Over the course of two days in mid-November, a drama played on the Georgian railways that showed the world a newly-emboldened labour movement in this small country wedged between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains.
Over 6,000 railway workers went on strike when management at the Georgian railways refused to negotiate on overtime pay, bonuses and other entitlements.
Vitali Giorgadze, Chairman of the Georgian Railway Workers New Trade Union (GRWNTU), told Equal Times: “We had been trying to start collective bargaining negotiations with the administration for about a year. It was due to these struggles that we decided to use every legal action we were granted by the labour code to speed up the process.”
Desperate to reach a compromise, union leaders not only gave the railway management the legally-required 21-day-notice for the strike, but they also gave the administration an additional 10 days.
But to no avail. At 10am on 14 November, 2013, the GRWNTU called a strike. Just six hours later, however, following a flurry of national and international solidarity, Georgian Railyways management called the unions to the table to start negotiations. By 3am that morning, an agreement had been reached.
It was a moment to savour for the Georgian trade unions which has been battling a repressive labour code and some of the most difficult working conditions in Europe.
But Georgia has a long tradition of working-class struggle.
Revolution – from Russian to ‘Rose’
Georgian labour and social democratic leaders punched far above their weight in the Russian Social Democratic Party and the Second International in the years up to 1917.
Until the Russian Revolution of that year, Georgia was a province of the tsar’s empire.
But for three short years starting in 1918, Georgia’s democratic socialists had the chance to show the world the possibility of a new, fairer and more democratic society in stark contrast to the dictatorial regime then being established by Lenin in Russia.
Among the features of their independent state were a multi-party democracy, a free press, a powerful cooperative movement, and strong and independent trade unions.
But Georgia’s experiment with democratic socialism ended abruptly in early 1921 when the Red Army invaded and for 70 long years, the Georgian people knew nothing of independent and democratic trade unions.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and Georgia’s independence in 1991 was meant to bring about a new era of freedom – but for the Georgians, it brought on an era of instability and dictatorship that lasted for more than a decade.
During this period, unions were first crushed by President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who they had dared to oppose.
But his overthrow by former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze a year later did not make things much better.
It was only following the ‘Rose Revolution’ in November 2003 and the assumption of power by Mikhail Saakashvili, that things began to change.
However, change did not come immediately.
The Saakashvili years
In fact, the Saakashvili years were marked by some major struggles as unions faced increasingly intransigent employers and one of the most restrictive labour codes around.
As Gocha Aleksandria of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) put it, Georgian workers have had to endure: “Policies that focused on exploitation of the labour force, lack of governmental labour market institutions and a legal code that fought against the practice of social dialogue.”
The most famous example was the Hercules Steel struggle in 2011, when the local governor and police in Kutaisi, one of the country’s largest cities, broke a strike with a campaign of repression.
The railways were also the scene of attempts at union-busting.
An attempt by the railway workers’ union to convene a congress in early 2011 were disrupted in several places by employers and their agents trying to prevent delegates from attending.
“The employing companies were motivated into thinking that they were exempt from punishment if they practiced bad employment policies,” said Aleksandria.
“However, the union has been fighting against these circumstances and the sense of solidarity is high with the members.”
Though Saakashvili was anything but a friend of the unions, and was widely seen as a promoter of neo-liberal reforms that made it harder than ever to build trade unions in the country, it was under his rule that unions and government negotiated changes in the country’s labour laws that finally produced positive results.
The new labour law, announced in the summer of 2013, was far from what the unions wanted.
It was a watered-down version of the one the unions had earlier agreed to, and it was weakened in part due to pressure put on by the American Chamber of Commerce in the country.
But as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) conceded, the new legislation “provides some protection against anti-union discrimination, increases paid leave for people in hazardous occupations, prohibits dismissal of pregnant women and increases the duration of temporary disability provisions.”
There are now signs – such as the recent railway strike – of a new vigour among the Georgian trade unionists.
The GRWNTU’S concerns – overtime pay, increased wages and bonus system based on experience, as well as a return of the 13th month pay system – will be familiar to workers in many countries.
The union called for a nationwide strike to begin on Thursday, 14 November, 2013 but the railway company did all it could to disrupt the strike and prevent its spread.
While in the capital Tbilisi the strike was solid, in western Georgia, it ran into strong resistance from the employer.
Some key union leaders were uncontactable, and in reports that are reminiscent of the attempts to block the railway workers’ congress in 2011, they said that threats were made against them.
The GTUC put out an appeal for help, and got a quick response from the ITUC.
In a strongly worded statement to the Georgian authorities, ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow expressed her grave concern “regarding the on-going pressure and defamation exerted by the management before and during the strike.
“Instead of negotiating, the management interfered in the union internal affairs and in particular its right of assembly. When the notice of the strike went public, the management started to threaten workers of reprisals in case they joined the strike. To mislead public attention, GR management also tried to slander the railway union and GTUC by speaking of blackmail and sabotage as well as by accusing the GTUC leadership of masterminding the process.”
But the employer’s efforts to break the strike only made it stronger.
Within a few short hours, the GTUC issued a statement saying that: “Following six-hour talks, a consensus has been reached regarding all three issues raised by the Georgian Railway Workers New Trade Union.
“The just fight of the railway workers has been successful and the outcome meets the interests of the railway workers. The Georgian Railway has now resumed its operation in a usual mode.”
For the workers’ movement in Georgia, this victory – sweet though it is – is only the beginning.
Unions will need to make the most of the new labour law to organize many thousands more workers and reverse years of declining membership.
And they’ll need an improved labour law, one that really does fully comply with International Labour Organization (ILO) core conventions.
To get that, the occasional organisation of a successful strike will not be enough.
The Georgian unions of the 21st century, like their predecessors a century ago, will need to become much more engaged politically to challenge the neo-liberal agenda in their country.