Source > People and Nature blog
From the moment the Russian army pushed deeper into Ukraine on 24 February, Ukrainian and international trade unions started ferrying humanitarian aid to cities and towns under siege.
Mineworkers’ and railway workers’ unions, and others, organised deliveries of food and medical equipment. Bullet-proof vests, diesel and welding machines for use at the front soon followed.
There was a general call-up to the army, and union organisations have reported the deaths of mineworkers in uniform at the front.
The Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine (ITUMU) is prominent among providers of humanitarian aid. The regional organisation in Western Donbass – which has a friendship with the Durham mineworkers going back to the 1990s – has been especially active.
In the first weeks of the war, the ITUMU in Western Donbass organised shelters at Pavlograd for people displaced by the fighting, and raised 100,000 hryvnia (about £2600) for volunteer territorial defence forces that fight alongside the Ukrainian army.
Aid from international trade union organisations, including the Italian Labour Union (UIL) and the US-based Solidarity Centre – who have worked with the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine – has also reached working-class communities that are under attack.
The National Union of Mineworkers in the UK gave its support to Ukrainian trade unions from the first day of the war.
Chris Kitchen, the union’s General Secretary, had been on a British delegation that met Ukrainian trade unionists in Kyiv the previous week. He condemned Russian president Vladimir Putin’s failure to accept the independence of Ukraine as a “democratic country that has the right to decide their own future”.
The Russian attack on Ukraine is the largest military action in Europe since 1945. Russia has used aerial and artillery bombardment to destroy civilian infrastructure and housing. Estimates of the civilian death toll run into tens of thousands.
Some cities and towns have been razed to the ground, and Russian troops accused of the widespread use of summary executions, rape and kidnapping.
Working-class communities, including those associated with coal mining, have been among the areas worst hit.
Military conflict first broke out in 2014, after the overthrow of the government led by president Viktor Yanukovych.
The movement that toppled Yanukovych started in protest at his decision to scrap talks on an association agreement with the European Union, and instead to reinforce Ukraine’s links with Russia. Discontent over poor living standards, after the 2008-09 financial crisis, also played a big part.
Yanukovych was ousted by a popular uprising against a corrupt president who had amassed a fortune and had built himself an extensive palace with a private zoo.
Some fascist groups were in the crowds of protesters – but this was not a “neo-Nazi coup”, as Yanukovych’s supporters claimed. The electoral support for fascist parties in Ukraine is around 2-3%, lower than in many parts of Europe.
In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky, a Russian-speaking Jew, standing on an anti-corruption platform, was elected president with 73% of the vote.
The overthrow of Yanukovych heightened tensions between Kyiv and eastern Ukrainian regions where Russian-speaking Ukrainians formed a majority.
In the turmoil, separatist forces, supported by the Russian army and fascist Russian militia, intervened to set up the so-called “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk. (These two provinces together are also known as the Donbass, a shortened version of the Ukrainian and Russian words for “Donets coal basin”.)
By 2017, the Donbass’s population had fallen by half, as people sought refuge from the armed conflict between the Russian-supported separatists and the Ukrainian army. The economies of the separatist “republics” collapsed.
Between 2014 and the renewed Russian invasion this year, at least 14,000 people died in the eastern Ukraine war. No industry was worse hit than mining, as the Donbass was historically Ukraine’s largest coalfield.
Coal mining has been in decline in Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the declaration of Ukrainian independence, in 1991. Then, there were 280 mines and more than 1 million people working in the industry. Now, in government-controlled territory, there are 44 mines and the industry employs about 86,000 people.
In the separatist “republics”, a similar number of mines are operating. Many more have been flooded, and small-scale, informal coal production has been de facto legalised. Steel works and manufacturing capacity lie idle.
In 2014, a representative of Donbass miners brought greetings to the Durham miners’ gala. Speaking just weeks after the separatist “republics” had been set up, Sergey Yunak, president of the Trade Union of the Coal Industry of Ukraine in the Western Donbass, said: “It is important for us to stand up for the territorial integrity and independence of our country”.
Tragically, those issues are still at stake in the war now raging across the Donbass.
Mineworkers played a key part in the drama that in 1991 put an end to the Soviet Union, which had included Russia, Ukraine and 13 other republics.
A spontaneous strike over conditions, pay and workplace rights swept the Russian, Ukrainian and Kazakh coalfields in the summer of 1989 – and turned politics, and industrial relations, upside down.
Until then, strikes that went on longer than a few hours were severely punished, and workplace organising outside the officially-sanctioned unions banned. The mineworkers broke through those restrictions, and set up pit-based strike committees and independent unions.
The Soviet system became more democratic, but too late to address the paralysis gripping its outdated economic model. It collapsed at the end of 1991, the republics became independent, and the harsh winds of capitalist economics blew in from the west.
As the window opened for democracy, Soviet mineworkers reached out to their counterparts in other parts of the world in a new way. The strike committees in the western Donbass made contact with the Durham miners, and NUM Area Executive member Dave Temple visited the coalfield in 1991, the last year of the Soviet Union. On his return, Temple said (in the 1992 Gala programme):
One miner I spoke to summed up the motive force behind the Soviet miners’ unrest like this: “Our aim is to make a human being into a human being, not a workhorse. We want miners to be proud of being miners.” […]
After 70 years of almost total isolation from their fellow workers abroad, the miners in the Soviet coalfield are eager to compare their conditions with those of other countries.
In Donetsk, Krasnoarmiisk [renamed Pokrovsk in 2016] and Pavlograd, the questions were the same: “How many square feet of space does a British miner and his family live in? How many days a week can you afford to eat meat? What is the temperature down your pit?”
Their complaints are uncomplicated: empty shelves in the food shops; cramped living conditions at home; high accident rates at the pit – all adding up to a low quality of life.
But these miners are not demoralised.
In 1992, another North East Area NUM delegation visited Donbass – by this time, in newly independent Ukraine. The late David Hopper, NUM (Durham Area) General Secretary, said on his return:
We were deeply shocked. We were in Pavlograd for seven days, in the company of miners for the whole time, and the conditions there were appalling.
The delegation found that underground conditions were “comparable to British mines of 60 years ago”. Although there was machinery for coal-cutting and driving headings, it was at least 20 years behind our standards. Dust suppression appeared to be unheard of.
Throughout the 1990s, the Durham miners – who were themselves going through tough times, dominated by pit closures and economic changes – kept in touch with their western Donbas counterparts.
Origins of Donbass mining
Large-scale coal mining, iron ore mining and steel production was started in the Donbass in the 1870s, by Welsh businessman John Hughes, who was commissioned by the imperial Russian government. Donbass soon became a key supplier of raw materials to the whole Russian empire.
After the Russian empire was felled by revolution in 1917, and Soviet power established, the works were nationalised and Hughes’s four sons, who had been managing them, returned to Wales.
For Durham mineworkers, the Russian revolution – which for the first time in history brought to power a government that claimed to rule on behalf of working people – was a great inspiration.
The revolutionary sympathy of miners’ leaders in Chopwell earned it the nickname “Little Moscow” from the hostile Tory press. Miners there played a big part in the strike struggles in the British coalfield in the 1920s.
Chopwell miners were locked out in June 1925, and did not return to work until November 1926, when the national lock-out which started in May 1926 came to an end in Durham.
By the late 1920s the Soviet trade unions, including in the rapidly expanding coal mining industry, became tightly controlled by government. But international links were maintained and in 1931 and 1936, delegations of Durham miners visited the Donbass.
A fascinating report of the 1936 visit compared conditions in pits there to those in England. The delegation reported that it had made known “in plain honest pit terms” its opposition to women working underground, which they did in Soviet pits until after the second world war. The report further stated:
There were far too many women in the pit, and in our opinion, the electric lamps of some of the workers gave too poor a light. Again, there was too much broken timer in the main heading, and the sanitary arrangements at the surface were not only bad but primitive.
The delegation saw “poor housing, bad sanitation an disgraceful roads”, but also “decent houses, good buildings, healthy miners in their splendid clubs, complete with cinema and facilities for cultural development”. They were impressed by libraries, public baths and schools.
The Donbass’s future, like Durham’s, lies beyond coal mining. But the need for international friendships and solidarity between communities will never die.
□ Simon Pirani edited The Durham Miner and the NUM (national) paper The Miner from 1988 to 1995. He is a journalist and author who has written extensively on mining, Russia, Ukraine and climate change.
Republished, with permission, from the programme for the Durham Miners Gala on Saturday 9 July. By Simon Pirani
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