Workers of McDonald’s unite in Moscow union

"They are not ready, psychologically, to defend their rights. They still have a slave mentality."

The Globe and Mail
June 12, 2001

Workers of McDonald’s unite in Moscow union
Geoffrey York

MOSCOW — In the homeland of what was once called the workers' paradise, Natalya Gracheva never expected that the simple act of forming a trade union would plunge her into an ordeal of harassment, threats and sleepless nights.

But today, after a three-year battle, Ms. Gracheva and a tiny group of Russian workers have scored a rare victory against McDonald's, forcing it to recognize a union for the first time in the history of its fast-growing
Russian hamburger empire.

The Russian operations are controlled by the Canadian branch of McDonald's.

The unionization campaign has emerged as a rallying cry for the fledgling post-Soviet labour movement.

Videos and brochures have been distributed to trade unions and workers across Russia to inspire their organizing drives.

But the victory could be short-lived.

Facing heavy corporate pressure, the union has managed to recruit only 17 of the 450 workers at McComplex, the McDonald's food-processing plant in Moscow.

And because of widespread fears of losing their jobs, more than half of the members have quit the union in recent months.

"Considering there are so few of us, we achieved a lot," Ms. Gracheva said.

"We won a victory, but it's a bitter victory. People are afraid to join our union," she said.

"They are not ready, psychologically, to defend their rights. They still have a slave mentality."

A much bigger labour struggle is looming. The Kremlin, aiming to create a more business-friendly investment climate, is introducing a new labour code that removes many Soviet-era union guarantees, slashes maternity leave, lowers the minimum working age and allows a "voluntary" 12-hour workday. Critics have denounced it as Dickensian.

The proposed code has ignited fierce resistance from left-wing politicians and trade unions, which have succeeded in delaying it for more than a year. But a new draft could be approved within weeks. Labour Minister Alexander Pochinok insists it is essential "for invigorating industry and launching new mechanisms of economic growth."

One Moscow newspaper has described the existing labour code as "the last bulwark of socialism." But its guarantees of worker rights are often ignored by powerful factory bosses.

Ms. Gracheva, the 40-year-old mother of a teenaged daughter, has worked at the McComplex plant for 11 years. She began organizing a union in 1998 when McDonald's announced layoffs and reduced working hours in the aftermath of Russia's financial crisis.

"It's been so difficult," she sighed. "Sometimes I would wake up at night in a cold sweat. I don't know what drove me to keep fighting."

The union was given a boost last winter by the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. A committee held public hearings and issued a report saying McDonald's had "violated the rights of citizens to establish a labour union."

Ms. Gracheva and the handful of workers who joined the union drive have suffered pressure and intimidation from the company, she said.

"They're tired of losing their pay bonuses and getting reprimands for being one minute late or any other petty offence. People tell me, 'We see the stress you are under, and we can't do what you're doing.' "

She acknowledges that the union's future is in jeopardy. Under the existing labour code, it needs a minimum of three members to be recognized as a union. If she loses a few more members, the union could collapse. "There's a very real danger of it," she said.

"Our task is to survive. Sometimes I think of quitting, but I want to finish this, to negotiate a collective agreement and create a strong union with many members."

McDonald's, meanwhile, has been thriving. There are now 60 restaurants across the country, and it says it is making multimillion-dollar profits.

The company did not respond to a request for comment. In the past, McDonald's has not commented on the union dispute, except to say that the overwhelming majority of its workers support current employment practices. It says it obeys all local labour laws, and that its working conditions are better than those required by law.

The average wage at the food plant is about $300 a month – good money by Russian standards, but still below wage levels before the 1998 financial crisis. The union believes the Moscow plant has become a source of cheap labour for the company, allowing it to supply low-cost food products to European restaurants. Wages at the company's Moscow plant are one-tenth of the wage levels at its Western European plants, the union says.

Ms. Gracheva acknowledges that the Duma's support was partly a result of the anti-Western mood of many Russian politicians. As one of the most famous Western symbols in Russia, the hamburger giant was a convenient target.

But the Duma committee's report had an impact. The committee told the company to negotiate with the union. Eight months later, a tentative agreement finally has been drawn up.

The agreement recognizes the union and authorizes it to have office space, a small amount of company money and two hours a week to work on union activities — not much, but a symbolic victory that has inspired other union organizers.

"It's only minimal standards, but it sends a message to workers that union activity is legal at the factory," said Kirill Buketov, head of the Moscow branch of the International Union of Food Workers.

"It's encouraging for many workers. It's a sign that even a hostile anti-union company like McDonald's can't avoid Russian legislation."

Across Russia, there are a growing number of small, independent unions challenging the official Soviet-era trade unions, which still have 60 million members but are widely seen as passive members of the Kremlin establishment.

"Russian labour relations are really beginning to change," Mr. Buketov said.

"It's not a paternal system of relations any more. It has becoming a market system of relations, and workers are becoming more aware of their rights."

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