Ukraine: trade unionists and communities oppose Donbass rail blockade

March 13, 2017

Trade union activists in eastern Ukraine are working with local communities to demand an end to a blockade of coal shipments organised by populist politicians and military veterans.

The blockade began last month, preventing anthracite coal from mines in the separatist-controlled areas from being moved by rail to power stations in other parts of Ukraine.

The parliamentary deputy Semen Semenchenko from the nationalist Samopomich faction, speaking for the blockaders, has said that they want a law passed that will define the separatist-controlled areas as occupied by Russia and cease trade with them. The government and the majority of parliamentarians oppose this.

In Ukraine, many people think that the blockade may reflect clashes between the country’s powerful business oligarchs. The anthracite mines, and the power stations supplied by them, are mostly owned by DTEK, an energy company controlled by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man.

Disruption to the energy complex hurts Akhmetov, and may also hurt the government and president Petr Poroshenko, an oligarch in his own right.

But communities in eastern Ukraine point out that the blockade hurts them too: power cuts are in prospect, as are factory shut-downs and lay-offs. This in a country devastated by two years of military conflict and economic slump.

Pavel Lisyansky, director of the East Ukrainian Human Rights Group – who has played a role in supporting workplace organisation in the area since the military conflict began in 2014 – has spoken out against the blockade.

“This action is putting many industrial workplaces in danger of being stood down, or permanently closed”, Lisyansky said in an email. “Those in

Demonstration on 6 March. The posters read “stop the blockade”

danger include the Kurdiumovskii clay pits, the Zarya chemical plant, the Nikolayevskaya heat and power plant, and the Alchevsk steel works.”

Workplace representatives formed an initiative group to seek an end to the railway blockade by peaceful means. When a press conference was held, Read the rest of this entry »


Networked socialism: back to the future

September 23, 2016

Germany, 1888. Karl Steinmetz, a precociously smart twenty-year old student, quit the university town of Breslau with the police on his heels. Steinmetz had been caught up in the crackdown on the Social Democrats, then Europe’s largest socialist movement by far.

Soon after starting university, Steinmetz joined the socialist club, which was banned after affiliating with the Social Democrats. A

Charles Steinmetz

Charles Steinmetz

previous round of arrests had hit a party newspaper, The People’s Voice, and he took over as editor. Soon afterwards, he wrote an article that was deemed inflammatory, and he had to flee arrest.

Steinmetz emigrated to the US, travelling steerage class (i.e. sleeping in the hold). He anglicised his first name to Charles, and soon found work at a small electrical firm in New York. He became an electrical engineer and by 1893, aged 28, had made a key contribution Read the rest of this entry »


Let’s take Corbyn’s climate proposals seriously

September 9, 2016

Climate change is “the single most important issue facing humanity”, and politicians need to propose “real solutions” to it, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Wednesday as he launched a policy document on energy and the environment.

The document (downloadable here) proposes to produce 65% of the UK’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. It aims to make the UK a world

Anti-fracking protesters at parliament, 2012. Creative Commons licence.

Anti-fracking protesters at parliament, 2012. Creative Commons licence.

leader in renewable technology, and create jobs in renewables equipment manufacture, with a £500 billion investment programme. Labour would set up 1000 local cooperative energy producers with a “right to supply” their local communities.

A Corbyn-led Labour government would ban “fracking” (the controversial natural gas production technique the Tories love), and restore the Department for Energy and Climate Change (which Theresa May axed the moment she got to no. 10 Downing Street).

I can think of reasons not to take Corbyn seriously on this. His team has taken a year to come up with seven pages of policy proposals … which is slow, for “the single most important issue facing humanity”. There are gaps in the proposals – such as a stance on the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, into which May’s government is currently considering sinking several tens of billions of pounds. And with Corbyn fighting off a challenge from Owen Smith for the Labour leadership, cynics may see the document’s shortcomings as evidence that it has been thrown together for the election campaign.

But I think the proposals should be discussed widely.

It may have taken a year to come up with them, but then many political leaders in Read the rest of this entry »


Break the silence on Azerbaijan oil workers’ deaths

August 4, 2016

Nine months after 31 workers drowned in Azerbaijan’s worst-ever oil industry disaster, the country’s authorities have still not said a word about how it happened or what mistakes could be avoided in future.

Most of the victims were thrown into the water when a lifeboat smashed against

An improvised memorial to the victims. Photo: OWRPO site

An improvised memorial to the victims. Photo: OWRPO site

the side of production platform no. 10 at the Guneshli oil field in the Caspian sea, as they tried to escape a fire during a force 10 gale on 4 December last year.

The Oil Workers Rights Protection Organisation (OWRPO), a campaign group, says state oil company managers broke safety laws for the sake of keeping production going, and that workers did not even have life jackets on during the attempt to evacuate the platform.

State officials lied to the media and the public during the emergency, and treated oil workers’ families with contempt, the OWRPO said in a report published in February.

The government was quick to dismiss the report – but its own 14-person commission, set up to deal with the disaster’s consequences, has not breathed a Read the rest of this entry »


It’s “oil first, people second”, just like in Soviet times

August 4, 2016

An interview with Mirvari Gahramanli, chairperson of Oil Workers’ Rights Protection Organization, about the disaster on the Guneshli no. 10 oil platform on 4 December last year. For an overview, read Break the silence on Azerbaijan oil workers’ deaths

Gabriel Levy: How did the company, and the workers, react to the tragedy as it happened?  

Mirvari Gahramanli: First I got phone calls from relatives of workers on platform no. 10. They asked for help. “It’s on fire”, they said. At first I didn’t speak directly to those on the platform. Pressure is put on workers [if they

Mirvari Gharamanli

Mirvari Gharamanli

communicate with non-government groups]. Then I began to write [on social media]; I called several news agencies.

I called [the national oil company] Socar. I told them, there’s a terrible situation there. People are dying. There’s a major fire. No reaction. … Then, every half hour, every hour, as I received information, I wrote it up on Facebook. The workers’ families began to correspond with me, began to find out what was going on. You know that in Soviet times they used to cover up Read the rest of this entry »


Russian mining deaths: families denounce management safety cheats

February 29, 2016

Relatives of Russian mineworkers killed in a series of explosions at the Severnaya mine in Vorkuta, north of the Arctic circle, are demanding legal action against managers who repeatedly violated safety procedures.

Four miners died on Thursday 25 February as a result of two underground explosions of methane gas. Twenty-six more men were trapped underground: on Sunday 28 February,

Rescue teams arriving at Severnaya mine on Thursday 25 February. Photo by Vladimir Yurlov/ TASS

Rescue teams arriving at Severnaya mine on Thursday 25 February. Photo by Vladimir Yurlov/ TASS

media reported that hope of finding them alive had faded. Also on Sunday, five rescue workers and a miner were killed in a further explosion.

By midday Sunday 300 people had signed a petition launched by the victims’ relatives to Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of Russia’s state investigation committee, demanding that mine managers be prosecuted.

“The [first] explosion came as no surprise: the detectors had for a long time shown an excess of methane”, the petition states. “Work should not have continued at the time. This is a crude breach of safety procedures. Management knew this, but continued to allow people underground.”

On Thursday, workers on the surface believed there had been a movement of rock strata underground. On Friday the press service of the Vorkutaugol company, which owns the mine Read the rest of this entry »


Kazakhstan: who ordered the killings and tortures?

December 13, 2015

Who ordered police to shoot down oil workers demonstrating for fair living standards? Who organised the torture of activists in police cells?

Four years after police killed at least 16 demonstrators and injured 60 more in the oil city of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, trade unionists and human rights campaigners are demanding answers.

They will spell out their calls for justice again on Wednesday this week, the fourth anniversary of the massacre, on 16 December 2011.

After the killings, some rank-and-file police officers who opened fire were jailed, and some local officials punished for corruption offences. But those who organised and instigated the crackdown have so far escaped justice.

Demonstrators in Uralsk, Kazakhstan, on the third anniversary of the Zhanaozen massacre last year. Photo: R. Uporova/ Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper

Demonstrators in Uralsk, Kazakhstan, on the third anniversary of the Zhanaozen massacre last year. Photo: R. Uporova/ Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper.

The well-documented use of torture against trade union activists after the massacre has gone unpunished.

Demands for an independent international enquiry, by the United Nations and international trade union federations, have not been met.

In the Kazakh oil fields, workers have been told they will be sacked if they dare to mark the anniversary on Wednesday. Activists in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere will demonstrate at Kazakhstan’s embassies. If you live in another Read the rest of this entry »