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"Strike Is a Spark"

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"Strike Is a Spark"
Rally in Hrodna on August 19, 2020 Photo: Vasil Malchanau / belsat.eu

How Hrodna workers "undermined" the regime in the 90s and August 2020.

In April 1991, a strike took place in Belarus, which went down in history as the most massive demonstration of workers in the struggle for their political rights. It started from the regions and covered dozens of labor collectives in different cities of Belarus, Belsat reports.

Strike in Hrodna, the Early 1990s. Photos from the Hero's Personal Archive

The beginning of 1991 did not promise anything good to the Soviet Union, which was already bursting at the seams. Economic reforms in the process of transition from a planned economy to a market economy stalled, the deficit became global, and glasnost finally finished off faith in the CPSU. The last attempt to save the Soviet economy was the scandalous Pavlovian monetary reform, which, however, led to an opposite result - the disappearance of all confidence in the government of the USSR.

Reference. What is the Pavlovsk reform? On the evening of January 22, 1991, when almost all financial institutions and shops were already closed, the Vremya Program announced the exchange of money. Large bills of 50 and 100 rubles of the 1961 sample were withdrawn from circulation. Three days were given to change them for new ones. At the same time, the exchange amounts were limited, the accounts were frozen. Many took it as a deliberate robbery. The initiator of the confiscatory monetary reform was the USSR Minister of Finance Valentin Pavlov.

At the same time, on April 2, prices for groceries and other goods in stores increased 2-3 times. Workers began to unrest: workers from Orsha were among the first to stop work, who in protest blocked the railroad. In addition to economic ones, political demands began to sound.

"We're going to block the road here."

In Hrodna, the locomotive of the workers' movement was the plant of automobile units. There were dynasty workers at the enterprise, highly qualified specialists worked. The workers were quite active: at that time, they already went to the meetings of <>bZianon Pazniak and protested against the construction of a local poultry farm and the Skidzel plant of medicines.

The rise in prices was the last straw: at one point, all auxiliary shops - repair, electrical shop, part of the automaton - stopped their work. The workers called the director for a talk. The question was raised: prices are rising, which means that it is necessary to raise wages. They also proposed to reform the plant - to make a leased enterprise out of it in order to become owners themselves. The director did not agree: he said that there should be one owner.

Strike in Hrodna, the Early 1990s. Photos from the Hero's Personal Archive

The reaction of the workers was very quick and harsh: people left the workshops, opened the main gates of the transport checkpoint, and blocked all traffic on the street. There is panic in the city: officials, police, prosecutors, and so on began to arrive. About 200 workers continued to stand talking among themselves. Public transport stopped, only vehicles of ambulances, a bakery, and a dairy plant were allowed to pass.

“I feel that people are a little tired, I need to cheer them up. I go to the checkpoint and start performing. I voiced our demands: to increase salaries and reform the enterprise - change the form of ownership and modernize. We also demanded that trade unions finally begin to protect workers and fulfill their direct functions: employment, wages, and ensuring safe working conditions. At that time, the trade unions were mainly engaged in the redistribution of the deficit,” Anatol Khotska, the real master of the workers' movement in Hrodna, recalls in a conversation with Belsat.

Anatol has worked at the plant for 26 years, continuing the family working dynasty: after the war, his father worked as a senior foreman at auto-units. Anatol worked first as a milling machine operator, then as an adjuster, traveled around the Soviet Union, and started up equipment. In 2003, he became the coordinator for the Hrodna region in the project of the International Labor Organization. He was engaged in the creation of independent trade unions.

The workers publicly spoke about the rise in prices and the loss of goods from stores. Representatives of the authorities came to them, therefore, the question of the sovereignty of Belarus was also raised.

At this meeting, it was decided to create a strike committee, which would negotiate the demands presented. Within a week, each shop had to delegate a person to the strikes. At that time, there were no such structures even in Minsk.

“After the end of the working day, I returned home, and suddenly I got a call. “Anatoly, this is the tool shop. We're going to block the road here. You blocked the traffic in the first shift, but we did not." I laughed and said: "Guys, don't, we are already solving the issue." But it was such solidarity: if the first shift left, then the second one must also leave,” Anatol says.

"I sealed the party committee at the plant with the trade union seal"

They set up a strike at the factory and paid workers compensation for price increases. A general urban strike also arose in the city: workers joined the auto units from Azot and other enterprises. In mid-April, a republican strike committee appeared.

Anatol Khotska. Photo: Belsat

“We went to Minsk, where not only economic but also political demands were presented to the government: dissolution of the Supreme Soviet, cleansing of factories from the party, privatization of enterprises, creation of a professional army, reduction of the state apparatus and police. All economic requirements were then adopted by the Cabinet of Ministers. But they refused to remove the party committees from the factories,” says Anatol Khotska.

In May, the strike committee was disbanded, and the activists created a labor union instead. Anatol Khotska was elected chairman of the trade union, which mainly included members of the strike committee.

The First Independent Trade Unions in Hrodna Appeared at the Magnitol, the Spinning and Thread Combine, and Azot. Photo: Belsat

“This is how we started our legal work. First, the staff was optimized, then they began to create strike funds, where they paid 1% of the union dues. At that time, there were no independent trade unions. We belonged to the Avtoselmash trade union, they were more or less democratic then,” Anatol says.

After that, the labor movement swept through the Minsk enterprises. Usually, those who were in the strike committees then led the created trade unions. The first independent trade unions in Hrodna appeared at Magnitol, Spinning and Thread Combine, and Azot.

“At that time, we solved almost all local issues at the plant. We even succeeded in clearing our enterprise of the party committee. I already sealed them with the seal of the trade union. This is despite the fact that the party was still at the helm,” says Anatol Khotska.

Anatol Khotska. Photo: Belsat

“For non-fulfillment of the collective agreement, we expressed no confidence in the director. And he lost his job"

He recalls how he interviewed the workers: he made a questionnaire asking what forms of protest they were ready to take due to the rise in prices: a meeting, a march, a strike, etc.

“We have a revolutionary people, 90 percent spoke in favor of the strike. But I myself understood that, in reality, it is 10 percent at most. However, this was a form of pressure on the employer, he was told that people were being questioned in the shops, and the result was that everyone was ready to go on strike.

We taught the workers for a long time that the main task of the trade union is to resolve issues with wages and not gifts for the New Year. We taught people that the collective agreement is the most important document. If the trade union did not sign an order giving “okay” to something, the employer did not take a risk to violate it,” says Anatol.

Strike in Hrodna, the Early 1990s. Photos from the Hero's Personal Archive

According to him, at that time it was still possible to negotiate with the directors. These were people who grew up in collectives, at enterprises. Then it was a prerequisite: a person had to go through all stages of production in order to understand the order of things. They earned money and had a certain prestige among the workers. Plus the human factor: the director also lives in the same city as the workers, so he sees and understands the problems common to all. But at the same time, the director is a hired person from the ministry, so he must do everything for the good of the state.

“But if the government got up to something, we beat those who were close - these are directors. There was even this: for non-fulfillment of the collective agreement, we expressed no confidence in the director. And about a month later, the director lost his job. Is it possible to imagine such a thing today?" Anatol Khotska notes.

"How can you disperse our union if people support us"

From time to time, conferences were held at the plant which were necessarily attended by representatives of high-ranking authorities: deputy chairmen of the executive committee, he himself or someone from the labor department of the executive committee.

“It was stated in the collective agreement that when questions about labor protection and wages arise, we hold a conference within a month to which representatives of the authorities were invited. I have always used this form of publicity, which was very effective. What can I say: the industry minister and the deputy prime minister were present at the conferences of the branch trade union,” says Anatol Khotska.

Enterprise Radiovolna, Hrodna. Photo: Belsat

According to him, at that time the party members did not know how the situation in the country would end, therefore, they were afraid of people's anger. And the support of the trade unions was strong. And if people call for a conference, then they have to go.

“The authorities went to contact and dialogue because they were afraid for themselves. As long as it's quiet. They plotted to disperse our union. But how can you disperse it if people support us? Over time, we created an association of chairmen of trade unions of industrial enterprises. We were joined by Torgmash, Magnitola. And when we held some kind of action, rally, we did everything together. We were strongly supported by the teachers, and we also supported them. At the last rally, for example, the mayor was so brought up that he even angrily threw his union card on the ground. It was the end of the 90s, we held a meeting with teachers in Kalozhski Park, which was attended by about 2 thousand people,” Anatol says.

In the first years of independence, the trade union movement actively developed, there was an educational exchange with other countries. For example, representatives of the Swedish metalworkers' union came to the plant of car units.

“There is no need to negotiate with the authorities. They have one tactic - to blabber the problem"

In the 1990s, the workers calmly held rallies and processions, the police never interfered. Anatol recalls 1993 when Siamion Domash became the chairman of the Hrodna regional executive committee. A problem arose at the plant: the workshops were not heated, it was very expensive, and it coincided that prices increased at that time. The workers were "boiling."

“We went to the regional executive committee on the square. Winter, we are standing in the square, making demands. The authorities always have one tactic - to blurt out the problem, to delay the time. No need to negotiate with them. I and another representative of the plant were invited to the executive committee to talk.

- Well, have you solved the question? - they asked us at the end of the conversation.

- No. We will decide on the square. People are waiting, - I replied.

The city authorities had to go out to the people on the square and talk to them. At this time, in the regional executive committee, Siamion Domash held a meeting with officials and directors of factories. And this is a scandal: immediately after Domash's appointment, people came out to the square.

“Together with me were a worker from “Turning Chucks” Barys Halubovich and Aliaksandr Harkou from Azot. We were invited to this meeting. They tried to intimidate us there, but why to be afraid - there was a whole square of people behind our back,” Anatol said.

August 2020

During the events of August 2020, high hopes were pinned on workers at large state-owned enterprises on the road to victory of the Belarusian protests. The workers' strike looked like the most effective way to get the authorities to leave. In Hrodna, strike committees began to be formed at several enterprises. Street pressure forced the local authorities to release the detainees and negotiate. Three days of Hrodna democracy will go down in the history of new Belarus.

Rally in Hrodna August 19, 2020 Photo: Vasil Malchanau / belsat.eu

“The strike is a spark, but no one picked it up. On August 9, people were deceived in the elections, then they were severely beaten for several days. The people were very indignant. These were the two main reasons for the strike. Everyone walked in euphoria for three days and thought that we had won, but we had to go to factories, to people and work, explain," Anatol Khotska believes.

Then a strike was created at Azot, they tried to create something similar in Grodnopromstroy, the workers of the tobacco plant went to the entrance, but there was no leader who would lead everyone.

“We started asking questions about how to organize everything according to the law. But you will not legally carry out a strike. A political strike is illegal. And economic is a certain procedure, a long process. We should have had a political strike demanding re-elections so that all the detainees were released and those who beat people in the streets were brought to justice. That's all, nothing else. And this is a political struggle. There was no leader who had ambitions for power and went for broke. Now a political strike is possible only if there is a spark similar to the August one,” says Anatol Khotska.

Employees of JSC Hrodna Azot Struggle at the Enterprise. Hrodna, Belarus. August 19, 2020 Photo: Vasil Malchanau / belsat.eu

According to him, when 40 thousand people came to the square in Hrodna, it was necessary to create a city committee of people's trust: 5-6 people, representatives from labor collectives, political parties, public organizations, teachers, doctors. It was worth voting for each candidate by the square - for the committee to acquire status.

“Then it was necessary to demand that representatives of the committee be allowed to see people at enterprises, etc., and already there to carry out explanatory work. At that time, the authorities would not have gone anywhere in front of the 40-thousandth square, they would have made concessions. After such work, the question would already be posed as follows: if the conditions put forward are not fulfilled by a certain date (in a short time), we declare a strike. But this had to be done in a maximum of three days so that the authorities did not have time to regroup. Time was lost, no people were found who would take responsibility and initiative. After all, when I do this, I understand that I risk being imprisoned, but I have political ambitions. In Minsk, all those who could really lead people were preventively detained,” Anatol believes.

At that time, the Azot people did not have the opportunity to hold a strike since this was a dangerous enterprise, and the authorities were playing on this very thing. But, according to Khotska, the Azot people could demand wages, this would give reason to leave and take the money for the security forces.

“Now workers should demand higher wages. This is also such a contribution to the struggle. When there is a reason - products are being sold, prices for what you produce are growing - demand higher wages. Pulling money out of the state as much as possible so that the AMAP is left with less is the only way out,” says Anatol Khotska.