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Russia: Mikhail Chesalin, dockers' leader, stabbed and beaten

On Thursday June 7, Mikhail Chesalin, the chairman of the local Dockers Union of Russia in Kaliningrad, was savagely stabbed and beaten outside the union office. An unknown number of assailants attacked Chesalin when he got out of his car at 10:30am local time, stabbing him numerous times in the spine, and beating him severely about the head. He was left lying face-down, unconscious, in a pool of blood.

Chesalin's colleagues believe that the attack was orchestrated by Vladimir Kalinichenko, the General Director of the Sea Commercial Port where the dockworkers' union is currently running an organizing campaign. The union has been in a bitter fight with Kalinichenko for ten years, after Kalinichenko made it his personal goal to destroy the union following their 1997 strike – their battle, and the workers determination has become a symbol of Russia’s young, struggling independent trade union movement. Since April, the union has been conducting an unprecedented organizing drive among the workers in the Kaliningrad port to change a miserly and arbitrary wage system, and win respect and a voice on the job. Kalinichenko has tried to break up every union event by sending his personal "security" forces, together with local thugs, to spy on and intimidate workers.

Mikhail Chesalin is known throughout the region, country, and world, as one of Russia's foremost defenders of workers' rights – the dockworkers' case has received the attention of the ILO, the European Court for Human Rights, and most of all the attention of Kaliningrad residents, who voted for Chesalin when he ran directly against Kalinichenko in 2006 – with 13 times less money, Chesalin received four times the votes of Kalinichenko to be elected as a deputy to the regional parliament. In that sense this attack is not only on free trade unionism, but on an independent governmental representative.

For 12 years, the Dockers Union of Russia, with a vigorous and committed membership, and under Chesalin's dedicated and principled leadership, has stood for fairness and dignity for Sea Commercial Port workers. For that, union members have lost their jobs, their livelihoods, and their families, but they are free men. For the first time in this battle, the Port has crossed the line to violence, and attempted to silence a great leader of workers. We, Chesalin’s union members and colleagues, call on our brothers and sisters around the world to raise their voices, and their considerable strength and solidarity, to communicate to Russian employers and the Russian government that an injury to one is an injury to all, that this threat to justice here is a threat to justice everywhere, and that workers around the world will not stand by as their brothers and sisters are denied basic rights.

It is no wonder that Kalinichenko is so scared of Chesalin – dockworkers are currently subjected to severe exploitation, to which the dockworkers union represents a real alternative. Kalinichenko's explicit position is: "I pay the minimum," and "those who want to work, earn money." The average dockworker wage is only $500 a month, in a city where prices do not differ significantly from European and American prices.

Many work up to 25, 26, 27 11-hour shifts a month so they have enough to feed their families; approximately half have a second job, many in the neighboring river port. Some young dockworkers cannot have children because they can't afford to feed them. Work norms are impossibly high, as a result of which violation of safety rules is systematic, open, and expected. Though the nominal wage is about $1.30 an hour, the wage system is piece work, which isn't even followed – whatever the head stevedore or terminal director wants to write down for that day is what workers will be paid, with no way to check whether they're being cheated - which they often are. A significant part of a worker’s income depends on his "premium" - which can be provided or denied totally at the whim of management. There are brigadeers who openly sell vodka to members of their work gangs - to keep them "on the hook," to be able to manipulate them at their convenience.

Workers who receive a "special" dockworker pension after 20 years in the port continue to work, most until their death at too young an age, because on such a pension, they can't afford to retire. The yellow union in the port – really an arm of management, distributes "goodies" like vacations, and material assistance to "good" workers, and denies others, though it also has many workers "on the hook" by providing credit. Frequent legal "reorganization" is carried out to strip workers of accrued benefits and avoid legal responsibility for various violations, including the severe anti-union discrimination against the dockers’ union.

Since the union began its current organizing drive, several workers have been fired, ostensibly for truancy or being intoxicated on the job, but, as the boss made clear, really for participating in trade union activity. The boss has repeatedly threatened workers that they must not even talk to union organizers, and has denied training, parking permits, and other benefits to those workers considered to be activists.

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