Business as per Emergency Bill: Strike at Achema Plant in Lithuania

On the 8th of February, 100 workers at the chemical plant complex ‘Achema’ in Jonava, Lithuania voted in favour of a strike to negotiate a collective agreement. The complex is one of the economic powerhouses of the Baltics, contributing to 3.4% of the country’s GDP. The strike marked a turning point in the Lithuanian class struggle, being the first in a private enterprise in the country’s post-Soviet period. Despite support from workers across the country and abroad, it was stopped dead in its tracks by the war in Ukraine. The federal government instituted wartime measures which effectively suspended all strike action. Amidst a globalised cost of living crisis, mass refusal to return to work, and the looming threat of generalised recession, the capitalist class uses all tools possible to preserve their dying order. The workers of ‘Achema’ demonstrate the continuation of class struggle following Stalinist carnage and how the interests of the working class are at odds with the demands of imperialist war.

The complex is located on the outskirts of Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city. ‘Achema’ was built shortly after World War II to produce nitrate fertilizer, a key product in European agriculture. Since then, it has evolved into a factory town, comprising multiple plants, schools, private healthcare clinics, and sports teams. Employing some 1,200 workers, a third of whom are union members, it has been a critical part of the Lithuanian economy. The complex also has gained notoriety as a particularly dangerous environment, being the site of repeat accidents since the 70s. 1989 saw the biggest disaster, caused by faulty construction of isothermal safety mechanisms. The malfunction caused an explosion which leaked nearly 7,500 tons of liquid ammonia in the form of a gigantic toxic cloud. The catastrophe claimed the lives of seven people, and left thousands injured. Despite (or perhaps because of) its myriad hazards, the plant has remained profitable following its privatization after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

‘Achema’ was thus somewhat unique among enterprises during the Soviet period and afterwards. Following liberalisation, it maintained its trade union from the Soviet era whereas many others were disbanded due to direct ties to the old Communist Party. The Achema Workers Trade Union (ADPS), boasted a variety of privileges for workers, including private healthcare services, holidays abroad, as well as vacation guarantees. All these terms were ensured by periodically renewed collective agreements.

The success of the plant post-liberalisation painted it as a poster child of modern Lithuania. The owner of the plant’s parent company, Bronislovas Lubys, was a former engineer at the complex. He was seen by many as a “self-made man” who put workers first while guaranteeing profits for shareholders. Like all fairy tales, magic turns to dust come midnight, or in this case, in 2019. Following Lubys’ death, the shareholders rejected renewing collective agreements for the first time in the plant’s history. The rejection of the agreement was compounded by the unforeseen economic hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. Average wages at the complex shrunk between 2020 and 2022 whilst monthly energy prices increased to 28%, before the war in Ukraine caused the cost of living to skyrocket altogether.

The signs were clear that workers could not stand idly by and had to take matters into their own hands in the form of a strike. The core demand of the union, the ADPS, was to sign a new collective agreement. The main points were to index wages to the rate of inflation, as well as wage bonuses as windfalls of yearly profits. It also demanded an end to the pressuring of workers into doing illegal overtime hours to make up for labour shortages. Thus, strike action began on the 8th of February. Chief among strikers were electrical safety and equipment inspection workers. The strike drew widespread media attention, as well as support from the May 1st Trade Union (G1PS), the Lithuanian Confederation of Trade Unions (LPSK), and the Lithuanian Industry Trade Union Federation (LPPSF). It also drew international attention within the EU, seeing support from IndustriAllEurope, the European Public Services Union, as well as Union Syndicat Federale. Emboldened by the ‘Achema’ workers, the Vilnius Public Transport (VVT) workers voted to strike in response to the municipal government breaking a collective agreement from 2018. However not all ‘Achema’ workers were in favour of the union-led strike action. Interviews made it clear that there was a discrepancy between the union leadership and the workshop managers when it came to demanding wage increases, which attempted to sideline the genuine demands of workers. The uptick of and support for these strikes reveals general class militancy and the unions’ desperate attempt to keep it within the sphere of the capitalist state.

The plight of the ‘Achema’ workers is significant for Lithuania and for post-Soviet countries. Not only does it demonstrate the need for organised, independent action by the working class, but it also shows that Stalinist legacy could not extinguish the potential for workers to take up action. The Lithuanian workers maintain a sense of agency and the will to exercise it in opposition to the demands of the ruling class. The strikes form a continuum of labour militancy in the greater region, going from the Russian Revolution and the famous 1962 Novocherkassk Electro-Locomotive plant (NEVZ) strike. Then, just as now, workers were forced to produce more whilst their salaries came crashing down. As always, daring to refuse the demands of the ruling class, be it within the Politburo or elsewhere, carried mortal peril. The Soviet government mowed down the Novocherkassk strikers leaving 26 dead buried in secret graves, 87 injured, and hundreds more arrested.

Elsewhere, the actions of dockworkers in Gdansk in the 70s proved that militancy cannot be contained by placation. Rebelling under similar conditions to the NEVZ, hundreds of workers took to the streets to strike against falling wages and increasing costs of living, refusing the call to de-escalation by the United Workers’ Party. The ensuing turmoil was brutally suppressed by the so-called People’s Army and Citizen’s Militia. The history of these disputes displays a lineage of worker militancy: ‘Achema’ is one of many points in a rich tapestry of class struggle.

Unlike the NEVZ strikers and the Gdansk dockworkers, the ‘Achema’ chemical plant workers were put down not by gunfire, but by the eruption of imperialism in Ukraine. Lithuania, being a close ally of the country, a member of NATO, and bordering the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, declared the invasion a security threat. The president, Gitanas Nauseda, imposed a formal emergency decree, outlawing all strike action for an indefinite period. Worse still, the parent company of ‘Achema’ announced a series of layoffs targeting 5% of its labour pool, moved the union offices off-site, and suspended production until at least December, blaming increased energy prices. However, its clear that the layoffs were nothing but a transparent attack on militant workers. The Lithuanian parliament, (‘Seimas’) has announced an energy plan for the coming months which creates a specialised energy reserve for the plant to resume production. The union representatives at ‘Achema’ said that strike action will resume once the decree is lifted, but all this does is postpone the struggle into the far-off future. The disappointment is also compounded by the new state budget. The pathetic promise of a 14% minimum wage increase for next year bodes ill for ‘Achema’ workers and many others who have been let down by dependence on the union. Contractual increases tied to increases in minimum wages, such as those of the new budget, are only ensured through a collective agreement, with employers having no legal responsibility to raise wages in the wake of a new budget plan otherwise. These outcomes demonstrate how reliance on unions can only take the workers as far as the bounds of the capitalist state.

As the war progresses, the intensity of the bosses’ attacks at the workers becomes more frequent and severe. Ukrainian courts have recently pushed through Law 2136 and Law 5371, enabling employers to bypass national labour laws entirely. The Ukrainian state makes it clear that even when workers are not marched off to the front, they remain disposable pawns for capital. Russian workers are also crushed under the same double conflict. A spontaneous strike broke out in June at the Ural Compressor Plant in Yekaterinburg, led by hundreds of workers over more than 20 million roubles in unpaid wages. The recent partial mobilisation and the size of post-sanction fossil fuel windfalls reaped by the Russian state spells urgent danger for workers on both sides of the conflict. The ‘Achema’ strike offers us a snapshot of the need for workers’ struggle by their own means and to oppose imperialist war on that basis. Only through action as a class and the formation of a new workers’ international enabling the overthrow of capitalism can workers be emancipated. As the war in Ukraine continues escalating into generalised imperialist conflict, this need becomes ever more pressing as the only antidote to the eternal conflict and necrotic march of capitalism.

October 2022
Saturday, October 29, 2022

Mutiny / Mutinerie

Mutiny is the bulletin of Klasbatalo. Mutinerie est le bulletin de Klasbatalo.