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The Kremlin takes on workers

Russia's parliament will take up the government's call to drastically lift labor protections in January.

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Russia's labor code hasn't changed much since 1971. It still reflects the Soviet Union's claim to be a state run for and by working people. Current laws feature near absolute job security, trade union powers that rival those of management, and the right to company-subsidized vacations, healthcare, and education.

But the Kremlin wants to overhaul Russia's labor code with a set of Dickensian measures that include: abolishing collective bargaining and legalizing the 12-hour work day. This has State Duma deputies balking for the first time since President Vladimir Putin's Unity party took control of parliament a year ago.

Supporters of the bill, submitted by the government to the State Duma earlier this month, say it is necessary to bring Russia's sluggish workforce into the fast-paced, flexible, and globalized 21st century. But opponents, including a couple hundred angry trade unionists demonstrating outside the parliament building yesterday, charge it will drag labor relations back into the 19th-century world of robber barons and powerless, dehumanized workers.

"The Kremlin is simply waging war on organized labor," says Yury Timofeyev, an official of the Steelworker's Union. "They think they can improve the economy at the expense of workers, but this path will only lead to social explosion."

The government had hoped that the Duma, dominated by pro-Kremlin and right-wing parties, would quickly pass the new code. But parliamentarians voted yesterday to postpone any discussion of it until at least January.

"I'm not sure our leaders recognize how unpredictable the response could be to laws like this," says Alexander Lobeikin, deputy head of the Duma's Labor and Social Policy Commission. "You cannot move so rapidly from all-embracing Soviet-style labor protections to wild capitalism."

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