‘Fighting at the forefront with targets on our backs’
In part 2 of our special report on Belarus, we meet the courageous union leader, Lizaveta Merliak, who tells us what life is really like for trade unionists and how solidarity is the key to their victory over oppression
I am feeling fine: I know that the truth is on our side, and that gives us a lot of strength. Every day I see like-minded people everywhere, and I am curious as to when it all happened that we, as one people started to be so united.
Of course, being under arrest was an extreme stress. Actually, it was the first time in my whole 20 years of deliberate struggle that I was taken to the police, stayed in a cell for some time and had to explain my presence at a mass event.
The moment I was arrested was the most emotional for me and my family. My husband later told me that our three and a half year old son thought that I was kidnapped by a gang of bandits. That is how it looked like to a child; and to anyone who sees any arrest in this country nowadays.
They are cowards, they are not arresting us at a mass event in front of tens of thousands; no, they are grabbing us in doorways, back streets, by the front doors to our homes. I felt both extreme anger and helplessness at the same time. A moment later I was sure that I would get through all this safely – because I am not alone.
In the police station during interrogation the police woman, an inspector, asked me why I was attending the unauthorised mass event – as if she didn’t understand that we were so many, that it felt so right to us – the time, the place, the speeches, the feeling of total unity. I told her I was not scared. After all, I was doing my duty to our members.
What is it like for independent trade union members in Belarus now? What daily challenges and dangers are they facing?
I believe we’re living at the time when the mission of independent unions is finally being fulfilled. First we were like a squad of firefighters warning everyone of danger and rushing to fight the fire wherever we could reach it. Now that fire is everywhere – by fire I mean the lawlessness and arbitrariness of the state.
And in fighting this fire, trade unionists are at least protected and equipped. Equipped with our knowledge and experience of collective struggle that other workers who were not in independent unions lacked for 26 years; protected with our structural power – many members are in unique professions that can’t be replaced by scabs easily, and they know it; solidarity is our core tool.
‘Join us and fight for our ideals’
We are fighting at the forefront and targets are on our backs – that is how it feels. That is why we have to protect what we have, and to get more people to join us and fight for our ideals.
As unionists we need to unite like-minded people, protect our members and other workers – especially those who are on strike – from every pressure coming from the state and employers, by collective struggle.
The first few days after the elections were the most challenging. With no internet we lost connectivity with each other. It felt extremely insecure to have no access to details of what was going on. But what we saw in all regions of this country, was that the people were ready for change. What united us was dignity and decency. And we chose to peacefully confront the lawlessness and brutality of the illegal state to secure our independence.
What do the independent trade unions hope to achieve for Belarusian workers through their current actions?
We are working on two fronts – organising workers and supporting strike action. On organising, one of the first moves by Belarusian workers was to leave the state-run trade unions.
The state-run Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus nominated Lukashenko for President. They formed election committees and didn’t listen to workers’ demands. The massive exodus of these members happened straight after the falsified election results.
But these people did not join the independent and free trade unions en masse –we need to organise further and wider. The state unions comprise 96 per cent of all Belarusian employees. Their structures are still oppressing workers, trying to force them back, by lying about collective agreements and social benefits.
The poison of the state unions’ propaganda replaced the notion of a union as a force for collective strength. We explain to potential members the differences in the interests of the bosses and the workers.
On supporting strike action I’ll give an example of the strike at JSC Belaruskali – the fourth biggest global supplier of potash. It is an entirely state-owned company which brings in the biggest export profits.
After all the violence we witnessed the workers of Belaruskali voted to stop financing the dictatorship by a full stoppage of production. On August, 17 Belaruskali miners put forward a list of demands including denouncing the results of presidential elections and calling for the punishment of those who tortured peaceful protesters – among other things.
Since then the Independent union is supporting the strike committee. We provide our office to the committee, cover the news, and organise international solidarity support.
From our union research of the global potash industry we know the biggest buyer of our product is a Norwegian fertilizer company, Yara International. This is the only buyer of Belaruskali that we know of who cares about workers’ and human rights. Our task is to make sure that their business partners consider renegotiating their contract with Belaruskali and insist on workers’ rights.
By terrorising, arresting and kidnapping striking workers and their families, we can prove that Belaruskali is violating human rights, and breaking the terms of Yara International’s own business code of conduct.
Do you have a message for Unite members on the incredible importance of and the personal sacrifices being made to keep trade unions independent in Belarus?
I would like to thank Unite and its members for calling the police station in Grodno, where I was being held, on August 30. The police received over 200 phone calls from all over the world and many of those calls were from the UK.
‘They don’t play by the rules’
I guess you made the police nervous by making them reply in English to your questions concerning an arrest of a trade unionist! We have many comrades in prison at the moment. They are sentenced to short terms, like 5-7-15 days. It is unfair, of course, as they were not doing something wrong, accused by a state that does not play by the rules.
The rule of law is absent nowadays in Belarus. The most active of our comrades finish their prison terms and then get new one. We should demand the release of the political prisoners and their full rehabilitation.
We need Unite members to monitor our situation, keep in contact with independent unions, spread the word and support our work. The truth is on our side. Solidarity forever!
Lizaveta says, “There is always a way to help and to be involved.” Here are some ideas:
Messages of solidarity – these are always welcome and as we have seen can make a real difference.
Support the EDM – John McDonnell has lodged a Parliamentary early day motion calling for “international solidarity with the people of Belarus in their struggle for freedom and democracy. Get your MP to support it.
Help with research – you can help by feeding in some research, Lizaveta says. “We know that UK imports goods from Belarus. Maybe there is a way of influencing the British buyers to question the Belarusian state of the violations of human and workers’ rights?”
Keep up to date with the latest reliable news – Lizaveta advises that “The most reliable news channel for us is Belsat TV – a Belarusian channel broadcasting from Poland. Also look at telegram channels including our own union channel @NEZALEZHNY. In August when the whole thing started my Belarusian friends in the UK listed English language news about Belarus on Facebook. We have had great support from UK comrades.”
LabourStart campaign on Belarus – available here in 19 languages. “Signing and sharing helps us. It’s been already supported by 5351 people. We can do more!” adds Lizaveta.
Unite International Department – via the Unite website
IndustriALL – for latest news and some great reports
PLEASE NOTE: On the day we post this interview, Lizaveta is in a courtroom awaiting news of her fate. Stay tuned to UNITElive for any updates on her situation.
By Amanda Campbell @amanda_unite