The New World of Work, Employment and Organizations,' Sydney, Australia, August, 2009
6 Pages Posted: 27 Sep 2009
Date Written: August 1, 2009
Trade union rights have a considerably long history in Russia. First trade unions were organized as early as in the XIX century, but it was not earlier than 1906, when the first legislative steps in regard to trade union recognition were made. In the legislation there was a particular procedure established for trade union foundation and dissolution, and the field of trade union activity was delineated. From that time trade unions began to acquire more and more substantive political and ideological power.
During the first years of the Soviet rule there was an attempt made to introduce some alternatives to trade unions in the field of employees’ representation. But none of the alternative bodies had ever acquired such power as trade unions did. Trade unions managed to become rather powerful and were granted unique rights which current unions all over the world could hardly imagine. For example they had a full veto right towards any employer’s decision concerning termination of employment contracts, etc. But one of their most influential features was their legislative authority. For instance, during years 1918-1920 Soviet legislation granted them a power of being in charge of drafting labour regulations, setting pay rates and even of resolving labour disputes. This process had both merits and drawbacks. Such a wide power was not only the reason for their very specific influence in the Soviet political, ideological and social scene, but at the same time the main cause for them to begin losing their independence while developing a quasi-governmental nature.
This disproportionally substantive power leaded to the situation where for many years Soviet people perceived trade unions as that being more governmental institutions than bodies for protection labour rights of employees. In the course of time they began to serve more as a division of the Communist party of the USSR and were responsible not only for labour issues but for many side problems as well. Some of those problems should have been considered to be quite alien to an employment relationship. For example people could appeal to a trade union in case of some problems in their family or community life in search for some ideological and communal pressure on the person who cause the problems.
In this context it was absolutely no wonder that soviet employees had no right to strike. Such right wasn’t considered to be in line with the soviet ideology where workers and peasants were said to own all means of production themselves and that’s why it was said that there were no employers which were not workers themselves. In this situation strike would have been almost impossible since it would have been considered to be an action taken by workers against themselves. The senselessness of such action was one of the main arguments of the soviet ideology in the prohibition of strikes.
After the “perestroika” trade union movement experienced a short period of revival and renovation due to the dramatic decline in protection of employment rights. At that time the legislation in force was mostly Soviet and it was swiftly losing its relevance to the new situation at the Russian labour market and to the emerging liberal economy as a whole. Trade unions rights have been going through the same process. And that had a long lasting effect on the role and position of trade unions in Russia later on. It seems that like many people, they were a bit lost in that volatile environment of 1990-s and didn’t manage to save their influence both in working life and in the society.
During the 1990's and in the new millennium Russian trade union movement faced many problems which had become familiar to western trade unions in the course of the last decades. Russian economy was getting more and more diverse and both jobs themselves and employees’ perception of the employment relationship had lost their collective nature which was so common for average Soviet job or employee. People were learning to be more self-confident, to rely only on themselves instead of some third party, no matter whether it was a political party, a government or a trade union. They also had begun to see that they can get more if they invest in themselves and would take an opportunity to “sell” themselves personally on the labour market for better price and conditions instead of wasting time in collective procedures. Time and effort spent on developing oneself as a highly skilled professional and on building effective individual relationship with the employer began to pay off. Collective actions like strikes had become even less popular than during the Soviet era. Though at early 1990-s there Russia faced several waves of spurt in trade union activity including strikes, but most of them were spontaneous and didn’t bring about any considerable results.
Nowadays Russian trade unions try to find a new way of doing their job. They are in search of some specific motivation for people to become their members, of new fields of activity and of new categories and groups of employed people who could be interested in trade union protection, etc. This report is supposed to outline main problems in this field and some solutions found by Russian trade unions and the government during the last decade.
Keywords: trade union rights, unions, Russia, Russian labour law
JEL Classification: J5, J50, J51, J58, K31
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation