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News: The Russians Have Landed

Union leaders seek help in building labor movement

By Margo Pierce · November 7th, 2007 · News
Sergei Pystin, Astafyev Alexander and Lyuba Frenkel at the Board of Elections.
Natalie Hager

Sergei Pystin, Astafyev Alexander and Lyuba Frenkel at the Board of Elections.

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By 10 p.m. Election Night, the Hamilton County Board of Elections was still reporting just over 5 percent of precincts and election watchers were getting antsy after looking at absentee ballot numbers for more than two hours.

With extra time needed to close down new voting machines, there wasn't much of interest for locals, but a group of Russian union organizers seemed to be enjoying themselves. Guests of the local AFL-CIO, the men had spent the past three days visiting unions in Greater Cincinnati.

"We are the same people, like people here," said Sergei Pystin, deputy chair of the Free Trade Union at the Autovoz plant in Togliatti, Russia. "We have families, and we want these families to live well and we want to be paid a living wage for our work, a living wage."

Speaking through Lyuba Frenkel, program officer for the Solidarity Center, who also served as translator for the group, Pystin described the highlight of their trip as a meeting in Detroit with the United Auto Workers negotiating team that recently hammered out a deal with Ford.

"I was very impressed when we all met with the UAW negotiating team when they came out of negotiations with Ford Motor Co.," he said. "This was a very nice exchange and conversation. I was very impressed with the whole negotiating team. We spoke to the whole team. The way they spoke showed that they indeed work as a team. That was very impressive. All of the members of the negotiating team were all as one -- they took turns speaking, they developed each other's points. They spoke with one voice.

"This is our goal. Negotiating with the management is what we need to do. This is the goal that we need to reach. The result they were able to achieve as a result of this negotiation is an indicator that they do have a good team and that they can reach good results. They are strong."

Frenkel noted that Russian laws are more labor-friendly than those in the United States and went on to say that, in spite of the "horrible" laws here, unions are able to organize and make an impact. Learning how this is possible was a goal for the group, Pystin agreed.

"(U.S. unions) are comparable with Russian free trade unions in terms of their goals and the work that they do," he said. "But there is a huge difference in strength between U.S. unions and Russian free trade unions.

"I wanted to know how people live here, how unions work and how unions protect workers' rights. I liked to see how unions worked here, how they are powerful and how they engage in politics and their organizing abilities."

A key component of that power comes from political activism, so seeing the unions in action was the task on Election Day. Douglas Sizemore, executive secretary-treasurer of the Cincinnati AFL-CIO, did his best to make sure the local perspective helped give the Russians what they were looking for.

"I've just taken them around to different unions," he said. "They've been able to see our progress of educating our members and get our members out to vote. We took them by AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) last night because they had a ratification vote with the city contract, so they were able to see how that process works. We were able to take them to meet with the musicians' union. They met with teachers."

The visit was made possible by the Solidarity Center (www.solidaritycenter.org), an AFL-CIO program that, according to its Web site, "assists workers around the world who are struggling to build democratic and independent trade unions." Frenkel says the Russians asked to visit the United States, and her organization helped make that happen.

Sizemore was happy to have been an integral part of this particular visit.

"It's been really enlightening for me," he said. "We want the same things. We want to be able to support our families, to have a good life, to make sure our kids are taken care of. We all want the same things, and we all have to fight for what we get.

"It's international -- it's what workers want and working families want. It's good that we can exchange ideas." ©



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