Kherson Factory Occupied
Workers Demand Control!
The protest by workers at the Kherson engineering plant in the Ukraine has been ongoing since February 2, when the workers occupied the management building in the factory. For over a week, it has been in the headlines, even attracting international attention. The workers have acted decisively and responsibly and have provided an example for millions of Ukrainians, who daily suffer humiliation and injustice at the hands of their employers. Workers at this factory have taken this step, despite the currently low level of activity of the working class in the Ukraine. In doing so, have demonstrated, not only their own instinct—in fighting for survival—but their concern for the fate of their own factory.
The factory has a 120-year history. It is the largest—and probably the only—producer of agricultural machinery in the Ukraine. It suffered badly during the 1990s and, like many other factories, nearly collapsed following privatization after the collapse of Ukraine’s planned economy. With its ancient machinery, it was unable to compete effectively with imported equipment. It passed from one owner to the next. With each transfer of ownership, Kherson workers’ conditions suffered. Wage arrears were common and sometimes had tragic consequences. In 2006, one worker could not tolerate it any more and hung himself in the middle of the factory. That of course angered the other workers and the management finally managed to find enough cash to pay wages; afraid that if they did not, the consequences would be catastrophic.
In the last months of 2007, yet another new owner turned up. He was Alexander Oleinik, who also happens to be a leader of the Party of Regions (the Russian orientated party of Viktor Yanukovich). He began a “restructuring” of the plant, which was little more than a poorly disguised attempt to strip it of its assets.
The new owner did not believe it was his responsibility to clear the wage arrears accumulated by his predecessor, even though he also inherited large stocks.
By March 2008, more wage arrears developed. By September, wages had stopped being paid completely. In October, the factory was cut down to a three-day working week. In November redundancies were planned and pressure was put on workers to sign voluntary resignations. Many younger people agreed, seeing no future at the plant. This left the older layer of workers, who have spent most of their lives in the factory.
When they arrived at work on January 20, 2009, the workers found a notice announcing that the accountancy and cash desks had been moved to another city. Immediately, a crowd gathered and went to occupy the management block, where workers are now campaigning against the closure of the factory.
On February 2, the workers set up a Workers’ Council and occupied the management block. This new self-management body, led by a skilled welder, Lionid Nemchonok, is demanding that wage arrears are paid by the owner and government; the nationalization of the plant; the seizure of Olienik’s bank account; and for the state to ensure the factory remains open. On February 3, the workers renamed the factory: the “Kherson STATE Engineering Plant”.
The next day, city authorities intervened, turning up to speak to workers in the factory’s conference hall. The Mayor began by expressing his “solidarity” with the workforce. He claimed to have a plan, but gave no details of it. Under pressure, he offered to secure two million Grivna from the city’s social budget for wages at the plant. The workers rejected this. Firstly, it would only have covered half of the wage arrears. Secondly, as workers commented, the council’s social budget was intended to assist other working people and they did not want their problems resolved at the expense of others.
Last Saturday, a big solidarity march took place. Over one thousand turned out, with many local youth, residents and trade union members from other cities joining in. At the front of the march were the leaders of the workers’ council, left activists and students.
The workers carried placards such as, “Make the oligarchs pay for the crisis,” “Give the workers wages, and control of the factory,” “We no longer expect miracles, we’ll take over the factory ourselves,” “Today Kherson, tomorrow the whole Ukraine.” In reply to those politicians from parties such as the Communist Party, who simply offer platitudes, the main slogan of the march was “Don’t settle for crumbs, carry on with the strike.”
Among the speakers were trade unionists from other cities. One proposed electing a new factory management and the hiring of technical staff to prepare the plant for production. As he said, if the workers are demanding nationalization, there must be a discussion on how the factory will be run: by workers themselves.
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