Trip to Kyev: Interview with Oleksandr Paly

Comrade Oleksandr gave the political report in the Conference of the USL. He is editor in chief of the newspaper “Aviation Constructor of Ukraine” and member of the Aviation Workers Union.

What context did the unions experienced before the outburst of the war?

Oleksandr Paly

Since the arrival of Zelenskyy and his party to power, neoliberal measures, inspired by the ideas of George Soros, have been attempted in Ukraine. There is little government intervention in the activity of those companies that were state-owned. A group of representatives of the ruling party has implemented and presented a series of bills that threaten the freedoms of the working class, social and trade union movements. With the arrival of the Zelenski government, the trade union movement was quite weakened. One of the most numerous groups was the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine which, at the time, tried to dictate certain conditions in negotiations with the government, stating: “The assets after the disintegration of the USSR became part of the heritage of this Federation”, to which the government replied: “If you carry out certain trade union actions, we will confiscate your assets”. And if the assets were lost, the members subscribed to this officialist organization -so to speak- who are mostly formally registered, would also be lost. Next in order of importance is the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions. And then a series of smaller organizations, with fewer members, few assets and few financial resources, which prevents them from being able to carry out strong union actions. At the same time, the consciously registered members are more dynamic.

How has union membership evolved?

The loss of registered members that has taken place within the Federation of Trade Unions was impressive: in 2004 it had 11 million and currently it has only 3.75 million members. In addition, they went from 100,000 to 30,000 adherent trade union groups. During these months of war, it is very difficult to continue obtaining statistical data, but there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of union members. In spite of this very difficult context, the unions were able to repel several attacks by representatives of the ruling party to stop the implementation of bills presented against the rights of the working class. This does not mean that the unions have won the struggle, but they have resisted.

What changes did the war bring about?

Life has changed quite a lot. According to statistical data, during the first 100 days of war, about 50% of the economically active population has lost their jobs, about 4.8 million Ukrainians have lost their jobs and if all this continues, the figure will reach 7 million by the end of the year.  The average salary – December 2021 – has been 567 euros. About 50 companies have ceased to exist or partially suspended their activities. According to estimates, about 10 million inhabitants are considered refugees or displaced from their real residence. Before the war, formal employment was 11 million out of a total of 40 million inhabitants. This caused a huge drop in union membership, so that the Federation could be around 2 million members. There are also members who have left because of the war actions: when an industrial plant is bombed, they lose their jobs and automatically the possibility of continuing to be members of the trade union organizations.

What are the majority trade union leaderships doing today?

One should start by mentioning how difficult it is to criticize the government at war, anyone can point at you and say that you are “agent of the Kremlin”. However, the majority trade unions have not carried out even one general national strike in the 30 years of Ukraine’s history as an independent country. There have only been strikes of some sectors, of some industries in the country, but they have not been general strikes.

What is the assessment of material losses?

The losses would be, so far, around 600 billion dollars, the loss of GDP would be 30%. Some 14,000 homes have been completely destroyed and 72,000 have been partially damaged. 600,000 new homes need to be built to cover the housing losses.

How do local governments act on services?

Ukraine has a decentralized decision-making policy, so there have been many people affected by certain measures of local governments in each province and city. For example, in relation to the payment of utilities, energy supply, drinking water, real estate services and others, the people are obliged to continue paying all the bills. Many people have gone into debt to pay for utilities, even before the war. The provincial governments did not propose to reduce or cancel the debts, but on the contrary, they call the debtors demanding full payment of the debt. There are millions of people who have had to leave their homes, but they still have to pay.

How do banks handle debts?

As the highest point of cynicism of this capitalist regime we are living in, the financial and banking sector calls people and tells them that they have to pay in due time and form or they will be charged more interest for mortgages, bank loans, pledges, real estate and any other type of loans. Only the military can renegotiate some terms. The managers of the large banks recognize that the payment of interest on loans is required both in cities that have been little affected by the bombings and in others that have suffered more damage. Only the inhabitants of Bucha, Irpin, Gostomel and Mariupol could benefit from a deferment or a kind of release from the obligation. The workers of the Azovstal industrial plant, for example, lost their jobs, their belongings, their homes, friends or relatives; but they did not lose the obligation to pay their debts and obligations for services. This is the dramatic cynicism that rules today.

What about wages?

The quality of the salaries has fallen drastically, both in grivnas, our national currency, and in US dollars. Those fortunate enough to have been able to keep their jobs have been transferred to a new employment relationship: they serve a work week with one, two or three days a day, without enjoying any additional benefits, bonuses, etc.

What measures are the government and the employers trying to implement?

With the excuse of the war, legislators of Zelenski’s governing party are trying to introduce into the labor code certain measures that threaten the freedoms and rights of the working class. For example, one of the measures implemented was to give the employer the right to terminate the labor contract without any compensation or pension. By suspending the employment relationship, the worker is left in a strange situation: he/she does not receive a salary, but neither does he/she have the possibility of going out to look for a job elsewhere. It has taken the unions a lot of time and effort to reverse, even partially, some of these measures, which have an unequal scope. With the reforms almost all the companies that, in some way, cooperate with the Ministry of Defense, have the obligation to become stock companies, but this has been frozen during the period of the war because they could not reduce staff in these circumstances. So what they have decided to do is to suspend the labor agreements with the employees, who have been tied to these organizations without access to financial resources, without salary or any kind of assistance from the companies or the State.

Are there other consequences in terms of working relationships?

There are new situations. For example, it is not clear what employees in military-related factories have to do during bombings, they do not know whether they have the right to leave the plant in the event of an attack. Many employers argue that there is no rule to support the employees’ decision to leave their workplace. The employer was empowered to suspend certain clauses of the collective agreement without having to talk to either the employees or the union representatives.

And what are the majority trade union organizations doing in the face of all this?

They give the image of working hard to prevent attacks against the workers, they say that they are writing down on paper measures that they are going to carry out. The truth is that, in fact, the effect of their actions is practically null. I do not even need to mention how bureaucratic the trade union organizations are in those countries that come from a post-Stalinist political regime. We are not seeing any change in the organic structure of trade union organizations. Most of the measures they implement come late and are not preventive measures. This speaks of the leading role of the bourgeoisie in our country, which is the class that dictates the rules of the game.

What is the perspective you envision?

If the union groups do not organize and regroup to strike a blow against all this discrimination, at the end of the war we will be faced with a very deep crisis of the entire union structure. This does not mean that we should fall into despair, on the contrary, we have to put together a plan of action, a road map to be able to prevent and avoid a catastrophe. Union activists, and I include myself, believe that after the war the working class is facing very difficult times, a kind of “belt-tightening”. We may even be forced to rebuild cities as part of a social compromise. We must not despair, we must act, add and prepare new activists to strengthen the trade union movement and there, strengthen our Marxist movement within the working class.

What do you think is the government-business plan?

The disciples of George Soros have been implanted here as rulers of the country. They have prepared a reform plan with measures to steal the last of the remaining public assets.  For this purpose, the foundation “Renaissance or National Recovery Fund” will be created. Within its orbit there will be different smaller foundations, each with a more specific orientation. It will be chaired by a Committee of Observers composed of some Soros ambassadors here and, why not, foreign advisors. I will name some of the large corporations that are going to be part of the Foundation: oil and gas companies; the aircraft manufacturing company “Antonov”; the company “Yuzhmash” linked to the aerospace industry; the construction bureau “Dutch”, the ballistic and missile factory “Neptune”, the company “Turboatom”, which produces turbines for the country’s atomic power plants; and the company “Motor Sich”, a very large private corporation that Soros’ disciples seem to want to nationalize at all costs (“Motor Sich” is a large manufacturer of engines for airplanes and helicopters).

What is your conclusion on this matter?

Many of the public assets in the future will be managed by the Foundation I named you. The Ukrainian people will be left without the ability to manage the country’s own resources, without access to management and resource management. They already have great influence over “Ukroboronprom”, which is a kind of pole of enterprises engaged in the production of war and military equipment. The companies that make up this conglomerate pay high amounts of money as contributions, without receiving anything in return. There are several scandals involving corruption here, but nothing is being done about it. The managers of Ukroboronprom receive astronomical salaries without fulfilling any important function, even dragging financial losses. Why am I talking so much about Ukroboronprom? Because it will become part of the “National Revival Foundation”.

Anything else you want to say?

Yes, I would like to introduce some notes of optimism. We continue to fight, to battle the problems that appear and reproduce. They are like a beast whose head you cut off and it grows three heads. So, in this sense, I am confident that the progressive part of the union movement can implement an effective plan of action to benefit the working class. As terrible as it sounds, I must admit that war changes people’s minds for the better, in a sense. I am confident that many of the returning refugees will bring back conclusions and new experiences about labor relations.  I also wonder: What will the young lads who are fighting on the front lines today, for which they are well paid, do when they have to return and are offered 300-euro jobs? I have many doubts about their willingness to be part of the current semi-slavery system. The unions should not remain baffled, they should do everything possible to attract new activists to their ranks, and at the same time implant in them ideas of the revolutionary, socialist movement, which could bear great fruit.