Friday, September 20, 2013


Under this picture in my scrapbook I wrote "A visit to the headquarters of CMOT Moscow where was also present CMOT Petersburg. There was in that apartment a kind of a brooding, conspiratorial atmosphere. CMOT Moscow and Petersburg seemed a hodgepodge from which you could make neither head nor tail and had little to do with unions.” The photo of Marilyn Monroe on the wall together with a framed picture of some major Russian person gave me the feeling of being lost in time and place. On the right side of the photo Krisztoff Dowgiallo, vice-president of WCL and head of our delegation.The 2 on the left are from CMOT Moscow.(photo Petrus)

We visited a group of CMOT in one of those typical apartment blocks in the suburbs of Moscow. The conversation was disappointing. Maybe they were courageous dissidents but they had little or no contact with real trade unions. Back in our hotel we also spoke to Matvienko of CMOT in Minsk, Belarus. 3 years later I organized a mission to Belarus together with the ICFTU, but that's a different story. We also met Massalowitsj, one of the leaders of miners in Vorkuta. He insisted that we would immediately travel to Vorkuta, about 2000 kilometers north of Moscow and 150 kilometer above the Arctic Circle. He told us that there were thousands of miners on strike for months because they had not received wages any more. The non-payment of wages would become a growing problem in Russia over the next years. Sometimes workers had to survive months without any payments. The trip to Vorkuta, we did not make. Subsequent attempts afterwards to get in contact with him unfortunately failed.

A picture of the WCL delegates Amrita Sietaram and myself (in the centre) together with Vorkuta miners' representative  Massalovitsj (third from right) on the Red Square.  First on the right side is the leader of the new party who wanted to introduce in Russia the politics of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The others were from some other unions.(photo Petrus) 

The history of the striking miners in Vorkuta is the story of  Russian Communism in a nutshell. In the '30s of the last century in Vorkuta was built one of the largest prison camps of the Gulag Archipelago. The occasion was the discovery of coal stocks. Thousands of forced laborers, including many supporters of the famous communist Trotsky (murdered in Mexico City), had to work under extremely difficult conditions in mines and build roads. In 1953, shortly after Stalin's death, for the third time a rebellion among the forced laborers broke out. The uprising was beaten down by the Red Army and the security forces. Thousands of them were executed without any kind of trial. In the time of Nikita Khrushchev some Gulag camps were closed. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many coal mines were closed because they were not profitable anymore.

An Orthodox priest also Member of Parliament, his name I can not remember, had organized a press conference in the Parliament building. After we had presented our delegation and had held a brief introduction about the WCL, one could ask questions. But how do you explain what a civil society is to people who are only familiar with state, party and government institutions? How do you explain people who have never experienced free elections what are free and independent trade unions. How do you explain what is a social dialogue, collective bargaining and collective agreements in a country without employers except the state?

We organized meetings in a corner of the hotel. Here you see on the right side of the picture Christophe Jussac from the French Confederation CFDT who speaks russian.In the centre of the picture you see Matvienko from CMOT Belarus. On his right side Alexandre Ivanchenko from the Ukrainian VOST confederation. Left from him Amrita Sietaram from CNV Netherlands. You see the backside of our translator Alexandre Volkov.(photo Petrus)

We were invited by some members of a new democratic party to eat at home of the leader of the party. A disconcerting experience. There was no beginning of any party structure. His political manifesto was overwhelmingly simple: apply the policy of the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Russia. How great the confusion was turned out during a meeting with a group of men of which we were told that they wanted to cooperate with the international trade union movement. However, after some time we discovered that we were talking with businessmen who thought that we as Western trade unions could help them to do international business. We left the building as soon as possible leaving behind the Russian businessmen even more confused than before.

In our relatively expensive hotel it was a corrupt mess. I could only make an international call after giving a big US dollar tip to the operator. Breakfast was not there unless you gave a big mouth to the waiters or gave some extra US dollars. In and outside the elevator I was constantly harassed by prostitutes. In the hall a driver was beaten by a dozen of other drivers because he did not adhere to their code, as explained our translator. We were glad we could leave. We realized that the free and democratic trade union movement in Russia had to go a quite long way.

As regular readers know, I was not only confederal secretary of the WCL but also executive secretary of some International Trade Federations: the World Federation of Clerical Workers (WFCW) and the World Federation of Industrial Workers (WFIW). WFCW chairman Jaap Kos I learned to know during a kind of job interview at the headquarters of the Dienstenbond CNV in Amsterdam. Ivo Psenner, President of the European Organization of WFCW and Richard Paiha, secretary of the Christian Group in the Austrian GPA in Vienna, were present during this interview. WFIW Chairman Leo Dusoleil, also chairman of ACV Industry, I learned to know very well during our tour along the trade federations of Solidarnosc (The Downfall of the WCL, part 4)

From left to right: Doekle Terpstra, the new president of the Dutch trade federation Industry and Food IVB member of the confederation CNV. Wim van de Jagt, the treasurer of the trade union. Frits Hanko the leaving president of the same union. In the background you see some metal workers in one of the factories we were visiting during our stay in Paraguay.

The WFIW had organized together with FLATI, the regional organization of the WFIW in Latin America, a seminar in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Prior to the seminar, I traveled as an interpreter and expert of Latin America along with a delegation of the Dutch CNV Industry and Food Union to Paraguay. We visited the confederation CNT, member of WCL and CLAT. Pedro Parra of the CNT Board was our guide during our visit to a farmers' union, a metal factory, a sugar factory, a judge of the Supreme Court, the Bishop of Asuncion, slum dwellers, the newspaper ABC, a radio station and the Minister of Justice.

You can't miss it. In the centre of the picture you see Paraguayan Dictator General Alfredo Stroessner enjoying his birthday party on the 3 of november 1987. Behind him in white military uniforms his loyal generals. (photo Petrus)

Three years after the fall of dictator General Alfredo Stroessner (in 1989 Stroessner was overthrown by another general) there was not much changed in the country. Of course, that was not possible in such a short period. Stroessner had been in power for 35 years (1954-1989) thanks to his generals, the Colorado Party and years of U.S. support. It was the longest dictatorship of an individual ruler in Latin America and the world's longest-serving non-Communist head of state. During a visit to Paraguay in 1987, because of the One Day Wage Campaign of CLAT Netherlands ( Campaña Un Dia de Salario), I had been invited along with a TV team from the Netherlands at the birthday party of the dictator. With our own eyes we could see a Latin American dictator according to the known cliches: he himself surrounded by generals in immaculate white uniforms full of medals, a court of faithful authorities who benefited from his dictatorship, singers and poets who sang for him and children handing over bouquets of flowers.

At that time the unions had to work semi-clandestinely. Their leaders were arrested constantly like politicians such as Domingo Laino, a leader of the liberal opposition against the dictator. It was a country with the silence of a graveyard. Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, was no bigger than a provincial city with little activity while most of the population lived in poverty in rural areas. The difference now is that the trade unions can do their work openly without being threatened to be prosecuted or imprisoned immediately. Paraguay has come back to life, thanks to the work of trade unions, the Catholic Church and other social organizations but far enthusiasm and time will be needed before the pernicious legacy of Stroessner will have disappeared to make way for new economic and political dynamics that will bring progress and prosperity.

Te be continued

The above story is a personal testimony of what happened at the end of the last century and the beginning of the new millennium in the international trade union movement, in particular in CLAT and the WCL.

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