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Issue 43, November 1999

Nuclear Strike

THE DEPTH of the Ukraine's nuclear energy crisis, featured in September's Global Warning column (Chernobyl: Another Disaster Looms), was brought home vividly by a strike which took place last year in the Khmelnitskaya atomic energy station. No media covered the strike except Workers' Resistance, produced by the Ukrainian section of the Committee for a Workers' International. We reprint an edited translation of that article below.

THE STRIKE over unpaid wages took place in March 1998 and lasted for two days. The workers used novel tactics, forming an underground strike committee to select 100 of the most active strikers to blockade the authorities at Netishin (a town of 20,000 people where the power station is located) in their own flats. These included ten SBU secret policemen, police chiefs, power station management, and even the station's firemen. They cut the telephones to the flats.

A telegram was sent to Kiev: 'Power in Netishin has been taken over by the power station's workers. We demand our wages or we will stop electricity supplies from the station'.

There was panic in Kiev. They tried to phone the local SBU but got no answer. What should they do, send in the riot police? But that would lead to clashes. They decided to settle everything quickly, so no-one else would follow the power workers' example. They sent ten highly-placed bureaucrats and a lorry load of cash and the strikers were paid the four months' money owed to them.

  After the strike, ten of the most militant leaders were sacked for various reasons. They got little help from the opposition. The local Communist Party continued to call for a 'decisive battle with the anti-people regime', but as a power station worker commented: 'We got no actual support from these people. These irrepressible fighters against the Kuchma regime couldn't even help us when we were preparing to defend our actions in court'. The official trade union kept out of the way and the left parties were afraid to intervene in case they were banned.

The strikers have begun to talk of the need for militant trade unions and a workers' party, but for now they are satisfied to pass on their experience. One explained how they isolated Netishin's elite: 'It was simple, all our doors open outwards so we just blocked each door with a heavy metal box full of sand. If that didn't work, we simply nailed the doors shut... We took over everything we could'.

Did you expect the authorities to storm the town or blockade it?

'Yes, we were prepared for that but there is only one main road through and we blocked that with two heavy lorries and set up guards'.

Why did they not try to storm you?

'They were afraid of provoking us. The regional bosses, all former party men, were scared and tried to talk nicely to us. They were smiling widely and did everything they could so as not to upset us. We really enjoyed ourselves. Normally when we ask them for something they treat us like dirt. They were scared, the rats'.


What measures have the authorities taken to prevent a repeat of the strike?

'They've put two personnel carriers outside the post office and strengthened the numbers of SBU and police guarding the atomic station. We probably couldn't take it now but we've achieved what we wanted. Our pay is now always on time'.

The economic and political position is desperate. Don't you think it should be changed?

'That would be good, of course, but we don't trust anyone. Elections are no good. They're all in it for themselves'.

Some of the strikers are impatient. At a recent meeting with the leaders of the Progressive Socialist Party, some of them warned, 'If we get involved in politics, it will be with automatics in our hands'. In the new capitalist Ukraine there is no money so workers have to use the most militant forms of struggle.

It would be wrong to present this as a generalised movement but, at the same time, it would be criminal to try to hold back such explosions of energy. Only such experiences can test our theories in practice and help us develop a real fighting workers' movement.

Oleg Vernick and Igor Rotanov

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