RUSSIANS ACCUSE MCDONALD'S OF UNION-BASHING STAFF AT CANADIAN-OWNED FOOD PLANT; COMPLAIN OF LAYOFFS, HARASSMENT, DISMISSAL THREATS; COMPANY DENIES VIOLATING LABOUR LAWS
By Geoffrey York
Moscow -- The workers at the McDonald's fast-food plant were angry and
unhappy. As the Russian crisis deepened, layoffs had begun. Real wages were slashed, and working conditions were deteriorating.
"It was a revolutionary situation," recalled Natalya Gracheva, a worker at the plant for nine years. "As Lenin said, the smell of revolution was in the air."
The layoffs prompted her and other workers to begin organizing a trade
union at the Canadian-owned factory in a Moscow suburb. In the early days of the campaign last November, about half of the 400 workers signed application forms or expressed the desire to join the union, she said.
But over the next six months, the fledgling union was virtually crushed. The giant fast-food company stonewalled the union, ignored its letters and told workers not to join. Union organizers say their members were intimidated, harassed, and threatened with dismissal.
"We were so nervous and the atmosphere was so stressful that we couldn't sleep at night for a month," Ms. Gracheva said. "People were afraid to lose their jobs."
Some of those who joined the union, including Ms. Gracheva, say they were singled out for punishment for minor offences such as being two minutes late from a washroom break.
In the end, only 18 workers formally joined the union, and barely a dozen are left today. Its organizers say the union might not survive the confrontation with management.
Russian union leaders say McDonald's is blatantly violating Russian labour laws by refusing to negotiate with the new union. The company, whose Russian operations are controlled by the Canadian branch of McDonald's, denies the charge and insists it is complying with all Russian laws.
The company's resistance to unions is an old story, a pattern that has
repeated itself in Canada and many other countries. In Russia, however,
workers are theoretically protected by Soviet-era labour laws. But the
battle at McDonald's has exposed the weakness of union rights in the new capitalist Russia.
In a letter to McDonald's last month, the Moscow government urged the
company to negotiate a collective agreement with the union. So far, the
managers are refusing to budge.
Glen Steeves, a Canadian who is chairman and senior executive of McDonald's Russia, responded to questions with only a terse faxed statement.
"More than 400 Russians are employed at McDonald's food processing and
distribution centre and we are proud to say that the majority of these
employees support the current employment practices," the statement said.
"As always, we respect the wishes of our employees and continue to abide by local labour laws."
The statement said the company is a "progressive employer" with "advanced personnel programs based on the principle of mutual understanding and co-operation."
The statement acknowledged that Russian laws allow even a small number of employees of any business to form a union. But it didn't explain why
McDonald's is refusing to talk to the union.
McDonald's often boasts that it emerged from the Russian economic crisis with barely a dent in its profits. It says it is making tens of millions of dollars in profits from its 49 restaurants in Russia. But the workers say they are paying the price for the company's success, suffering job insecurity and a heavy loss of income as management slashes costs.
Russian union leaders say McDonald's has violated two laws: a Russian law guaranteeing freedom of trade-union activity, and a Moscow regional law requiring any company to begin negotiations within one week of a proposal from its union. The union sent its contract proposal in February, but says it never received a reply.
"McDonald's has made every effort to frighten the union and disband it," said Kirill Buketov, a Russian organizer for a Geneva-based international union of food-industry workers.
"According to Russian law, the size of the union doesn't matter. Any group of workers, with a minimum of three people, have the right to form a union and negotiate a collective agreement. McDonald's is saying that this is only a small group of workers, but it doesn't matter -- it's not an excuse to violate the law."
The Russian media have been surprised by the labour dispute. After all,
McDonald's pays its workers regularly, while millions of other Russians
often go months or years without wages.
But workers say the conditions at McDonald's have gone sharply downhill
since the economic crisis began last summer. The pace of the factory work has speeded up, and a growing number of workers are falling sick because of the pressure, union members say.
"Even to visit a bathroom you have to ask permission," said Yevgeny
Druzhinin, a driver at the plant who joined the union. "They are increasing the demands on us. They invent ridiculous norms, like 1½ minutes to load or unload something. And if you take too long, the managers write that you work badly."
Mr. Druzhinin, who has worked for nine years at the plant, said he has been getting pay bonuses for superior job performance for years. But after he joined the union, he said he was singled out for harassment and punishment, including reprimands that can lead to dismissal.
"The situation was different nine years ago when I began working here," he said. "There were foreign managers and we came to work with joy -- we were happy to work here. Now, it's like penal servitude."
Before the crisis, average wages at the plant were the ruble equivalent of $300 to $350 (U.S.) a month, workers say. After the ruble's collapse in the crisis, wages fell to about $100 to $150 (U.S.), and many workers had their hours reduced.
A novice worker at a McDonald's restaurant in Moscow must work three hours to earn enough to buy a Big Mac, union leaders say. By contrast, a McDonald's worker in Germany earns enough in an hour to buy three of the same burgers.
Under a new contract imposed by McDonald's this year, plant workers are
guaranteed only 20 hours of work a week, compared with 40 hours before, and they are paid by the hour, instead of monthly, Ms. Gracheva said.
When a handful of workers began organizing the union last fall, they
weren't even sure how to do it. Although the Soviet-era union federations still have tens of millions of members, the unions are weak and usually pro-government. "When young guys, fresh from school, come to work at McDonald's, they don't even know what a union is," Ms. Gracheva said.
McDonald's threatened to fire workers or reduce their wages or privileges if they joined the union, she said. It also held a hasty meeting of plant workers and obtained a vote against the union.
Although she had worked for eight years at the plant without any problems, Ms. Gracheva was hit with two official reprimands in her personnel file after she began organizing the union.
"The first two or three months were very difficult, and I almost gave up," she recalled. "They wanted to get rid of me. They tried to find something wrong with me, so that I could be fired."
Earlier this year, the company finally recognized the union's right to
exist. "But unofficially the company is still fighting the union," Mr.
Buketov said. "It's trying to fire all of the union members."
In the increasingly cutthroat world of post-Soviet capitalism, Russian
workers feel they have nobody to protect them. "People are scared," Ms.
Gracheva said. "They've lost the feeling of solidarity. They only want to survive. It looked like we had democracy for the past 10 years, but life for ordinary people is getting worse."
The tiny union at the McDonald's plant has a sense of isolation from other workers and other countries, she said. "We only wanted to defend our rights. But we're losing all our rights."
Asked if the workers have any rights at all at the factory, she stopped and thought. Finally she laughed. "We have the right to work."
Geoffrey York is the Moscow correspondent for the Globe and Mail.