Labour and Authoritarian Neoliberalism in Russia: Resistance without a Movement. Crisis without an End

Thursday, 14 July 2016: 09:30
Location: Hörsaal 31 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Gregory SCHWARTZ, University of Bristol, United Kingdom
The perennial question facing students of trade unions in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia has been what happens when labour cannot exercise ‘voice’, while ‘exit’ appears exceptional (Ost & Crowley, 2001; Clarke & Ashwin, 2004; Meardi, 2013). In this paper I extend Hirschman’s (1970) dialectic of ‘voice’ and ‘exit’ by exploring the current dynamics within the Russian labour movement. Official statistics, national media and public discourse convey an apparent absence of labour protest. In contrast, data from the Russian Confederation of Labour and the Centre for Social and Labour Rights show that there is a high and increasing incidence of labour unrest. These spontaneous protests and strikes are, however, unofficial and illegal, given that unions are required by law to obtain agreements from employers and local authorities, file numerous forms with strict deadlines for approval by the judiciary, and face informal pressures and individual and collective persecutions. Existing research has shown that where dialogue and collective bargaining are stifled, workers opt for spontaneous protests as a last resort rarely are able to accomplish positive collective outcomes. I argue that two additional negative aspects result from the system-wide legalistic-bureaucratic stifling of ‘voice’. First, the stigmatisation of collective action, achieved by criminalising particular individuals involved in protest, entrenches the non-viability of ‘exit’ for other workers. Second, by encouraging actions deemed criminal by the authorities it fosters the ‘professionalization’ of union activism by a decreasing number of ever more radical individuals, hindering the development of trade union democracy and democratic civic institutions. I conclude by showing that, rather than being simply an aspect of despotic employment relations in specific firms, the current legalistic-bureaucratic regime of labour relations in Russia cements an authoritarian social formation which becomes difficult to overcome in the longer term.