These past few days the Russian press has been talking about an epidemic of strikes in Georgia, a country in the Caucasus where for decades working class protests have been swamped by nationalism. What is going on and what is driving the strikes in Georgia?
The beginning of the strikes in Georgia
Strikes in Georgia. Rustavsky nitrogen workers
The strikes in Georgia began on April 28 in the eastern city of Rustavi, formerly a major industrial hub of the country, now a declining district. Employees of the Rustavi Azot fertilizer plant, the country's largest chemical plant, shut down most of the plant demanding a 50% wage increase while keeping the air distillation section running in order to ensure oxygen supply to hospitals. The employees obtained a minor wage hike in early May, one side felt satisfied and formed a new union, while the other is still fighting.
Meanwhile, delivery riders at Glovo and other delivery companies held a strike in Tbilisi since the beginning of the year. They work 12 hours a day for 50 euros a week under conditions of exhaustion and insecurity. As if that were not enough, the bonus system was terminated:
They took away the bonuses we received and the reason why it made sense to work. They told us we were going to be slaves, one of the protesters told a Kavkaz Uzel correspondent. They told us there would be no more bonuses. Appreciate our work, don't reduce our income, another messenger said. ... The protesters said they no longer trust the company. There will be no compromise on our part and we will not get to work until there is a solution
They went on strike on May 16, and the company responded by summarily firing a group of workers. They are expected to keep striking in the coming weeks.
Bottling and distribution workers succeed in bringing together workers from other companies
Strikes in Georgia. Nabeghlavi workers on strike.
The main course was yet to come. On May 18, the employees of two plants of the Borjomi water bottling company went on strike, halting production. Not only were they demanding a wage increase to compensate for runaway inflation, they were calling for an end to atrocious working conditions. The workers have no vacation or rest, in fact, there are employees who have been working in the plants for 6 or 7 years without a single day off.
The example of the Borjomi workers soon had an effect on workers at other distributors, such as Nabeghlavi. First the drivers and distributors of Nabeghlavi in Tbilisi went on strike demanding better conditions and wages, and then it spread to the workers at the Kutaisi and Chokhataur plants. The demands of the workers of this second bottling company are a good reflection of the general situation of loss of purchasing power, low salaries and inflation:
In their demands, the workers claim that in the last year, due to inflation in the country, the monthly salary decreased in the company by 200-250 lari (about 48 - 60 euros/usd). The average salary in Georgia in 2020 was 1,227 lari (about 300 euros). In addition, the company is understaffed, workers have to work overtime, but the management pays minimum rates for this work. Indeed, inflation in Georgia is rising and the standard of living is falling. According to Gruzstat, the average income per person in 2020 was 321 GEL per month, 14 GEL less than in 2019.
Strikes in Georgia are not just at bottling plants. Parallel to the Borjomi and Nabeghlavi, workers at four flour plants of the Turkish-owned Guria Express are on strike over unpaid wages. Contractually the employees were paid just under €200 a month, but in reality the company has paid them €70 less than that and is now threatening to use scabs to replace them.
And outbreaks keep appearing. The latest workers to strike in Georgia have been the salaried Maxim cab drivers in the city of Kutaisi earlier this week. They are demanding higher wages from the company as they face an economy chewing away at their meager purchasing power.
The "epidemic" is called class struggle
Strikes in Georgia. Borjomi workers on strike in front of the factory.
The backdrop of the strikes in Georgia is not exactly conducive to independent workers' struggles. Georgia is a contested piece of the imperialist struggle. This can be seen on a daily basis in a whole spectrum ranging from the drawing of borders on weather maps to street signs. The political apparatus of the ruling classes is in almost permanent crisis. And so is the national capital: the Georgian economy, typical of a semi-colonial country, is wallowing in an inflation that further slashes the already meager wages of the workers.
But these conditions, rather adverse, have not deterred the workers, who emerged to defend their needs - which are in line with those of the population as a whole - in the midst of a drop in purchasing power, even when faced with their probable dismissal and a police force ready to protect the hordes of scabs brought in by the bosses.