The Belarusian independent trade union of radio-electronic industry workers (REP Trade Union) has a new chairman, already the third one in its history. On November 21, the union congress elected Vasily Zavadsky as the new chairman.
For the two previous years, the duties of the REP chairperson were performed by Zinaida Mikhnyuk, the head of the Brest city REP organization. After the notorious “trade union case”, Gennady Fedynich, the founder and the first chairman, was banned from holding managerial positions in the union; therefore, it was necessary to urgently elect a new chairperson.
The praca-by.info website has asked Gennady Fedynich to tell about the problems and prospects of the trade union, and about his personal plans.
“Back in 1990, you created the REP Trade Union and headed it for almost 30 years. Is it hard to transfer your brainchild into the other’s hands?”
“Firstly, I headed the union not for 30 years, but for 28 years, because for the last two years I was deprived of this right by my conditional verdict. However, over those 28 years, a tremendous work was done, based on people’s trust. During the three previous congresses, election of the union chairperson were held by secret ballot; any delegate could cross out my name if disagreed with my policy, they could easily delete me from the ballot. However, as I understand it, I used to enjoy people’s trust before and have not lost it today – this is the most important result of my long leadership of the trade union.
Of course, should Belarus have become a democratic country, and not turned into an authoritarian state, then, I would hardly want to lead the union for so long. Believe me, I would have found myself an application in a completely different area and on completely different terms.”
“What will you do now? Are you going to honorary retirement?”
“You know, if the pension was really ‘honorary’ and decent, I could have safely retired. Moreover, for the last three years I have not even been on my due vacations.
However, the fact is that today the union is going through hard times. For those who need my experience, I am ready to gradually pass it over – both in Belarus and through international contacts. There, they value not so much the name of the union, but its concrete actions and the name of its leader.”
“By court verdict you are prohibited from holding leadership positions for five years. Is this the only reason why you didn’t nominate yourself for the post of the REP chairman?”
“No doubt, this is the main reason: the ruling regime tried to ensure that I could not lead the union, even formally. Today, a new chairman, Vasily Zavadsky, was elected democratically, by secret ballot, on an alternative basis.
However, a trade union is governed collegially; much will depend on the members of our governing body – the Board: I have great confidence that a healthy core of the REP has always been, is and will remain proactive.”
“The last five years of your chairmanship have been most difficult. Why did the authorities need the ‘trade union case’ at all? The proofs were useless from the legal viewpoint; the verdicts are conditional: your ‘accomplice’ Igor Komlik has already been amnestied. So, what was the point?”
“In all likelihood, the REP posed a certain threat to the authorities: by the activity of its members, primarily our regional branches and leaders – more than 800 of our members were summoned to the Investigating Committee with one question: what brought you to the REP? This suggests that the union is known and respected not only in Belarus, but also far beyond its borders. We couldn’t do everything we wanted, but we did everything we could.
By the way, I have already been granted amnesty; if everything goes well, and we survive, then, in early January the term of my conditional imprisonment will end.”
“After the verdict in the ‘trade union case’, you had to urgently look for a replacement for the position of chairperson. Why did you choose Zinaida Mikhnyuk, the leader of the Brest city branch? How do you assess her work as an acting chairperson?”
“When the trade union chairman ‘is off’ for some reason, the first deputy takes his place. The first deputy chairman is Victor Kozlov, but given his state of health at that time, he could not lead the trade union. We turned to all deputies with a request to replace me: thanks to Zinaida Mikhnyuk, she put her shoulder in a very difficult moment. In general, it is difficult to manage a trade union physically, when you are in another region: you need to be in the central office constantly, because the situation is changing very quickly, and decisions must be made promptly. Unfortunately, for two years the trade union has lost its efficiency in decision-making, and it has not kept its finger on the pulse of events, as much as it would have liked. Therefore, now we will have to make up for the lost time, acting within the framework of the Charter, within the framework of decisions of our collegial bodies and in the interests of the members of the REP Trade Union.”
“The new chairman Vasily Zavadsky is a relatively new person in the REP Trade Union. What hopes do you associate with his leadership?”
“Vasily has worked as the executive director of the trade union. Time will show what kind of leader he becomes: the ability to negotiate is a very good quality. But negotiate in the name of what: just in order to agree or for the sake of protecting the interests of the trade union and promoting it in the society? I am ready to provide him with all kinds of assistance, give advice, his right is to listen or ignore my opinion; the last word always rests with the leader and the collegial body. I think that Vasily is one of those people who advocate collegial leadership of the trade union, and will defend the majority’s position, while not forgetting about the minority.”
“The congress has shown that a conflict ‘fathers vs. children’ is in place at the REP Trade Union. How are you going to solve it?”
“Any newcomers to the trade union should know its history, its victories and omissions; they should join the union not to dictate their terms, but to help, if they can help in anything. Ultimatums are unacceptable, no matter who puts them forward. Discipline is necessary at work and enforcement of decisions adopted by collegial bodies – without due discipline we’ll have no success.
Young people’s ambitions should be manifested constructively, without rudeness. We are ready for a normal dialogue. I’ll tell you frankly: what our generation of unionists had achieved, hardly any new generation will be able to repeat. And when one comes to our office, he or she should remember: this are not rented premises – they are union’s property. We gathered people in thousands for our rallies and achieved (not everything we wanted), but quite a lot for those times. The fact that the regime used to press hundreds of our members, and sent leaders to conditional imprisonment means that we are worth something.
Before promising to do anything, first show what you are capable of. Prove it – and let’s do it together, but in no case you should find fault with what was done by a whole generation of REP members, who had no normal salary, because they were completely devoted to their union work – they had no opportunity to receive a decent salary or other material benefits from foundations; they sometimes just worked as volunteers. I am proud of having a chance in my life of working with our colleagues. Years have passed, leaders of regional branches and union units have changed, but the unionist ideology remains unchanged: first of all, we work for our members and in their interests, not forgetting the global problems of the country’s socioeconomic development, remaining independent of any political parties and movements.”
“Do you agree with the reproaches of the younger generation of REP members that over 30 years the leadership of the trade union has become outdated both physically and morally: they say, such a powerful weapon as a trade union should be put into the hands of young people and used more decisively?”
“The union decisiveness depends on its size and solidarity. Today, both we and our colleagues from other independent trade unions are facing elements of non-solidarity, primarily at industrial enterprises. Today, general civil solidarity is at work rather than solidarity of workers. Without solving this problem, the widespread creation of independent trade unions at enterprises, and increasing their popularity and authority is impossible.”
“The future of the REP Trade Union undoubtedly depends on the outcome of the Belarusian revolution. In your opinion, what will the outcome of the big breakthrough that we see in 2020 be?”
“In my opinion, a lot of time has already been lost; and this is what the current regime is using to disperse peaceful protesters’ marches. Strong power will never resort to brute physical force – this is the weakness of the ruling regime.
Today, it’s difficult to predict how and when the new presidential election will be held, and according to which Constitution. I would suggest returning back to the 1994 Constitution, because it’s the only democratic Constitution of our country.
Trade unions should know: even democratic authorities won’t bring rights to workers on a silver platter; workers will have to fight for their rights under any government, let it be three times democratic. Therefore, solidarity is very important today, and it will remain important both tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Widespread workers’ educational training is necessary. In what are independent trade unions different from the pro-government ones, what is their strength and independence in? I am sure that there is an urgent need to create new independent trade unions. Labour people must know how to self-organize. The prospect for the development of independent trade unions lies precisely in self-organization and protection of specific interests of individual workers and independent trade unions as a whole.”