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Tiny Union Takes on French Retailer

About 30 people picketing a Leroy Merlin store in April 2008 ?€” an effort that Kochura said led to his dismissal. Alexandra Astakhova

The head of a Russian union for employees at French retailer Leroy Merlin said Monday that he had been offered a large sum of money to shut down the union and leave amid a high-stakes battle between Russian workers and a foreign employer.

The union head, Ivan Kochura, said he had rejected the offer, made by a Leroy Merlin executive shortly after he formed the union in 2007, and announced that workers would hold a picket outside one of the retailer's Moscow do-it-yourself stores on Tuesday and another at the French Embassy next week.

“For me, integrity comes first,” Kochura said in an interview Monday.

He said Leroy Merlin had offered him a lump sum sufficient to cover his family's expenses for a year if he left.

His union, Merlinmanageprof, has also sent a written appeal to the French Embassy to press Leroy Merlin to consider its demands for better pay and working conditions.

A spokeswoman for Leroy Merlin, which has 12 stores across Russia, declined to comment on the workers dispute Monday.

The French Embassy confirmed that it had received the union's letter but said its options were limited.

“The conflict is taking place under the Russian law, and we can't be involved,” embassy spokesman Thomas Buffin said. “It's inside a private company."

Unions are well-organized in Europe and North America, but they lack a strong voice in Russia. Foreign and Russian employers have made efforts to keep it that way. The Ford Motor Co., for one, hired outside help to get through a work slowdown initiated by workers who tried to unionize at its St. Petersburg assembly plant a couple of years ago.

But as the economic crisis bites hard, some Russian employees have been taking a new look at unions — and complained that their efforts to win concessions are being ignored. Among the Russian employees who have complained in recent weeks are those working at the Moscow offices of Czech-owned Home Credit and Finance Bank, Austria's Raiffeisen Bank and U.S. Citibank.

The three banks denied wrongdoing in written statements.

Kochura's problems with Leroy Merlin go back to October 2007, when the director of a Leroy Merlin store where he worked just outside Moscow called him in for talks just a week after he had formed the union, he said.

“I was kept in his office for several hours and offered money and humiliated,” Kochura said.

He said he refused the money and the company declined to consider his union's demands for higher salaries that matched those of rival stores and for the hiring of more people to handle the workload. He subsequently staged a picket of 30 people from sympathetic unions in April 2008 — an effort that he said cost him his job.

Leroy Merlin fired him as a sales assistant just a few days after the picket for what Kochura, a father of two, described as false charges of violating company rules.

A court reinstated him after a year of legal battles, but Kochura said Leroy Merlin was still ignoring his union's demands, prompting the decision to stage the pickets.

The union now numbers less than 20 employees at four stores — three in and outside Moscow and one in St. Petersburg — Kochura said, adding that the exact size and identifies of members had to be kept secret for fear of reprisals. The four stores employ 3,300 people.

“People are afraid of joining the union or are leaving it,” Kochura said.

Nadezhda Skripchenko, leader of the St. Petersburg branch of the union, said her members were all but dormant because she was tired of facing off with management.

“I want some quiet,” she said by telephone. “I don't want any more of what has been happening to me.”

She said she has received threats of dismissal and offers of money — enough to last her a half year — if she left the union or quit work. When she refused, store managers began moving her from department to department in the hope that she would make mistakes with new duties, she said.

“They can always issue reprimands and fire people,” she said.

Under Russian law, a company can fire a worker after issuing three rebukes.

Other union members are also under pressure, including a cash register operator who has been accused of stealing 10,000 rubles ($338), Kochura said.

Kochura said the planned pickets would be short and small because Moscow regional authorities had given permission for them to be held for just an hour each time and limited to 30 protesters. The French Embassy picket is scheduled for Jan. 26.

Both foreign and Russian companies try to prevent unions from emerging as long as possible, said Dmitry Semyonov, president of the Russian Association of Social Technologies, which helped Kochura fight in court to get his job back at Leroy Merlin.

The French may especially want to avoid organized labor in Russia because unions at home are among the world's most active, he said.

“French unions sometimes abuse their power,” Semyonov said, referring to several transportation-related strikes in recent years. “That's why French businessmen — knowing how unions can be extremely forceful and aggressive — are afraid of them.”

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