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08/03/010 . Francoise Michel . AFP Moscow . Russia
McDonald's the testing ground for Russia's new unionists
Militant trade unionism never gained a foothold in the former homeland of the workers, and Natalya Grachova's first lessons in mobilising to improve her working conditions came courtesy of McDonald's.
When the fast-food chain, faced with Russia's ruble crisis two years ago, imposed a take-it-or-leave-it part-time regime accompanied by a massive pay cut at its hamburger plant in southwestern Moscow, Natalya -- who had worked there for 10 years previously -- was not prepared to lie down and take it.
And a journalist friend came up with a promising idea: "she suggested we set up a trade union," Natalya recalled. "We couldn't even remember if the old unions still existed, and we had to look in the phone book to find out."
Russia's traditional trade unions, formed during the Soviet era when they were regarded as little more than a means of transmission of social benefits, were largely toothless, regarded with condescension by management and ignored by the vast majority of working people.
Little had prepared Natalya and her colleagues to resist the demands of one of the world's best known multinationals, a symbol of unfettered capitalism, as it operated swingeing payroll cuts at its 47 franchised outlets in the Moscow region.
Once she decided to organise like-minded colleagues into a union, her relations with management went into sharp decline.
"Instructions went out that I was to be watched closely in the hope I could be caught out committing a fault," she said.
And McDonald's responded in the classic manner by sponsoring a trade union more inclined to follow its bidding.
Natalya cited an example of a McDonald's restaurant in the city where workers who attempted to form a union were summarily dismissed.
In the present climate McDonald's is probably acting no worse that the majority of companies, foreign or Russian, although with its vast resources it can afford to be much more ruthless in suppressing union activity, she noted.
The chain has been notoriously hostile to trade unions around the world, usually recognising them only after a protracted struggle.
Russia's McDonald's employees have sought advice and backing from their counterparts in Germany, where the company signed a union agreement in 1990 after a decade of campaigning by workers' representatives.
"The problems are the same in Germany, but there the employees are more combative, they were born into a free environment," Natalya said.
Two years on, Natalya's union is still only supported by 20 of the plant's 450 employees, and management is still holding out against signing a collective agreement.
But the fight goes on, Natalya said, "because I want people to learn to fight for their rights (...) and not simply accept everything they're given."
The plant's management, which says it is "constantly interested" in the views of its colleagues, claims that the majority "do not share the views of this small group."
However the conflict has been brought before the State Duma's labour commission which has ordered the company to enter into negotiations with the union.
"The McDonald's workers led the way. Several other groups of employees applied to our commission as a result of this affair," commission vice-president Andrei Isayev said.
Moscow's trade union umbrella organisation published a brochure about the McDonald's movement and Natalya was invited to share her experiences with other employees' representatives at loggerheads with their management.
"Russian trade unions are changing. It's happening very slowly, but at
last the idea of workers defending their rights is beginning to sink in," Isayev observed.