Cornell University

International Programs

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May 4 2006

Building Labor Solidarity in Kyrgyzstan

Daniel Brennan Macdonald, MILR '06, is an intern for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Daniel's reseach is on Dispute Resolution Mechanisms in Post-Soviet Central Asia. This is an account of his experiences of living and working in Bishkek. For more, Daniel invites you to visit his website.

Labor Conference - KyrgyzstanMy experience in the ILR school has opened many exciting opportunities that I had never previously conceived. After working for years as a teacher, I had gained exposure to collective bargaining practices through my union membership, where some of my most influential experiences came from working with my teaching association to negotiate with the local school district and gaining exposure to the grievance process first hand. I quickly decided that protection of rights in the workplace was something I was destined to do. 

This fall, my interest in such protections extended to a global Kyrgyzstancontext after taking a class in “Workers Rights as Human Rights”, a course coordinated with presenters from the ILO in Geneva and the ILR school. Even though the class was really cool considering the trans-Atlantic communication technology that made it possible, I was really impressed by the idea that through worker representation I could play a small role in concepts of greater global stability. As Americans lead the role in spreading free-market ideology, I believe it is also our responsibility to spread the things we have discovered in terms of worker representation, and how firms can benefit through socially conscious human resource strategies, elements that have been largely absent from economic reforms in developing countries.

KyrgyzstanAt the time I entered ILR, language and cultural studies were also an academic interest of mine, and I decided to maximize upon the interdisciplinary options that are available to Cornell students by combining my interests in Russian language and culture with my MILR degree. I didn’t realize where it would lead at the time, but it turned out to be useful as I have decided to spend my final semester working on an international labor project in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. 

Daniel - KyrgyzstanAs an intern for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity – or Solidarity Center for short- I have been gaining a lot of in depth experience both professionally and culturally. Although I never expected to find myself in Central Asia, I have found the experience here to be incredibly enlightening as I discover more about a people and culture that has gone largely unrecognized by Americans, both for reasons of transparency (lack of information) and interest. Through my experiences here I have come to understand more about the complex dynamic that goes on in a country as it struggles to re-identify itself after 70 years of Soviet rule, faced by problems of government reform, socio-economic policy, poverty, corruption, and cultural identity. 

Culture - KyrgyzstanKnown for its cross-cultural dynamic and warm hospitality,  Kyrgyzstan has offered me a very wide range of cultural experiences as I encounter Russians, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tadjiks, Turks, and Chinese. I have also enjoyed tasting the wide range of foods that they have to offer, culminating with being served the head of a sheep at one formal gathering –supposedly a great honor-. I can’t say it was my favorite dish, but it will make for a heck of a story! Contrary to many of the U.S. driven fears of Central Asia, my experience here has been full of very warm personal encounters with a people eager to learn from the West while also maintaining their own cultural perspective.

While here I am participating in seminars targeted at union leadership in areas of resource allocation and organization strategy. I have been traveling to many different parts of the country to take part in union events, and have been learning a lot about the similarities and differences between labor representation in the West and the former Soviet Union. I am also learning about the difficulties workers face in an economy with over 10% unemployment and a significant informal sector, where workers enjoy no rights whatsoever. Finally, I am conducting my own research project on ‘Dispute Resolution Mechanisms in Post-Soviet Central Asia’, which is turning out to be particularly challenging as all of the laws and formal practices of dispute resolution bear very little resemblance to what actually happens in practice –in true Soviet style-, and the actual practice is difficult to establish considering the lack of transparency in most organizations.

Working with labor unions has been particularly interesting, as Labor Unions - Conferenceunions seem to have served an entirely different social role during the Soviet period, and now they are also struggling with problems of self identity and organizational effectiveness. While the administration transitions into an entirely new role, government funding for traditionally strong social support has completely dried up. Unions have been left virtually ill-equipped to deal with the problems they face. Many people here and in the U.S. ask me why the AFL-CIO would be interested in promoting workplace representation in Central Asia, but as the labor movement in the U.S. faces one of its more critical moments combating globalization, I do not understand how workers in the U.S. expect to combat foreign competition without considering the workplace standards of employees abroad. As we offer our support and experience without promoting a purely ‘Western’ approach, but rather one of inclusion, we spread a base of understanding, both in firms and in workers hearts. 
The biggest shock that I have experienced through working with such groups has been the nostalgia that people express for the Soviet system, when employment was guaranteed, childrens’ camps were funded, and the union provided people with cars and money when needed! Bringing along my Western free-market ideology, the most significant thing I have learned is that not everyone believes in competitive theory, and they have become even more skeptical after having experienced the very negative impact of market liberalization: high inflation, high unemployment, and the loss of most social services.

Today, as union organizers are faced with problems collecting dues, a shrinking membership, and greatly reduced influence at the bargaining table, they yearn for the day when the government was the sole employer, the union was the hiring agency, and they worked in tandem to provide work for everyone. Getting to the bottom of conflict resolution mechanisms has been particularly interesting. Often when I ask people how conflicts were resolved in the Soviet Era, I get the response, “Conflicts!? There were no conflicts! They gave you everything you needed.” Obviously my Western palate has a hard time swallowing that one, but people seem to be genuinely honest when they remark on the power and influence the union once had. Compared to the social protections they experience today, I can not blame them. 

To find out more about my travels and research, please visit my website at