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“Fired for my anti-war stance” How Russian trade unions defend the labor rights of those opposed to the invasion

Many Russians who have been bold enough to speak out against the war in Ukraine are on the brink of losing their jobs. Public and private sector employers alike tend to play safe, getting rid of employees who oppose the war on social media, out in the streets, or even in workplace conversations. Under pressure from superiors, many such activists agree to resign voluntarily, losing their due severance pay along with their jobs. Despite the risk of repression, trade unions have stepped in to help anti-war Russians defend their labor rights.

  • The Anti-War Fund

  • The most vulnerable ones: teachers fired for being “immoral”

  • The Courier Trade Union: “No people, no problem”

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The Anti-War Fund

Late in April 2022, Sergei Melnikov, a legal counsel at a state housing management enterprise in his mid-fifties, stood in a one-man protest against the war in Ukraine outside Volokolamskaya Metro station in Moscow. The police brought him in for “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces” (an administrative offense for first-time perpetrators).

Learning about Sergei’s arrest, his boss messaged him on Whatsapp demanding his immediate resignation. When he refused, his employer blocked his pass and then fired him for truancy. Interestingly, Sergei had been open about his participation in street protests since 2018, and even though his ex-military boss had never been too happy about it, it was his arrest that became the last straw.

In hopes of challenging his unlawful dismissal, Melnikov reached out to the Anti-War Fund. Naturally, getting his post back was off the table, but he managed to change his dismissal into an unpaid leave followed by an amicable resignation with severance pay. The Fund provided detailed instructions on communication and paperwork and the no less important moral support, says Sergei. “All my friends and family support the ‘special operation’, and before our conversation, I felt like a pariah. However, they helped me understand I’m not alone.”

Co-founded late in March by the Anti-War Sick Leave project, the Feminist Anti-War Resistance, and the Antijob anarchist group, the Anti-War Fund is a non-governmental project offering free legal advice to Russians fired or financially discriminated against for their political stance. They encourage their clients to contest their dismissal in court and cover their legal expenses if needed.

“The more employers realize that unlawful dismissals end in lawsuits, media scandals, and general hassle, the fewer such incidents we will see,” says Fedor of the Anti-War Fund (the name has been changed). At the moment the Fund is processing around a hundred applications, mostly from public organizations like schools, universities, and even libraries.

However, private sector enterprises are no stranger to high-profile dismissals either. In the spring of 2022, the Moscow subsidiary of the Europ Assistance insurance firm tried to fire Maria Lazebnaya, a doctor who had asked the head office for relocation abroad. Lazebnaya and her colleague Daria Sokolova mistakenly broadcast their relocation request across the company, and their superiors disabled their corporate accounts, despite Lazebnaya being in the middle of a complex urgent surgery approval case. Her account remained suspended for almost two months, and upon her return, she learned that her pay had been cut by 30%. Her 16-year-old daughter, who worked at the call center unofficially, was also fired.

With the help of the Anti-War Fund and independent lawyers, Maria ensured media coverage of her case, including by the French media outlet RFI, and took her employer to court. She is intent on bringing Europe assistance to justice and getting proper compensation before parting ways with the treacherous employer but has refused to let the Fund cover her legal expenses: “I’m still getting paid. This money would be better used by someone who needs it more.”

The most vulnerable ones: teachers fired for being “immoral”

Under the current labor law, teachers and college professors are the easiest to pressure for their anti-war attitude. They are continuously forced to teach patriotic “lessons of hatred” and publicly support the Russian army, while those who dare resist can be fired for an “immoral act”, a vague concept included in the Labor Code specifically for teaching staff.

This was exactly the fate that befell Roman Melnichenko, a research associate and professor at Volgograd State University whose parents live in Ukraine. When the war began, he reposted a few videos and messages from Ukraine on social media, adding some photos of his family and expressing his general shock. Importantly, he never brought his opinions to the classroom and believes it’s unacceptable.

At the request of the university administration, he took down all of his “offending: posts and continued teaching until he was called to the session of an ethics committee. Comprised of his fellow professors, the committee was understanding of his family circumstances and “took pity on him”, letting him go without sanctions. However, as soon as he left the meeting room, he was detained by the police on the charges of “spreading deliberately false information of public significance” online.

“The information that Russian troops were outside Kyiv in March, shelling Ukrainian cities, was deemed false, and I got a 30,000-ruble (~$500). At work the next morning, I learned that I’d lost my position of leading research assistant for truancy and that of associate professor for immoral behavior.”

Melnikov found a lawyer and reached out to the Anti-War Fund, which covered most of his legal fees. He has lost his case in the first-instance court but is willing to continue fighting, even if it means going to the European Court of Human Rights.

As lawyer Pavel Kudyukin explains, Melnikov’s situation is not an isolated incident: dozens of teachers and professors have been laid off for opposing the war, judging by press reports, which means real numbers could be much higher. Many choose to resign “voluntarily” to avoid causing trouble to their former superiors or educational institutions. Unfortunately, even if a professor fired for an “immoral act” goes to court, the court is more likely to side with their university, in Kudyukin’s experience.

However, there is another option of resistance open to teaching staff: a collective request for resignation at the beginning of the academic year or before the protest could persuade the administration to see reason. Admittedly, for such a step to be effective, it must be supported by the overwhelming majority of the team.

While the strike remains the main weapon of labor protests and the only measure that drives change, as Chair of the Teacher Trade Union Yury Varlamov points out, launching a full-fledged strike is next to impossible in the current legal framework. What the media often refer to as strikes are essentially general acts of protest, the lawyer warns, because the Labor Code suggests that a strike must be supported by at least half or even two-thirds of the personnel and involves a massive amount of red tape. Even worse, the paperwork is not formalized and often requires time-consuming and legally advanced analysis of court precedents, which could be a challenge for most teams.

This gives the employer the advantage of time, and they normally fire the initiators of the strike even before it begins. “As you may easily notice, Russia had hundreds of strikes a year before the current Labor Code came into effect, which is normal for a country this size. Subsequently, their number dropped to one-digit values or even to zero,” Varlamov sums up.

The Courier Trade Union: “No people, no problem”

Repression against the leader of the Courier Trade Union Kirill Ukraintsev has been the most outrageous case of pressure exerted on Russia’s independent professional associations in the last few years. Founded in a pandemic-ravaged Moscow in 2020 in response to the peaking need for delivery services, Courier soon proved that even workers who are employed unofficially can fight for their rights legally and efficiently.

Nevertheless, its founder Kirill Ukraintsev, a 32-year-old video blogger and left-wing activist, has been in custody since April 2022 on the charges of repeatedly violating the procedure of public protests, facing up to five years in prison. Even though he refrained from participating in public protests in the early days of the war for fear of prosecution, he was formally arrested for a couple of old posts on social media containing calls to couriers and delivery workers to walk out in protest.

Maxim Shulgin, the secretary of Courier, points out that Kirill’s arrest aligns with the upcoming trend of cutting labor costs against the backdrop of the ongoing economic crisis:

“Workers will become more vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction. And the easiest way of dealing with their dissatisfaction is to remove those who defend their rights.”

However, as Shulgin rightly points out, Kirill is not some sort of a “Superman from a comic strip combating evil all alone”. The trade union has a structure and a close-knit team across multiple cities, so its cause lives on.

Courier is part of the Solidarity Platform, which brings together dissatisfied taxi drivers, crane operators, and the employees of online retailer Wildberries, notorious for its workplace policies. Thus, the personnel of warehouses and pickup points reported having to undress to their underwear to prove they are not smuggling any goods out of the facilities and suffering from an oppressive system of fines and chronic overwork.

Shulgin is confident that the unions of precariat workers, such as online store personnel, couriers, and other jobs characterized by low job security and general underpayment could form the foundation for a nationwide labor resistance. And it is precisely because of the Russian government’s unwillingness to see labor protests and independent trade unions that the leader of Courier was arrested.

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