We were in Kryvyj Rih, an industrial city in central Ukraine, to investigate what the workers’ organisations are doing and how they have reacted to the conflict
Although Kryvyj Rih often remains on the sidelines of chronicles and stories about the war in Ukraine, the city of the Dnipro oblast (located about 400 kilometres southeast of the capital and just over 200 kilometres north of Kherson) can be considered in some ways one of the centres of the country. Not only for its “median” position between east and west, in the heart of the plain that develops around the Dnepr, but also and above all – from a symbolic point of view – because it was the birthplace of President Zelensky, on January 25 forty-five years ago. In the first weeks of the aggression, the advance of the Russian army stopped not far from here (occupying the Zaporizzja nuclear power plant and the now liberated city of Kherson).
Another of the reasons why Kryvyj Rih can be considered one of the centres of Ukraine is its industrial production. The local steel mill, owned by ArcelorMittal, is the largest in the country and, until the outbreak of war, made up 20% of steel production in the country, employing over 22,000 people (in 2019, moreover, Ukraine was the seventh largest producer of iron ore in the world).
The city counts over 50 plants and factories against a population of around 600,000 inhabitants. This, especially in recent years, has made it the scene of important labour strikes, protests, and claims: already in 2014 for example, in the heated context following the uprising of Euromaidan and the Russian annexation to Crimea, some mobilisations took place which were mainly read as “patriotic” but were in fact led by the trade unions (it should be noted that, following the crisis of that year, the value of the national currency had decreased by three times, effectively leading to a drop in the average real salary: in ArcelorMittal, it went from 5808 hryvnia [534 Euros] in 2013 to 10278 hryvnia [306 Euros] four years later). In May 2017, a wave of protests involved the main city plants, and factory employees managed to stop production, organise meetings and public initiatives, and even occupy institutional buildings, eventually winning an agreement for the gradual increase of wages. Finally, in 2020, a strike started on September 3 by a dozen people employed at the Oktiabrska mine saw in its moment of maximum participation over 400 protesters stay underground at a depth of 1.3 kilometres and the total blockage of production.
With the outbreak of war, the situation obviously changed. Many people fled, others went to the front (apparently around 2,000 ArcelorMittal employees). Others have taken refuge in Kryvyj Rih fleeing from occupied or conflict regions: the municipal administration currently estimates at least 60,000 internally displaced persons, including around 20,000 from Donbass and another 40,000 from the area of Kherson, a city now back under Ukrainian control but constantly under Russian artillery fire (on January 27, two women were killed and five civilians injured).
The industries are operating at reduced capacity, around 30% according to the testimonies of some workers. Wages have declined, as have employment opportunities. In such a context, the role of those who have always been on the front line in defending the rights of workers also changes: “As a militant organisation we have always been against the current power, but with the start of the war we left this aside”, tells us the representative of an independent union from the healthcare sector of Kryvyj Rih, who prefers to remain anonymous. “In fact, we thought that the greatest urgency was to help the state and the community in the fight against the aggressor and ask for help in exchange to be able to carry out one’s work. It is not an abstract thought: when so many of your colleagues are at the front, you understand that it is the most important thing to do. Of course, we don’t always get the right attention and the right reward for what we do, but in the meantime it seems necessary to do our duty”.
In hospitals and in the healthcare sector, the difficulties associated with war have become particularly relevant in recent months: as this “OpenDemocracy” investigation explains, war combined with a controversial reform of the internal market in 2018 (which had healthcare facilities competing among themselves and tied staff payments to the provision of services) meant that for at least three months last autumn most employees did not receive any salary. In addition, missile and artillery attacks often have consequences for healthcare facilities (the WHO recorded over 700 last November). “We are about 70 kilometres from the front and clearly many war wounded arrive here”, continues the trade unionist. “Moreover, not too long ago, a missile hit an area not far from the hospital. In general, we have had a severe shortage of medicines and part of our machinery is outdated and malfunctioning. We are only managing thanks to donations and international aid”.
Unions and activists are essentially joining the civil effort to deal with the consequences of war. When, after the summer counteroffensive by the Kyiv troops, Russia launched the campaign of missile attacks aimed above all at energy infrastructures, Kryvyj Rih soon gained the spotlight due to the damage to the dam that regulates the flow of the river Inhulets occurred on September 15 and the resulting partial flooding of the city. “You could say that the union takes care of everything”, said the representative of the independent union of miners of Kryvyj Rih Yuri Samoliov in an interview with LabourSolidarity.org. “We carry out a lot of humanitarian activities, and it is as if we had to reconvert all our activities from a military point of view. Sometimes, for example, there are people who call me telling me that an acquaintance or relative of theirs has fallen at the front and his body lies somewhere in ‘neutral’ territory not far from the city, for me to help them go and retrieve it. At the beginning of the war, our job was to help our members who serve in the military. I mean really at a basic level: clothes, accessories, warm clothing, anything that could improve their conditions”. This perspective is also shared by Vyacheslav Fedorenko, representative of the local union of railway workers: “Basically at this moment the railways are a war organisation”, he tells us as he shows boxes containing humanitarian aid filling his office. “In the beginning, although it may seem strange, we really had nothing. There were no medicines, there were no jackets or helmets… really nothing. Everyone was ready to build barricades to defend themselves, because they understood the extent of the Russian threat, but with what? Now that aid from Europe and the USA has arrived, it is much better”.
However, working conditions are not rosy at all. “The number of people employed here has shrunk enormously and wages have plummeted”, continues Vyacheslav Fedorenko dryly. “The point is that there really is no work. What is there to be transported? Even the railways of the west are at a standstill”. According to the International Labor Organization, with the start of the war in Ukraine, at least 2.4 million jobs have been lost in the country compared to the previous year. As already reported, wage compression involves all sectors (here a recent letter from a Karkhiv trolleybus driver) and the Russian attacks on infrastructure have only made the situation worse.
Despite this and despite the vital role played by the working class in the resistance effort, the Zelensky government seems determined to oblige almost exclusively the interests of employers and the big oligarchs: in fact, several new regulations have been introduced under martial law (n. 2136, 2352, 2421, 2454, and 5371) which strongly reduce trade union rights, leaving companies a free hand in terms of dismissal and contract redefinition. Not to mention that, for the moment, strikes and demonstrations are prohibited. As trade unionist Kiril Buketov pointed out during a conference that concerned the adoption of the aforementioned laws: “The behaviour of the Ukrainian government is surprising. If one looks at the measures that worsen the condition of workers, one can only see a similarity with the path that Russia has taken in terms of labour rights. Ukraine should definitely not follow suit”.
At the moment, however, there are different priorities. “In general, people are simply trying to survive and our main task remains to save lives”, the trade unionist active in the healthcare sector tells us. Yuri Samoliov, representative of the miners, whom we asked a few questions remotely, specifies: “With the recent rocket attacks, there are frequent interruptions in the electricity and water supply. We have had several deaths and injuries even among our brothers in the union and more and more people become widows or orphans. Now we take care of this”.
Between December and January, for example, some trade union representatives, including Samoliov himself, organised the “Workers’ Christmas”, a solidarity initiative designed in particular for the families of those who went to fight at the front that also received international financial support. On the other hand, rather than frontal opposition against the government’s anti-union measures or the organisation of protests that would have little participation, at this moment the task facing those who defend labour rights is to create communities of mutual support . As the director of the NGO Labor Initiatives George Sandul wrote in the latest issue of the magazine of the European Trade Union Institute: “Unions are essential to allow human ties to survive, not only in times of peace, but also in times of war . They represent the part of civil society that contributes most actively to the distribution of basic necessities […]. As long as there is a strong community strengthened by the unionist spirit, a small local democracy is established which, in the current context, can literally save us”. Surviving in Ukraine today can only be a collective act.
On March 10, 2022, many missiles hit the Kryvyj Rih international airport. According to current de facto mayor and head of the military administration of Kryvyj Rih Oleksander Vilkul, Putin’s troops planned to use the airport – the largest in the region – as a base to then invade all of southern Ukraine.
“The Russian planes were close but failed to land”, he told “The New Statemen”, explaining how he had prepared the defence of the area. Vilkul’s story itself is both daring and emblematic, if we think of the political changes that Ukraine has been going through and which were greatly accelerated by the invasion of last February 24: former member of the government during Yanukovych’s second presidency, he had always been considered “pro-Russian” in orientation, so much so that, following the uprising of Euromaidan and the following flight of Yanukovych, he maintained the electoral base gained following the disintegration of the Party of the Regions, the Opposition Bloc (now outlawed).
In 2018, in view of the elections then won by Zelens’kyj, however, there was a first tear: the Opposition Bloc split into two distinct factions which – as commented at the time analyst Kostantin Skorkin – “referred” one to Rinat Akhmetov, a powerful entrepreneur who among other things owned the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, and the other to Viktor Medvedcuk, an oligarch close to the separatist forces of Donbass who was for this reason put on trial and placed under house arrest in 2021, arrested again after the outbreak of the current conflict, and finally handed over to the Moscow authorities as part of a prisoner exchange last September.
Vilkul became the representative of the first faction: “Medvedcuk came to us politicians from southern and eastern Ukraine telling us that we should agree our actions and policies with the Kremlin”, continued the head of the military administration of Kryvyj Rih to “The New Statesman,” explaining how his attitude toward Russia has gradually changed since then. “I told him I wouldn’t do it. So, he called Moscow and the next day I was placed under sanctions by the Russian government”. To make everything even more complicated, however, at the time of February 24 Vilkul had no political role in Kryvyj Rih: as this “Opendemocracy” reportage explains, in fact, his appointment as director of military operations of the area is due to the determination he showed in the first hours of the invasion and to the authority he, together with his father Yuri, can exercise in the area thanks to his previous experience in the administration of an iron mine north of the city, under control of the multinational Metinvest (owned, in fact, by the aforementioned Rinat Akhmetov).
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