Pension Reform, Trade Unions, and the Manipulation of Protest

BY IRINA MEYER-OLIMPIEVA

On June 14, 2018, the Russian government approved a new bill raising the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women. According to the main trade union newspaper Solidarnost, the government chose the toughest version of the reform suggested by the Ministry of Finance. The more moderate versions proposed by the Ministry of Labor implied an increase in the pension age to 65 or 62 for men and to 62 or 60 for women.

While the pension reform is advertised by the government as a measure to improve the well-being of Russian pensioners, it has been already labeled an “accounting maneuver” by the Ministry of Finance aimed at extracting money from people’s pockets to replenish missing funds for the implementation of the new May presidential decrees. Most experts agree that the reform is poorly designed and narrowly focused. The changes apply only to the pension age, while people are not given time to adapt to the new rules since the law is scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2019.

The bill adopted by the government has caused a wave of indignation and discontent. Trade unions were the first to express their disagreement with raising the pension age. After the bill was nevertheless submitted to the State Duma, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR, representing about 25 million employees), which is usually described as representing “official” labor unions, called on regional and branch union organizations to participate in all-Russia antireform protest actions. Dozens of local trade union organizations have reported an unprecedented surge in meetings, demonstrations, and picketing against the pension reform from all across Russia.

The Russian Confederation of Labor (KTR), which represents the so-called “alternative” trade unions and has about 700,000 members, has already collected 2.5 million signatures on an antireform petition and is busy organizing protest actions in 70 Russian cities. Alternative trade unions have always been known for their militant character since they usually emerge on a wave of labor unrest and frequently use different kinds of protest to defend the interests of their members. Unlike the FNPR unions, the alternative unions are small and poorly integrated into the system of social partnership; however, it was they, not the FNPR, that headed up the protests against the recent “optimization” of the education and health care systems that resulted in drops in salaries, large-scale dismissals of teachers and doctors, and the commercialization of educational and medical services. This begs a couple of questions: since the official trade unions were almost invisible in the protests against education and health care system reforms, why are they so active now? And can the protests organized by the FNPR stop pension reform?

Antireform Protests in the Context of the Russian Model of Political Exchange

The organization of popular protests is a standard function of trade unions in neo-corporatist systems. In European countries, some of which serve as a model for the Russian social partnership system, relations between trade unions and the state are based on the principle of political exchange, whereby trade unions restrain protests in exchange for upholding the interests of social and labor policy. The Russian social partnership model also implies political exchange, with the signal difference that European trade unions hewing to the principles of political exchange usually are independent of the state, which is not the case in Russia. The inefficiency of social partnership institutions and the lack of strong sociodemocratic parties that could function as the political counterparts of European trade unions require the FNPR to seek alliances with the strongest players in the Russian political field—the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin. In the Russian model of political exchange, the FNPR also trades its ability to mobilize protest for influence over social and labor policy, which means that organized protests are called in support of the authorities rather than to object to their actions. After the 2012 presidential elections, for example, which were criticized for massive vote fraud, the FNPR organized large rallies in support of the electoral results and the newly reelected president, Putin.

The popular protests against raising the pension age were expected by the Kremlin, which has not forgotten the pensioners’ revolt against the monetization of “l’goty” (in-kind benefits) that forced the government in 2005 to suspend the reform. According to Vedomosti’s source in the Kremlin, the protests were included in the plan to implement the reform right from the start, and the FNPR was allowed to spearhead the protests to reduce the political risks the Kremlin might face from uncontrolled protest. Unlike the nonsystemic opposition, the FNPR would help ensure that socioeconomic demands did not become political ones.

The FNPR is not being hypocritical in mobilizing people for antireform actions since it has always been against raising the pension age. However, the call for mass protests would not have been as loud had it not been sanctioned from above. And whereas Russian unions have been allowed to protest, they won’t be able to stop the pension reform, as it is desperately needed for the budget. If popular discontent were to assume truly massive proportions, the government would switch to a less radical version of pension reform, one suggested by the Ministry of Labor. That has probably been the Kremlin’s plan all along. Yet manipulating popular protests with the help of trade unions converts organized protests into yet another false simulacrum of democracy in Russia.

More Manipulated Protests Are on the Way

The low pension age—though not low in the context of Russians’ lowered life expectancy in comparison with that of other industrialized nations—was the last strong point of the social contract, the implied agreement between the state and society according to which the Russian people do not interfere in affairs of state and in exchange get some economic stability and paternalistic social care. The paternalistic model of the Russian social contract does not leave room for protest in relationships between the state and society. In this model, expressing discontent is more commonly done by complaining and appealing directly to top officials for help. The best example of this is the annual TV show “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin,” during which the president answers questions asked by Russian citizens and improvises solutions to their problems on the spot. Even during protest actions people often appeal to the mercy of the president—sometimes on their knees. The impressive protest of truck drivers against the “Platon” system, when hundreds of trucks from 73 Russian regions headed to Moscow, blocking traffic along roadways, also started with the slogan “Putin, help!”

Up to this point the reaction of the authorities to the protests has been either suppression (in the case of political protests) or dismissal (in the case of socioeconomic protests), followed by administrative or criminal prosecution of the protest leaders. The disintegration of the paternalistic social contract and progressive degradation of governance institutions have led to an uptick in social protests, which are becoming increasingly hard for the authorities to ignore. The risk from the Kremlin’s point of view is that socioeconomic demands might evolve into political ones. The fear of politicization of popular discontent now compels authorities to change policy from ignoring social protests to manipulating and controlling them. The manipulation of organized protests against pension reform might be the first major example of how the Kremlin plans to use dependent civil and political institutions to cope with wide-scale popular protests and as such bears watching closely.

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Irina Olimpieva works at the Center for Independent Social Research, St. Petersburg, Russia as a senior researcher and the Head of the Research Department “Social Studies of the Economy”. She received her PhD in Economic Sociology from the St. Petersburg State University of Economics and Finance. Her basic research interests are in the field of economic sociology with a particular focus on post-socialist transformation. Her recent research has focused on industrial relations and trade unions, informal economy and corruption, small business and business association. She has also studied science and innovation system in Russia and in particular institutional transformation of soviet science after socio-economic reforms. Irina Olimpieva is the author of about fifty articles in Russian and international journals and a monograph (“Russian Trade Unions in the System of Socio-Labor Relations Regulation: Particularities, Problems, and Research Perspectives”, 2010)
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