Ukraine’s labour movement defiant – and in need of our solidarity

The coffee & tea corner in the bomb shelter of my hotel in Kyiv - photographed during an air raid alert.
The coffee & tea corner in the bomb shelter of my hotel in Kyiv - photographed during an air raid alert.

As I walked around Kyiv last month on a beautiful, sunny morning, I began to notice the scaffolding in the city’s squares. I asked Tristan Masat what was going on. Tristan runs the Solidarity Center office in Kyiv, representing the American trade union movement. He told me that they were statues, covered up to protect them from bomb damage.

Later, near Tristan’s offices, I saw an exposed statue with no protection around it. It was the graffiti-covered statue of a Red Army general on a horse. No one I asked could remember his name. Later had lunch with an activist in a small Georgian cafe. We could see the statue from where we sat. She told me that this statue had long been covered up by protective scaffolding. The protection was removed by the Ukrainians when the war broke out. There was some hope that Russian bombs might solve the problem of what to do with this relic of Soviet rule.

You cannot understand the war taking place in Ukraine without knowing its history. This was made very clear to me in a conversation I had with Olesia Briazgunova, who works for the smaller of Ukraine’s two national trade union centres, the KVPU. I suggested that there were some similarities between the situation in Ukraine today and the Spanish Civil War.

Olesia stopped me right there, and asked if there had been genocide in Spain. I said there hadn’t been. She said, well there’s genocide here — and the Russians have been trying to wipe out the Ukrainian nation for a very long time. I immediately thought of Stalin’s terror-famine of the early 1930s, which the Ukrainians call the Holodomor, and which they rightly consider an act of deliberate genocide. I have to admit that she had a point.

History surrounds you in Kyiv. You hear it in conversations, you see it in the street names and you breathe it in the air. The Solidarity Center is located on a street formerly named after Stalin’s Communist International. It was renamed in honour of Symon Petliura, a leader of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1919-1920 and a deeply controversial figure in the country’s history. The statue of Lenin that stood in Kyiv when I last visited is now long gone.

In addition to renaming streets with Soviet connections, the city seems to be removing much of its Russian history too. At one point I was directed by Google Maps to Pushkin street. But Pushkin street no longer exists; it has been renamed.

When I interviewed Georgiy Trukhanov, the leader of the 1.2 million member teachers union in Ukraine, about their relationship with the teachers union in Russia, he told me that those Russian teachers were partially guilty here. Guilty of what, I asked. All the Russian soldiers currently fighting in Ukraine, all of them, studied in Russian schools, he said. They were taught to be what they have become — killers and rapists.

The war has united Ukrainian society as never before. The unions are fully signed up and mobilised. The president of the FPU (the larger national trade union centre), Grygorii Osovyi, told me that 20% of Ukrainian trade union members were now serving in the armed forces. Trukhanov told me that teachers could not be drafted as they are considered essential workers — so thousands of them have volunteered.

I spoke with many union leaders about the situation in what Ukrainians call the “temporarily occupied territories”. Teachers are furious that the Russian occupiers have essentially banned the Ukrainian language from the classroom. Many workers have fled those territories and unions are doing an amazing job of helping them, collecting aid, providing accommodation and much more. Union offices I visited were full of boxes of aid, including plastic sheeting to replace windows destroyed by Russian artillery. Mykhailo Volynets, a former miner and head of the KVPU, told me that there was an urgent need for bandages. In the Solidarity Center offices, Natalia, a mine worker from the Donbas, was helping to organise transport for the many boxes of aid, including sleeping bags and children’s toys, jamming the front room.

Amid all the horrors of the war, there are occasional bits of very positive news. While Putin has weaponised homophobia in Russia, in Ukraine, there has been a huge shift in public opinion regarding LGBTQI people, many of whom are serving at the front. This is a part of the world where homophobia has run rampant, and even turned violent, as we have seen in countries like Georgia. But in Ukraine, the war has helped change attitudes in a positive way.

I spoke with Ukrainian socialists, with young workers who organise couriers, with aviation workers and railway workers. I was interviewed by women members of the nuclear power workers union — who are staying at their posts at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhya, now under Russian occupation.

The message I got from everyone could not have been clearer: The Ukrainian labour movement and left stands fully against the Russian invasion. They want and expect solidarity from the labour movement and left in other countries. They enormously appreciate things like the visits of leading trade unionists, including the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten — and the donations they have made, such as generators. They are looking forward to the visit of European and international trade union leaders in early October.

Despite my earlier conversation with Olesia, my thoughts returned to Spain. The many young men and women who have come over to Ukraine to join the fight are inspiring in the way that the International Brigades were some 90 years ago. The Spanish Republic was defeated in large part because the democracies failed to come to its aid, while Franco’s fascists were fully backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. This cannot be allowed to happen to Ukraine.

Putin’s regime in a fascist one, and the war on Ukraine is an illegal, imperialist war. Ukraine is not a perfect society, and its government is not a perfect government. Nor was the Spanish Republic. But in the fight against fascism, we need to ask ourselves — in the words of the old trade union song — which side are you on?

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.