Belarusian workers’ dilemma: to choose between sides or impose their own struggle

18 August, 2020 · News> Europe> Belarus

Last Thursday we saw how workers responded to state repression with strikes in state-owned and private companies in various sectors. This unexpected pressure forced the state to stop the repression in the cities, even got the riot police to withdraw from several of them, and brought Lukashenko himself down to talk to the workers in the plants. However, the main beneficiaries of this temporary victory have been the opposition instead of the workers.

Workers still can’t “decide the time”

More strikes have broken out since last Friday, but they have returned to their original course. Almost all of them have taken place in the large state-owned companies, where the opposition groups are still chanting their slogans, while strikes in small private construction companies have almost disappeared. This is no coincidence: the opposition calls for a general strike almost exclusively in state-owned enterprises. It is in this context that Lukashenko visited the state-owned company MZKT on Monday to basically say that he would not negotiate:

President Alexander Lukashenko came to MZKT, saying that the workers “do not decide the time” [expression meaning that they have no weight and are not decisive]. “Whoever wants to work, let him work. If you don’t want to work, well, we won’t force you,” Lukashenko said. When Lukashenko addressed the workers, they shouted “Go away! A MZKT employee told RBC that 600-700 workers from the plant were present at the rally.

Despite of how much media circus they can create, the truth is that these strikes have their limitations and the number of participants decreased on Tuesday. In the MTZ, the number of strikers went from 4000 on Monday to 500 on Tuesday. The main cause of the first “massification” of the strikes at the end of last week was police repression and this has dropped very sharply in recent days.

In view of the decline of the mobilization in the Saligorsk mines, the unions and the company are threatening the workers with legal consequences:

The situation is not simple. The workers are agitated. Our union holds the view that all problems are solved by legal means. Including police abuse. Today workers are being told to go on a strike which, according to our legislation, has no legal basis because it is purely political. Under the union law, a strike cannot have political slogans. I repeat, this strike is illegal. And the employer only needs to do the paperwork of the state agencies for it to be recognized as illegal. And then those people who are made to go out on the streets will suffer. It will count as a refusal to work, and the consequences can go as far as dismissal. That’s what we explain to people.

Fear of reprisals is also spreading in MTZ. The company and its lawyers point out that strikes legally require at least two weeks’ notice:

We are not lawyers, we are normal workers. Therefore, we did everything very spontaneously, emotionally. As we are all afraid of being fired, today [Tuesday] we have only 250 people on strike, don’t judge us. Today independent lawyers started appearing to tell us what to do and how to do it. We prepared for a strike and now we are going on vacation without pay [for two weeks],” explains one of the workers at the plant.

The workers are clearly on the defensive under the threats and pressure of companies and unions, moreover the police repression that had originally spurred them on has almost disappeared. It is clear that, if this goes on, the workers will not “decide the time” in any way in the future.

Between a rock and a hard place

The situation is in fact more complicated than it appears at first sight. Unlike in countries such as Ukraine, large state-owned heavy industry remained in Belarus instead of being privatized and scrapped. Privatization and reorganizing the accounts of large state-owned industries occupies a large part of the agenda of the Belarusian opposition, the same opposition which cynically calls for a general strike in state-owned but not in private industry lest the strike affect the balance of its own businesses. The workers are aware of this, which causes no small amount of unwillingness to go on strike. One of the engineers at the Minsk-Kozlov power plant said:

There are some in the staff who incite, force the situation in the plant. Only those workers who are on strike seem not to have read the program of Tikhanovskaya and her colleagues, and if they have read it, they will think twice, because according to their program the factory will cease to exist. They want to privatize and shift the economy towards the West. And who is going to buy our products if not Russia? The plant will close. I want fair elections too. And I can’t stand Lukashenko either. It’s time for him to go. But I don’t support Tikhanovskaya and her colleagues either. Because after the privatization the plants will close as it happened in the Baltic republics. And instead of factories they will build shopping malls. Or take Ukrainian companies as an example. Where are they? A lot of them have closed down too.

Because of the close link between the Russian and Belarusian economies, the workers seem to face a dilemma: will they support the opposition and its pro-privatization barons, who will eventually kick them out of work, or will they support Lukashenko, who has lowered their salaries and is beating their children?

Class slogans run under the surface

However, even in state-owned companies where the strike is temporarily receding, one can find social and economic slogans:

From this newspaper’s conversations with the workers it became clear that one of the main reasons for the strike in the factories, besides the election results and police brutality, is social. For example, in the BelAZ, the workers say they would like their wages to double. Moreover, these wages were recently cut due to the drop in the number of orders and today they receive an average of 900-1000 Belarusian rubles (approx. 350-400 dollars)

This cutback was caused by the recent disputes between Lukashenko and Putin. The workers will not gain any advantage from marching with Lukashenko, but neither will they gain any advantage from marching under the flags of the opposition. It is precisely the social and economic slogans -and not those of the opposition and its proposal for a general strike- that can enable the struggle in the Belarusian plants to be carried on and extended to the private sector again. The struggle can only develop if it is able to impose the needs of the workers, which are universal needs. That is why it will always confront the two warring factions and the imperialist alliances that support them. The workers organized around their own program, in their enterprises and neighborhoods, are the only ones who can twist the arm of all the defenders of capital at the same time.

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