When the Soviet Union came crashing down three decades ago, among the very first republics to declare independence were the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This made sense as they had been among the last to be brought under Soviet rule, back in the 1940s. There were people living in those countries who remembered independence in their lifetimes.
What many of us hoped for back then was a quick revival of the political parties that had been crushed under Communist Party rule, and the emergence of strong, independent trade unions to replace the state-controlled labour fronts.
But things did not turn out that way. As happened across the entire former Soviet Union, a kind of unrestrained capitalism filled the void created by the collapse of the Stalinist regime. Independent unions did emerge, but they were not always particularly strong. And in the case of Lithuania, it has taken them all that time — more than thirty years — to organise a strike against a private sector company.
That has now happened at the Achema nitrogen fertiliser plant, where almost half of the 1,300 employees went on indefinite strike on 8 February.
The significance of their action cannot be overstated. As Inga Ruginienė, chairwoman of the Lithuanian Trade Unions Confederation, put it, their strike is the first protest action of this scale in Lithuania since independence.
The workers are up against a particularly nasty employer. Achema CEO Ramūnas Miliauskas told LRT Radio that “a collective agreement, as a piece of paper, gives no guarantees to either side.” He refuses to sign an agreement with the union, but insists he’ll increase salaries without a collective agreement.
Union leaders have described the situation at the company as a “state of war” — and have called the company’s promise to raise wages “a bluff”.
Inga Ruginienė was quoted as saying that “in the history of independent Lithuania, this is probably the first such industrial action. Imagine how exhausted the workers must have been to make that decision.”
Here is what the “exhausted” workers at Achema are demanding: The remuneration system be spelt out in a collective agreement so that the company cannot change pay at will. They are also calling for wage indexation and clear rules on overtime. These are not crazy, revolutionary demands. But the company still refuses to budge.
The union asked for and got a strong statement of solidarity from the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). ETUC Secretary General Luca Visentini wrote to the Achema management, saying that “we call on the immediate return to negotiations with the Achema Workers’ trade union, and in line with the principles of constructive social dialogue and mutual understanding, to reach an agreement.”
The union has also launched an online campaign on LabourStart, encouraging trade union members around the world to demonstrate their solidarity by sending a protest message. It is the first campaign to appear on LabourStart in Lithuanian, and translations into Estonian and Latvian are expected as well.
Birute Daškevičienė, the chairwoman of Achema’s trade union, said that the strike action will continue until the employer agrees to sign a collective agreement. Thousands of trade unionists around the world sending their messages of solidarity through the LabourStart campaign will help make that a reality.
Show your support the Achema’s workers here: http://www.labourstart.org/go/achema
This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.