How the Belarusian dictatorship presses independent trade unions in the country

On January 5, 2023, Belarusian independent trade unions’ leaders received substantial prison terms.
Hennadz Fiadynich – vice-chairperson of the Union of Radio and Electronics Workers (REP) – was sentenced to 9 years in prison.
Vasil Berasneu – acting chairperson of the Union of Radio and Electronics Workers (REP) – was sentenced to 9 years in prison.
Vatslau Areshka – an activist of the Union of Radio and Electronics Workers (REP) – was sentenced to 8 years in prison.

There are many more independent trade union members waiting to be unjustly convicted, like
Aliaksandr Yarashuk – Belarusian Congress of Democratic trade unions (BKDP);
Siarhei Antusevich – BKDP vice-chairperson;
Mikhail Hromau – Member and secretary of SPM Council Free Trade Union of Metalworkers (SPM),
And many others.

In the summer of 2022, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus outlawed all the independent Belarusian trade unions by declaring them “extremist organizations.”

Why does the Belarusian dictatorship pursue free workers’ organizations and see them as a menace to its existence?

Persecution of the unions is not something unknown in the contemporary world. In the USA, the police always acted brutally against the strikers in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. However, the members of the trade unions went on strike regularly. Work conditions in sweatshops, a massive death toll on railroads, pay cuts, and many more causes made workers deeply unsatisfied with their job standards. To answer these challenges, they started to consolidate into various organizations. The Knights of Labor, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the American Federation of Labor, and many more are the most well-known.

The trade unions in the United States were very active as the work conditions and workers were very poor. Thirty-seven thousand strikes took place between 1881 and 1905. Unfortunately, many activists died during the operational phases of the strikes and the fights with militia and armed forces. The courts also sent a lot of trade unionists to prison for long terms. But due to their sacrifice today in the USA, we have a national 8-hour work day, fair wages, and equal rights for workers of all races and genders.

Samuel Gompers, Mother Jones, Eugene V. Debs – are among the legends of the American labor movement. But we can also remember many more brave people whose dedication and legacy inspire unionists all over the world till today. The principles of their rights struggle showed people from former Soviet republics how to act.

To commemorate the achievements of the American Labor movement, on the first Monday of every September, we celebrate Labour Day. The fight for a better future was brutal and difficult for American workers. But they did it through their ability to self-organize and to be in solidarity.

Solidarity – is the key word that frightens the dictators like Lukashenko (Belarusian dictator) the most.

The shipyard workers in Gdansk proclaimed the word “Solidarność” (Solidarity) for the first time in the Socialistic camp in 1980. They organized a trade union which led to the end of the anti-democratic pro-soviet regime in Poland. At its peak, about 10,000,000 people became members of the trade union “Solidarność.” The repressions were extreme. The government even positioned martial law in the country.

Lech Wałęsa, the leader of the Solidarność trade union, suffered many arrests and had to live in the underground. The urban centers like Warsaw, Kraków, Szczecin, Wrocław, Łódź, and many other smaller cities were the arena of the street fights between unionists and armed forces.

But in the end, Poland deliberated from the communist regime and rejoined the free world of the western democracies.

The history of Belarus‘s independent trade union movement is closely related to the labor movement. It all started in 1989. That year the miners’ demonstrations were held in Salihorsk – Belarusian miners’ capital.

I have to mention here that though the Soviet Union proclaimed itself as “the first state of the workers,” in fact, only a few communists could benefit from living in this “socialist paradise.” The rest of the USSR lived in gray poverty and knew no rights. Each factory had its trade union. But the Soviet system determined its role by collecting contributions and giving New Year gifts with sweets to those workers who had children. There also existed special prices for the recreation centers and sanatoriums. But it’s easy to understand today that the workers could afford all of it by themselves if they had more money.

The strike movement of workers organized strike committees. Later, they organized the first Belarusian independent trade unionBelarusian Independent Trade Union (BITU or BNP) in 1991. However, on August 21, 1995, Lukashenko, by his decree, suspended the activities of the Free Trade Union of Belarus for organizing a strike in the Minsk metro. Therefore, on February 6, 1996, the Free Trade Union of Belarus underwent re-registration at the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Belarus and was renamed the Free Trade Union of Belarus.

In July 2022, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus stopped the activities of the trade union because the management and many trade union members took part in the so-called “destructive activities.” But on the opposite, people participated in peaceful mass protests against the stolen elections in 2020 when the dictator Lukashenko again unlawfully proclaimed his victory.

Other independent trade unions have fallen to a similar fate.

Belarusian Independent Trade Union (Belarusian Independent Trade Union of Miners, Chemists, Oil Refiners, Energy Engineers, Transporters, Builders and Other Workers, BNP) is a democratic trade union, founded on October 6, 1991, as the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Belarus (NPGB).

In February 1992, the first conference of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of JSC “Belaruskali” took place. It was at the meeting that, for the first time, the miners’ union announced the initiative to enter into an open-ended labor dispute with the employer and, as a result, decided to go on strike. The demands put forward by the strikers included higher wages, social guarantees, and the provision of decent working conditions. The strike lasted 44 days. At the same time, the miners and their family members announced a miners’ hunger strike, which lasted for 18 days. Then the trade union organized a miners’ march to Minsk – the capital of Belarus.

The actions were not in vain. The independent trade union won a real victory. The Tariff Agreement was signed in the country for the first time, which reflected the provision that the minimum wage should correspond to the minimum consumer budget. In April 1992, the temporary agreement acquired the status of a regulatory document.

After many glorious years of withstanding the dictatorship and struggling for workers’ rights, the Belarusian Independent Trade Union was proclaimed an extremist organization and outlawed.

The Union of Radio and Electronics Workers (REP) was founded in the 1990s. One of the largest independent trade unions in Belarus.

The Belarusian government prosecuted the leaders and members of the union for many years. But the Union of Radio and Electronics Workers was fighting for the rights of working people and the ideals of democracy. Hennadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik were participants in the most high-profile trial against the labor movement leaders before 2020.

Unfortunately, the Union of Radio and Electronics Workers (REP) and their members have been outlawed and faced long-term sentences.

The Free Trade Union of Metalworkers (SPM) is a member of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions.

SPM was created by separating from the Free Trade Union of Belarus in 1995. On July 19, 2022, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus stopped the activities of the trade union for the same reasons as the previous independent organizations.

In Belarus, many people believe that Lukashenko decided the destiny of the Belarusian independent trade unions in 1995 after the strike in the Minsk metro.

The situation in the Minsk metro worsened in the spring of 1995 when the head of the city metro, Uladzimir Nabezhka, canceled the 10 percent allowances for safe and accident-free work and reduced the number of bonuses. He violated the collective agreement concluded between the employer and the trade unions.

Trade unions attempted to negotiate with the head of the subway but did not yield results. The trade unions also appealed to the authorities. But this did not produce anything, which prompted the decision to start a strike.

On the eve of August 17, part of the drivers of the trolley bus depot No. 1, which served the central transport artery of the city – Skaryna Avenue, went on strike. Metro workers gathered at a meeting on the night of August 16-17 and decided to support them, they didn’t start work. Members of the Free Trade Union of Belarus actively participated in the strike.

After almost a week of tension, the police arrested the strike organizers. The directorate fired the participants. Strikebreakers supported the work of the metro.

Lukashenko declared several conspiracies after this strike. First, he insisted that the strike was “inspired from the West” and “the opposition inside the country trained its participants.”

But the main reason that frightened him the most – was the solidarity of workers and their decision to fight for their rights. He saw the power in workers’ solidarity. So, he decided to shut down any independent and free activities in Belarus.

Lukashenko stole elections in 2020. After it, he found himself in partial isolation from the free democratic world. The isolation became total in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine, and Lukashenko supported it. And finally, he could make his old dream come true. His vengeance was ferocious. Courts in Belarus became an instrument of repression. And police and KGB used this instrument to sentence the members and leaders of the independent trade unions to long terms in prison.

Long terms to the leaders and members of the Belarusian trade unions remind the free democratic world about the price of its freedom. Hennadz Fiadynich, Vasil Berasneu, Vatslau Areshka, Aliaksandr Yarashuk, Siarhei Antusevich, Mikhail Hromau, and many others knew what they were doing. And they also knew about the consequences of their activities. But for these people, the ideals of Equality, Justice, Freedom, and Democracy are above all.

Marlon Parker


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