In Background, Ukraine

By Svetlana Tsiberganova, published in, January 24, 2015, translation to English by Greg Butterfield

Soon, legal work with the trade unions in Ukraine will be subject to the new law banning communist ideology and propaganda. So we should understand that it is high time to work for the future.

Transit workers in strike in Kyiv on Dec 18, 2014

Transit workers in strike in Kyiv on Dec 18, 2014

Today it is clear: Ukraine is anticipating only one thing – a further aggravation of the economic and social crisis. Apparently, the country will swing more to the right as the elite advocates of our “European power” are unable to solve complex problems that require complex solutions. They are betting it all on the war. A large part of society is manipulated by these elites, and the most striking example of this trend was last year’s ‘EuroMaidan’ movement in the streets.

In the mid-90s and early 2000s,, there was still a chance to turn the country to the left, in the direction of serious social change. Thousands of workers went on strike against privatization and unpaid wages, and the people chosen in elections belonged to political parties which at least used social rhetoric in their propaganda. But it must be said that we have lost the battle, having failed to create a proper alternative to the radical right – a mass workers’ organization influenced by the left.

One can complain endlessly about the fact that policy was controlled for a long time by the right-wing bourgeoisie or that state education was aimed at raising a generation of nationalist patriots. That the left had no chance, because the right had a head start. But do not forget that we are also to blame for these troubles.

We did not understand the responsibility of our actions and omissions, for routine organizational work with the masses is the only chance to compete with the nationalists for their allegiance. The difficult and thankless task of creating grassroots workers’ organizations is a prerequisite for this — although the majority of the left has always been too lazy or not made time to engage in consistent, systematic work of organizing the working class to fight for its interests and rights.

Now, in a new, neoliberal and nationalist Ukraine, we are facing an even more uphill battle with the state, the oligarchs and their right-wing guardians and protectors of all kinds. Work with the masses, which in peacetime was under the protection of laws and bourgeois-democratic freedoms, is slowly becoming a criminal offense – “communist propaganda,” “work for Putin” and “national betrayal.”

In mid-December 2014, workers at Kyivpastrans [Kiev Passenger Transport] (which, as a union organizer, I had worked with) went on strike to stop the trams in the city. A day later, the workers involved in the strike, and all who helped them, were declared agents of Putin. Two women even ended up in the hospital, though as yet the various volunteer battalions have not been sent to attack striking workers. But such tactics to combat the labor movement still lie ahead, just like like the criminalization of communist ideology.

Former leftists and current national-patriots who supported EuroMaidan even now shamefully try to argue that Maidan was the living embodiment of the self-organization of the Ukrainian masses. But how is it that a year ago, popular self-organization and unity blossomed in the central square of the capital, whereas now it has completely vanished? How is it that those who spoke on Maidan Square about self-organization have no influence on the oligarchs, flourishing as never before, who they helped bring to power?

Anarchist and social-democratic supporters of Maidan have no idea what constitutes “self-organization of the masses”. They understanding it to be delivering pies and soup on the Square, pogroms to hunt informers, or the organization of the “Women’s Hundreds” [rightwing paramilitary squads] to promote Maidan among Western liberals. From the beginning, all this was meant to muddle the massive presence of the ultra-right in the center of the Ukrainian capital.

Part of effective self-organization of social movements is the capability to systematically solve social problems in the field, guided by the principle, “think globally, act locally.” Examples of this are community organizations and unions, not controlled by the government or dependent on grants from Western donors. These are now almost absent in Ukraine. The Maidan quasi-protest did not rely on these independent social institutions, organized on territorial or production principles, but was, in fact, a crowd standing in the square dominated by the ideology of ultra-right politicians or open Nazis. The kitchen, self-defense and medical services of Maidan worked in their interests. Now they serve the war, not the interests of the Ukrainian people.

Just over a year ago, we in Borotba, along with several friends, organized a campaign to establish a trade union of transport workers in Kiev, to fight for unpaid wages and solve other systemic problems. In order to create such a union, a labor collective had to be organized at each unit. A little more than a thousand people worked in each unit, almost everyone had to be talked to, and there were more than a dozen units., Workers had to be recruited to the group, leaders identified, education conducted, and finally, we had to begin to organize the most effective tool in the trade union struggle — the strike. If you organize a strike, assuming you are not fired, and at best you win, you need to spend a tremendous amount of time working with both the people and deal with mountains of papers, laws, requests and other red tape.

Then you are confronted with a mass of workers who often do not believe in the effectiveness of their union. They may not want to try new methods, or they listen to you only out of politeness. And even those that are for the union believe that they do not need to actively participate in its creation.

Of course, you can understand the people who refuse this routine work, because many workers turn out to be not as they dreamed when they set foot in a leftist organization. But is there another, more efficient way to work with the masses and earn their trust? Is there any alternative way to influence and steer economic slogans into the political mainstream?

I think there is no clear answer to these questions from the leftists who abandoned their identity to grovel before the right-wing activists. And soon, legal work with the trade unions in Ukraine will be subject to the new law banning communist ideology and propaganda. So we should understand that it is high time to work for the future. We need to work consciously and critically. This requires discipline and consistency, as well as a strong grassroots organization able to undertake such work.


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