Railway workers win in Georgia

This article appeared this week in Solidarity.

Over the course of two days earlier this month, a drama played on the Georgian railways that showed the labour movement at its best.

This has not always been the case in Georgia, a country whose most famous sons in recent times have been Stalin and Beria.

And yet Georgia has a long tradition of working-class struggle, and Georgian labour and social democratic leaders punched far above their weight in the Russian Social Democratic Party and the Second International in the years up to 1917.

That tradition was largely forgotten in the decades following the 1921 Red Army invasion of Georgia.

But there are signs – such as the recent railway strike – of a new vigour among the Georgian trade unionists.

The issues that concerned the “Georgian Railway Workers New Trade Union” (GRWNTU) will be familiar to workers in the UK and elsewhere.

According to Ilia Lezhava, the deputy chairman of the union, those issues included the following demands: “pay for overtime work, increased wages and bonus system based on experience, as well as a return of the 13th pay system by the end of the year.”

The union called for a nationwide strike to begin on Thursday, November 14th, but the railway company did all it could to disrupt the strike and prevent its spread.

While in the capital Tbilisi the strike was solid, in western Georgia, it ran into strong resistance from the employer.

Some key union leaders were uncontactable, and reported that threats were made against them.

As the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) reported – in a language reminiscent of an earlier era, “Some of the attendants at the strike were unknown individuals. They were not in uniform, however we knew that they were working for certain structures.”

The GTUC put out an appeal for help, and got a quick response from the International Trade Union Confederation, based in Brussels.

In a strongly worded statement to the Georgian authorities, ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow wrote “I am very much concerned by the information I received regarding the on-going pressure and defamation exerted by the management before and during the strike. Instead of negotiating, the management interfered in the union internal affairs and in particular its right of assembly. When the notice of the strike went public, the management started to threaten workers of reprisals in case they joined the strike. To mislead public attention, GR management also tried to slander the railway union and GTUC by speaking of blackmail and sabotage as well as by accusing the GTUC leadership of masterminding the process.”

The employer’s efforts to break the strike only made it stronger.

As a leader of the GTUC in Tbilisi put it in an email message, “the workers of the Western part of the railways have been joining the protest all day long and now it resembles a real general strike.”

Within a few short hours, it was all over.

The GTUC issued a statement saying that “Following 6-hour talks a consensus has been reached regarding all three issues raised by the Georgian Railway Workers New Trade Union. The just fight of the railway workers has been successful and the outcome meets the interests of the railway workers. The Georgian Railway has now resumed its operation in a usual mode.”

In Brussels, Sharan Burrow issued a second statement later in the day saying that “Management should have had the good sense to negotiate from the beginning. Thanks to the solidarity of the railway workers and their determination to achieve a just settlement, good sense has prevailed and the workers and their families will now get fair reward for their work.”

For the workers’ movement in Georgia, this victory – sweet though it is – is only the beginning.