oDR: Interview

“We’re ideal workers”: a day with Kyiv’s trade union trolleybus drivers

Driving a trolleybus in one of the largest networks in Europe is hard. We spoke to three drivers about what their struggle to unionise cost them

Olena Tkalich
29 September 2021, 9.18am
Unionised trolleybus drivers have been fighting for better conditions and equipment
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Image: Olena Tkalich

Kyiv is home to one of the most extensive networks of trolleybuses in the world. Built initially in the 1930s, the trolleybus system – where buses draw power from overhead cables – snakes through the Ukrainian capital alongside trams, a metro and the now ubiquitous private minibuses.

But while the trolleybuses are affordable, if perhaps slow, they’re also risky – and in Kyiv, a site of struggle. Official figures suggest that worn tires cause regular accidents: the explosion of a tire can risk injury, whether via the tire itself or via collision. The risk increases especially in the Ukrainian winter’s icy conditions - yet the management of trolleybus depots often forces drivers to use faulty vehicles, activists claim.

Trolleybus drivers can face criminal responsibility for accidents, as they have no right to drive with worn tires. According to the Kyivpastrans utility company, 128 trolleybus drivers in Kyiv have been prosecuted for road accidents since the beginning of 2021. In total, over the past five years, more than 3,000 public transport accidents have occurred in Kyiv. Almost half of them involved trolleybuses.

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Trolleybuses are difficult to manoeuvre in icy conditions | (c) Raj Valley / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Kyiv trolleybus personnel have been protesting against faulty equipment since 2017, when a dozen drivers at the city’s Kurenivka depot went on hunger strike – an action that received support from British MPs. The union at Kurenivka has been on the defensive in the years since, reinstating, via the courts, activists who were dismissed and seeking better working conditions for them. Speaking to openDemocracy, drivers complained of management pressure on union members, delays in overtime pay and staff shortages. Of the estimated 600-700 employees at Kurenivka, only 11 people have so far become members of the trade union, citing pressure from management.

Kyivpastrans told openDemocracy that it checks its trolleybuses every shift, and takes “all necessary measures to prevent the use of faulty equipment for transporting passengers.” The company said it paid its employees their wages and overtime pay in accordance with Ukrainian legislation, and that its trolleybus driver roster was at 76% of capacity. It also stated that trade union members had not been involved in processes to improve technical safety.

We spoke to four drivers to find out what it’s like being in the unionised minority at work.

Natalya Pristinska, 39

Trolleybus driver and co-founder of union at Kurenivka depot

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Natalia Pristinska | Image: Olena Tkalich

When the former director of the Kurenivka trolleybus depot was removed, he made himself head of the “official” union that is loyal to the administration. And at a branch meeting in February 2016, he came out and said: “You don’t understand: you are slaves, and I know how to manage you.”

This really got me going. I told him that I would create an independent union and would never be a slave in my life. He called me in and said: “Go back home and grow beetroot.” I told him: “Well, OK, I’ll go, only I have never been a slave and never will.” And literally within a month I found the phone number for the independent railway union, called them, and the union chairman told me how many people there should be in our trade union by law, and six of us held the first meeting. That was 16 April 2016. This is how we organised our union.

I will say this: this is the kind of person I am – I do not like lies and do not like it when my rights are limited. And the management at Kyivpastrans not only restricts your rights, they try to stop you from opening your mouth.

I never stand aside. If it is necessary to go forward, then I go forward. If there is a hunger strike, then even with my weight of 130kg, I will go on a hunger strike – because you have to, if you want to achieve something concrete. If I have to go to court, I’m going to court.

I love my job. I’m not so good at reading and writing, I don’t want to study to become a lawyer or an academic. Driving a trolleybus is my calling.

What was the cost of the union struggle?

We initially had 60 people in the union, and then our director began to call everyone in, one by one, to make promises and threats. There are people who are afraid of losing something, and they just step aside, leave the union. So in the end there’s not that many of us – and we would, of course, like more. I think that if 80% of staff will fight for their rights, then there would be any opportunity to violate them.

It was very difficult all these years, there were many court cases. We won practically all of them, but management is still trying to argue with us. Before quarantine, we attended the court hearings for our activists who had been disciplined or dismissed en masse – I went to every dismissal hearing for our drivers, I memorised every word of the judge. For me it was a good lesson.

"It used to be: you are in the trade union, they put you on the waiting list for an apartment, they get insurance for you, you get holidays. After perestroika, we were told to forget this - no holidays, no apartments, no insurance, nothing"

Financially, it has been difficult. When we refused to travel on faulty vehicles, we were paid lower wages: 75% of our salary, without any bonuses. Our union chairman, Andriy Samko, was getting 3,000-4,000 hryvnias [£80-£108] a month when everyone else in the union was on 15,000-17,000 [£400-£460]. And now, by the way, all members of the independent trade union have the lowest salaries. Everyone else gets paid above 20,000, and we get 15,000 – because we don't work weekends, we work our own hours. We are resting, so passengers can be confident in us. We go to work well-rested.

Other drivers work a night shift, come home at 7am, sleep, and then two hours later are back to work. This is how some people work here. And no one will ask them if you didn’t get enough sleep, maybe you’re tired, maybe you’re hungry.

Thanks to our activists, trolleybuses with run-down tires stopped being used. Good tyres mean, first of all, the safety of passengers. How many cases have we seen when our tyres exploded, the floor collapsed and people suffered - someone injures their leg, someone gets burned. Now, it's definitely better. We do not use faulty vehicles; people can be sure that they will be taken to their destination. This was the reason we organised our hunger strike in 2017: I was given five trolleybuses with bald tyres in a single day.

People are divided into several groups over the union. Some say there’s nothing for it to do, this is nonsense - if you go to work, everything will be fine, they say. Some say the opposite: “You guys are great. At least someone can achieve something, at least someone is trying.” And some say that they do not care, what difference does it make to me. This is what they’ve been taught.

Since perestroika, people have forgotten what trade unions are and that they were trying to achieve something. It used to be: you are in the trade union, they put you on the waiting list for an apartment, they get insurance for you, you get holidays. After perestroika, we were told to forget this - no holidays, no apartments, no insurance, nothing. People have lost the habit. They realised that it’s every man for themselves.

Andriy Samko, 42

Trolleybus driver, head of the trade union branch at Kurenivka depot

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Andriy Samko | Source: Olena Tkalich

In general, the work of Kyivpastrans managers is completely meaningless. We had 16 trolleybuses without wheels. That is, in our depot alone there were 16 cars less than needed. The fewer working trolleybuses we have on the line, the longer the interval on the route. People won’t wait, they’ll take other transport. As a result, our passenger numbers fall, and Kyivpastrans does nothing to keep them.

Take those wheels that have not been purchased for a year. They bought tyres for 16 trolleybuses, and 10 buses have already worn them out. This is sabotage, because everyone knows very well: there is a service that is paid to know when our tyres run out. And if they don’t buy tyres on time, it means that the minibus companies are lobbying someone. The minibuses are making money, and we sit around crying that we have no money and we need subsidies.

Tenders are being abused: Kyivpastrans announces a tender for a million hryvnia so that some company would draw up a blueprint for a new line of cable. This is nonsense, this is a piece of work for a student. They have four floors of college graduates that could draw this.

What did the union cost you?

I spent almost all my free time on the union. Now it’s less time, because the lawsuits over dismissals and discipline are nearly over. But you still need to read, study. It is always interesting to know something new. Almost all my time has been spent on it.

In general, being involved in the union is like studying. We began to understand Ukraine’s labour laws, learned almost all the regulatory documents on operating trolleybuses. It turns out that you gain experience, knowledge, and respect. If you know the law, and more or less understand it, management treats you in a completely different way.

Even before the trade union, in December 2014 we were not paid for four months. There were nine of us, and we went on strike, blocked the road out of the depot so that no one could leave. This was my first experience. After spending four months without pay, I had to take radical action. Experience shows that radical actions have proven to be the most effective. And during this time, my motivation has not changed. On the contrary, it’s encouraging that we have done and won so much.

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Trade unionists are fighting for good quality equipment and machinery across Kyiv | (c) Raj Valley / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

How has your activism changed you?

I’ve changed for the better. I’ve got more courage, adherence to principles, self-control. I wasn’t always the perfect driver. I also committed violations. And I had to become an ideal driver, and not to give management a reason to make claims against us over the slightest thing. These changes are only for the better. We have become ideal workers. The anger that everyone felt towards us grew into respect.

What has the union achieved?

Thanks to us, we don’t have so many buses going out on bald tyres - management is afraid to use them now, because if they do, we’ll make it public. We record all the technical faults, and our repairs are improving.

"Drivers regularly die while driving, they work a lot of overtime"

In terms of working conditions, management no longer issues reprimands to us, and doesn't terminate people’s contracts over nothing. They are afraid of us and act according to the law. Vacation pay is paid on time. We got overtime money that had not been paid - again, only to our union members. I thought it would spur everyone else on. And then the non-union guys were outraged that we had done something only for ourselves. They don't care that they've been taken for a ride for so long.

Workers who know their rights should be in the majority, but, unfortunately, there are much less of them, one in a hundred. If it were the other way around, then it’d be great. The company would treat its employees with respect, but management’s attitude is absolutely devil-may-care.

Olha Mokranska-Samko, 38

Kyivpastrans instructor, tram driver, co-founder and union branch lawyer

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Olha Mokranska-Samko | Image: Olena Tkalich

I have been in the union since the very start, since 2016. Why did I decide to join it? Because my husband became the head of the union. But there is always personal motivation. To support the union, I completed my law degree. And behind the scenes I am our union’s lawyer. All our legal issues, all the courts, all the documents, our appeals to certain bodies - all this is done by me.

I didn’t really stand out in the crowd before. There’s something in my character, to be sure, but still it was my husband who got me involved.. And somehow we became activists together. We are not afraid, we say what we think, and we know our rights. And they have not been able to do anything to us for years.

We are all united by the desire to receive a decent salary, according to legislation, for the work that we do. We don’t want more, but what we are owed. This is what we fight for - for normal working conditions. At the moment, drivers work in conditions fit for animals. There is nowhere to go to the toilet, nowhere to wash your hands. Not to mention some kind of fan to keep you cool. I am myself a working tram driver, I work part-time. And if in a trolleybus you can still more or less ride, then in trams - when it’s 32 degrees, the driver’s cabin is more like 60.

Drivers regularly die while driving, they work a lot of overtime. This work should be paid double under Ukraine’s Labour Code, and people are deceived into working on their days off. They work 24/7/365. Plus there’s a big shortage of staff. During lockdown, our training centre did not train drivers. And imagine, in a year and a half, people leave, people quit, people die, people get sick. And now the staff shortage is probably 50%. Each person is doing the job of two, roughly speaking. They can up to 18 hours a day, although according to the law, a driver cannot work more than 10 hours.

What was the cost of the union struggle?

In these past five years, you could have written a book called “Our dear Trade Union”. It’s dear because it cost us a lot.

Our family suffered the most. Management tried to get Andriy [Samko] any way they could - he was not allowed to work, his wages were cut. At that time, I was working three jobs to feed our family. Gradually, management began to focus on relatives - on me, on my mother, who was also fired because of Andriy. They hoped he would run to his superiors and beg them not to touch his mother-in-law. But he didn’t do that. He swallowed it and said that we will restore our rights through the courts. The pressure on the family was strong - our parents suffered in their own way, we suffered too. Moreover, our parents had worked in this system all their lives, for 40 years. My dad gave his life to bloody Kyivpastrans. For him, it was psychologically difficult.

"We lost our friends. Now we have only our comrades"

We lost our friends. Now we have only our comrades, who are members of the trade union. Most of our friends were Kyivpastrans employees. And talking to us is a black mark against you: “If you communicate with them, you won’t get a trolleybus. I will not give you a shift, and you will have to sit at the depot.” I also had to step back for a month or two - that hit my paycheck - and you start having problems at home. We don’t really allow people into our circle now.

How has activism changed you?

Personally, it has given me growth. I got my law diploma for a reason. I am convinced that there is justice in our country, even if it goes in small steps. I will not say that it is expensive, it just takes a long time. But still, justice exists. And most of the time - at least in our court cases - it takes the side of the employee, not the employer.

What’s next?

No one is prepared to let the union go. Retreating now would be not to respect yourself. I will say this - it will never end.

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