“Bureaucrats Are the New Kings.” How War and Mobilization have Affected the Lives of Industrial Workers

The first piece in the Labour Rights series by Posle, gives an overview of the car industry.


Source > Posle

Ten years ago, Igor Kholmanskikh, shop foreman at the tank manufacturer Uralvagonzavod, promised Vladimir Putin to “bring out my guys and defend stability.”

The sycophant was showered with honors, while the speech contributed to a popular myth that blue-collar workers are a conservative proletariat that sees Putin as a guarantee against economic and political upheavals, ready to support him under any circumstances.  

In October 2022, a call to “defend stability” could be considered fanaticism. The ordinary life of the working class is collapsing by the minute. The people to blame are not the “loudmouthed protesters”, but the government which unleashed an aggressive war.  

How War Affected Enterprises

Before the war, large-scale industry provided salaries that while not lavish were “white” (legal) and regularly paid, which allowed workers to lead generally tolerable lives. 

Sanctions, the disruption of logistics chains and other economic consequences of the war hit the industrial complex hard. However, different industries suffered to varying degrees, while a few of them even experienced something akin to boom. 

Among those that took the biggest blow is the automotive industry. Its critical dependence on foreign (mainly Western) capital, technologies and components caused a deep crisis in the very first months of the “special military operation.” 

According to Rosstat’s August data, the annual production of passenger cars fell by 70%, while the number of vacancies in the automotive industry (according to the interactive map provided by the recruiting portal HeadHunter) decreased by 49%. 

Car plants owned by transnationals have closed or suspended production indefinitely, sending workers into endless and only partially paid downtime. 

As a result, thousands of carworkers, until recently considered a relatively prosperous part of the working class, are forced to tighten their belts.   

“Saint Petersburg suffered a lot after February 24. The local car industry [note: consisting mainly of foreign companies] is almost destroyed. Toyota has closed, Nissan and Hyundai are still idle. The workers have been getting only two-thirds [of their wages of about 50-60 thousand rubles a month] since February. Everyone we’ve talked to complains about prices; everyone is under pressure from loans. People don’t travel and spend their vacations either in the countryside or at home. Almost no one visited Sochi, Turkey or Crimea, as with all the travel expenses they would not be able to pay the mortgage,” says Mikhail (name changed at the request of the interviewee), coordinator of an interregional activist network that organises trade unions

We are essentially talking about hidden unemployment, which may soon become visible. There are no circumstances in which foreign concerns could resume car production against the background of an increasingly bloody and protracted war. The Russian assets are unlikely to be bought by other owners. 

The workers at the Togliatti-based AvtoVAZ, which belonged to Renault before the war and was nationalised in May, found themselves in a slightly better position. 

Downtime at the largest Russian automobile plant that employs more than 30 thousand people began before the war (due to a global shortage of chips) and continued until summer, because of sanctions and boycotts by foreign suppliers. 

VAZ employees lost part of their already small earnings (40-50 thousand rubles a month on average). To survive, many of them worked on community projects organized by local authorities: they trimmed grass, painted curbs, cut down dry branches. Others became couriers, and some thought about enlisting in the army. 

The Izhevsk branch of AvtoVAZ has laid off 60% of its staff, about two thousand people. However, massive cuts at the parent company were avoided. 

Over the summer, the concern established new supply chains (the management did not disclose details of the deals), resumed car production in Togliatti and even announced the recruitment of four thousand new employees. So, the Togliatti-based VAZ employees are recovering from the shock of the first war months, at least financially. 

“Our [press] production has enough work, even though AvtoVAZ currently cannot produce many of its models. We work on a three-shift schedule, as before. Some are put on enforced leave while retaining two-thirds of their average salary. Community service is still available. It is paid for from the municipal budget. In principle, I am satisfied with the salary. It is tolerable,” says Alexey, a VAZ employee (name changed).  

The situation is similar for other large concerns that depend on imported components, for example, shipbuilding. 

“[At Saint Petersburg shipyards] in the first three months after February the management started job cuts, although on a small scale. Some international projects, such as the production of fishing vessels for the Norwegians at the Admiralty Shipyards, have been closed. It turned out that many components and much of the equipment used to be imported: welding machines, cable ducts, cable bundles. They are not easy to replace,” explains Mikhail.  

Hasty import substitution affected shipbuilders’ salaries (which often hinge on bonuses and performance), and made their work more dangerous. 

“We used to have an [imported] welding machine that worked with absolute precision, and now we use a machine from Urals which produces a lot of defects… In some jobs, people can’t deliver on time. Their performance drops and they get less money… 

“At the Admiralty Shipyards a ship caught fire recently [note: the Mechanic Maslak trawler, with no casualties]. According to our sources, the accident happened because of combustible glue. Previously they used imported glue which was not flammable,” says a trade union organizer. 

As a result, the shipyards even began to withhold the contractors’ wages, a sure symptom of economic distress and the most common cause of labor protests. 

However, government contracts, including military ones, keep Saint Petersburg shipbuilding afloat.  

“There are several large orders, for example, the [nuclear] icebreaker Yakutia at the Baltic [plant], the repair of military vessels and a few fishing trawlers at the Admiral [JSC Admiralty Shipyards] … We have work, but not a lot of prospects. No new orders are being placed, and no one knows what to do,” says Mikhail describing the workers’ mood. 

The shipbuilders’ anxiety is shared by the rail maintenance workers. In their industry, like in aviation, the limited supply of imported spare parts has led to dire consequences, the so-called technological cannibalism.  

“Our Donchak diesel locomotives have Western electronics. From the very beginning of the special operation, the depot where they are serviced sounded the alarm: ‘We have spare parts for only two or three months!’. Some of the locomotives are disassembled, and we assemble a functional one out of two,” says railway employee Denis (name changed) from Volkhov, a single-industry town in the Leningrad Region. 

Denis and his colleagues are afraid that redirecting rail transport from west to east will affect their already meager earnings of 20-25 thousand rubles a month. 

“Since the West has turned its back on us, money will flow to the BAM and the Trans-Siberian. This will mean poverty for us,” says one of the Posle interviewees, sharing his fears.

The workers in military factories feel differently, as for obvious reasons these facilities have increased production

“The situation in Omsk is noteworthy. Omsktransmash announced as many as six thousand new jobs, although before February the plant was not in the best shape. One or two thousand jobs are open at the tyre factory. It caused a stir in the city. All the entrances to the apartment blocks were covered with job advertisements,” Mikhail remembers. 

Most likely, the boom is explained by the fact that Omsk hosts many military-industrial enterprises

The same is happening in other regions. In Tatarstan, defense facilities hire workers and engineers on high salaries (80-120 thousand rubles a month), plus all kinds of benefits and deferrals from the army, according to the Real Time newspaper. 

Besides carrots, military-industrial complex workers are subjected to sticks: according to a government decree, they can be forced to work overtime for four hours a day, and are not allowed to take a vacation if the company does not fulfill the state defense order.    

Workers and War 

Most of the workers whom the Posle informants talked to trust state propaganda. At least, this was before the mobilization was announced. 

“We are waging a just war”, “NATO is attacking us, what can we do?”, “Yes, I feel sorry for the Ukrainians. No, we don’t want to kill them. We are not fascists. Why do they blame us? We love them (Ukrainians). They should move here. But we need to destroy the fascists,” this is how Mikhail, a trade unionist, summarizes the shipbuilders’ opinions at the beginning of the “special operation.” 

“When the special military operation started, people [in our team] were split down the middle. The younger ones, including myself, are mostly against the war (of course, except for those who are involved with the local administration and the United Russia party). However, they are afraid to go to rallies because it is dangerous. The older ones either passively support the war or stick with a neutral position: ‘I don’t get into politics’, ‘It is not my business’, ‘I don’t care.’ 

“Oddly enough, many began to support the special operation after talking to their Ukrainian relatives. When peaceful cities were first shelled, people said they were against [the war]. But then [Ukrainian] relatives started to call them screaming: ‘You are murderers, rapists!’, ‘You are all to blame!’, ‘Go and overthrow your government!’. Family relations are transferred to politics. People are starting to distrust Ukrainians,” says Denis, a railway employee. 

According to Alexey from AvtoVAZ, from the very beginning of the war, many of his colleagues received news of the deaths or injuries of acquaintances fighting in Ukraine (many of them come from the same depressed towns and villages as the majority of the contract soldiers). 

“We talk about the ‘non-war’ all the time. Most regurgitate official propaganda, seasoning it with stories about relatives and friends involved in the conflict. They also speak about the dead. These losses have only increased hatred towards Ukrainians,” a VAZ employee shares.

Alexey himself, from the first days of the invasion, agitated against the war, but was disappointed.  

“I try to remain silent now. I don’t argue anymore. I sometimes leave the recreation area when comrades heatedly start to discuss the latest news from the front line… I’m not looking for support. I’m burnt out. My inability to change anything feels depressing,” he explains.

So far, most workers (as well as the population as a whole) have supported the war passively if at all. The authorities’ attempts to recruit volunteers among workers brought a modest catch.  

“Before the mobilization, they went around the workshops [of Volkhov enterprises] and appealed for volunteers for the special military operation. The incentive was: if you volunteer, your job will be kept until you return. Some fell for it, but very few did. For the most part, volunteers are fanatics who really believe in all this [the official propaganda]. Others answer: ‘Bugger this’ or ‘If they call us up officially, we’ll go,’” says Denis. 

How Workers React to Mobilization

Since Putin announced “partial” mobilization, support for the prevailing rhetoric or the “none of my business” position is hardly possible among workers, whose average age is around forty.  

Unlike the middle class, many of whom left the country at the first sounds of the battle trumpet, the working class have scarcer opportunities, and their chances of getting to the front are significantly greater. The success of the entire campaign largely depends on their reaction. 

It is too early to talk about the scale of discontent with the mobilization and the war, but it is undoubtedly growing.   

“When the mobilisation began, the rhetoric [in the team] changed completely: ‘Fuck it, we don’t need it. We don’t want to!’… My friend supported [the war] at first, saying: ‘We will beat the Ukes!’, but as the mobilization began, he went to the administration worrying about his chances of being called up,” says Denis.

The telegram channel Sisyphean Labor that publishes interviews with workers shares numerous eloquent sketches about the attitude to mobilization in the workplaces: 

“Factory workers are not in the mood to fight. They gradually learn news from the front about the lack of anything one might need there, they realize that they need to buy all the equipment themselves, that the draftees are not trained properly. None of them left the country. They say, ‘Where will we go? Nobody gives a fuck about people like us,’ (says a defence plant engineer).

“Our polisher said: ‘The enlistment office treats us as animals, calls us disposables, recruits everyone indiscriminately. It’s like they’re prepping us for slaughter.’ He blurted out that he would return armed and talk differently… people are worked up, like stretched springs. In the face of death, nobody is afraid of persecution,” (says a CNC machine operator at a St. Petersburg factory).

However, many accept everything with fatalism and do not seem to fully realize the degree of danger. 

“Almost everyone we’ve talked to says, ‘If there’s no other option, I’ll go.’ When you explain that there are other options [to leave or to hide – ed.], very few are ready for it… People do not see the risk of death (they do not believe it because of propaganda). Most of them have served in the army. Many have pleasant memories from then. Some want to leave their wives. Surprisingly, most of them are not afraid to die, they are afraid of losing their qualifications, jobs, and money,” Mikhail sums up the shipbuilders’ mood. 

Struggle for Exemption

Competition for exemption from military service developed between enterprises and industries, and literally in every workshop. The accompanying nepotism and corruption inflame passions just as much as the arbitrariness of enlistment offices and bureaucratic confusion.  

“Only a handful [of the Baltic Plant workers] say: ‘Yes, I am ready and I will go to war.’ Everyone else hopes for exemption and fears that they will not get it … At the same time, people see that the exemption goes not to those who deserve it, but to [the bosses’] brothers, sons, cronies. People start to wonder why they should fight in place of somebody who is hiding here in the rear, just because he’s the foreman’s brother,” a trade union organizer explains. 

But even exemption from active duty is not a reliable defense against the chaos of mobilization. 

“They first said that railway employees would not be called up, or rather only through a special decree or if the fighting approaches the region where we work. Still, some engineers were called up. I don’t know if they were returned home or sent to the special military operation,” says Denis. 

“After the mobilization began, the factories’ managers said that we would all be exempt. Despite this, people are taken away (we know of cases at Omsktransmash and the Baltic Plant). People receive the summons at home. They go to the factory and say, ‘I’ve got the summons.’ They are told, ‘Don’t be afraid of anything. Go to the enlistment office, talk to them.’ They go and are immediately taken away. About thirty people were called from the Baltic plant and they have not returned,” Mikhail explains. 

No one seems to know who is entitled to avoid the draft and who is not. “Nobody knows who is legally exempt; they keep it a secret. We know only that exemptions do not cover all our jobs and professions,” complains a military factory worker in the telegram channel Sisyphean Labor. 

In these conditions, exemption becomes a powerful tool for encouraging the loyal and punishing those seen as dissident, as well as for enslaving workers in general. 

According to a government decree, the lists of employees eligible for exemption should be compiled by the companies’ management based on “the extent of their role in fulfilling the state defence order” (which the bosses assess arbitrarily). 

Thus, any disagreement with working conditions, not to mention an intention to create a trade union, may be met with not just dismissal, but with military conscription. 

“Bureaucrats are the new kings. They issue death sentences to those they don’t like. A feast of cannibals. A signature that keeps you at the factory has an unprecedented price now… We have become serfs,” comments an employee in a defense enterprise.

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