Organized Labour In an Imperial Warzone

Speech given by Ken Stone at a Rally outside the Ontario Federation of Labour Conference, November 22, 2023

Brothers and Sisters,

I wish to thank the Toronto Coalition Against NATO for inviting me to speak on this occasion. Organized labour has an important role to play in the political discourse in Ontario and Canada and we wish the Ontario Federation of Labour great success in its deliberations this week here in Toronto.

I only presume to speak here today because I have been a union man all of my adult life and a participant in the struggles of Canadian labour for social justice and, in particular, the betterment of conditions for the working class. Currently I am a member of CURC, the Congress of Union Retirees, which is a CLC affiliate. During my career, I have been a member of the Letter Carriers Union of Canada, the OSSTF, and ETFO. My highest union position was as a National Grievance officer at the head office of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers in Ottawa. Today, I speak on behalf of the Hamilton Coalition To Stop The War.

I am here today to speak about why Ontario trade unions should NOT support the government of Ukraine and, in fact, why they should censure the Zelensky regime. The current government of Ukraine is an anti-labour government. In fact, it is probably the most anti-labour government in all of Europe. Why do I say so? It’s because President Zelensky’s labour reforms have removed trade union representation from about 70% of Ukraine’s workers, enabled zero-hour labour contracts, overhauled Ukraine’s labour code for the worse, and worked hard to sell off state enterprises at bargain basement prices to oligarchs and foreign investors. According to Open Democracy, an on-line publication,

On August 17th (of this year), Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyi ratified Law 5371, which removes rights for workers at small and medium-sized companies. It will be effective for as long as the country is under martial law – a qualification added at the last minute, under pressure from trade unions.

Under the new law, people who work for firms with up to 250 employees will now be covered by contracts they negotiate as individuals with their bosses, rather than by the national labour code.

In practice, this means that around 70% of workers in Ukraine have been stripped of many labour protections. Collective agreements negotiated by unions – over salary or holidays, for instance – no longer apply. The law also removes the legal authority of trade unions to veto workplace dismissals.

The Ukrainian government has claimed it is trying to alleviate the difficulties faced by companies in wartime. However, it first tried to introduce the new law in 2021, (i.e., before the war started).

Ukraine’s ruling Servant of the People Party argued that ‘the extreme over-regulation of employment contradicts the principles of market self-regulation [and] modern personnel management.’”

Ukraine’s Federation of Trade Unions has strongly opposed Law 5371. A joint European Union-International Labour Organisation (ILO) panel has harshly criticized it. Other Ukrainians argue the Zelensky government is using Russia’s Special Military Operation as an excuse to push for deregulation and the gutting of Ukraine’s social security network.

But Law 5371 isn’t the whole story. In July, Zelensky’s government passed two other laws: one permits employers to stop paying workers who have been drafted into the military, while the other legalizes zero-hours contracts. You may ask, “What are “zero-hours contracts?”

Zero-hours contracts are an anti-worker, anti-union practice devised in the UK to permit employers, such as MacDonald’s, to hire employees without specifying a minimum number of hours per week. Needless to say, these contracts further immiserate and impoverish the lives of UK and Ukrainian workers and undermine the ability of unions to organize the unorganized. And, secretly, according to the European Public Service Union, the UK Tory government has been advising the Ukrainian government:

“…leaked documents show that the UK government via its development aid arm (UK Aid) and the UK embassy in Kiev is funding consultants to assist the Ukrainian Ministry of Economy in selling its neo-liberal market reforms to the Ukrainian people… The UK effectively tries to undermine efforts of the ILO and the European Commission to advise the social partners and the government on the labour reforms by financing propaganda to create a climate against the unions.”

According to Le Monde, it so happens that Zelensky’s “main economic adviser is a brilliant economist and professor at Cambridge University, Alexander Rodnyansky, son of the founder of the TV channel that made Volodymyr Zelensky, the comedian, known to the general public. In an interview with the Guardian in October, he made no secret of the fact that Ukraine must become attractive through a vast program of privatization and a complete overhaul of labour laws”, which includes the scrapping of the minimum wage.

Among the revisions proposed to Ukraine’s labour code are lengthening the work-day to 12-hours and permitting employers to dismiss workers without justification. Both of these measures were already enabled in practice by Law 2136, passed in March 2022, just one month into the war.

The Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine is launching a challenge to Law 5371 in the country’s constitutional court, and is appealing to the ILO and other international bodies. It argues that martial law prevented it from calling protests and strikes to oppose the legislation.

However, that goal may be difficult for the Federation to achieve because the Zelensky government has also moved to seize the assets of trade unions, including their buildings and bank accounts.

Western international labour bodies, such as the International Trade Union Confederation, have criticized Zelensky’s labour “reforms.” In a statement dated, July 20, 2022, Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary, said

It is grotesque that while Ukrainian workers defend the country and care for the injured, sick and displaced, that they are now under attack from their own parliament while their backs are turned. The big majority of Ukraine’s workers work for enterprises with less than 250 employees, and it is these workers who will be deprived of protection of their wages, conditions and safety if President Zelenskyy signs the bills into law. On top of that, the threat to confiscate property from the unions is aimed at stopping them opposing the draconian bills, and will allow oligarchs to take future ownership of them at bargain basement prices.”

For its part, the Canadian Labour Congress, under President Bea Bruske, announced it was “standing with Ukraine” on the very first day of the war. However, the CLC, which is an affiliate of the above-mentioned ITUC, has regrettably failed to join other labour bodies, such as the ILO, in condemning Zelensky’s anti-union reforms. The CLC’s silence on the Ukrainian government’s attacks on workers demonstrates, then, that it stands with the anti-union Ukrainian government and the oligarchs and NOT with the Ukrainian workers and their unions.

And that’s why we’re here today. We think that Ontario labour should distance itself from the Zelensky regime which, besides attacking labour’s rights, has also outlawed opposition parties, jailed their leaders, and has even banned freedom of religion, closing down certain Greek Orthodox churches, arresting religious leaders, and seizing church properties.

It is an anti-worker, anti-union, anti-democratic regime which Ontario labour should shun. Ontario trade unionists should use the opportunity of this OFL Convention to demand the CLC denounce the Zelensky regime’s attacks on workers.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Ken Stone is an activist in Hamilton Toronto.  A life long Union man, he is also very active with the Hamilton Coalition to Stop the War and a network of affiliated antiwar organizations across Canada.

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