ARF must lead the fight for workers’ rights in Armenia

Thirty years after the formation of the second Republic of Armenia, our country continues to face a litany of domestic economic problems. The labor sphere is in shambles. The national poverty rate is not seeing dramatic changes. Workers have little to no practical rights. Illegal and unethical child labor is rampant, and the inflation rate far outpaces any salary increases. Meanwhile, the Civil Contract government has blocked the opposition’s bill to increase the minimum wage by 50 percent.

The solution to this issue is simple: the trade union (labor union) networks of Armenia must be restructured and re-invigorated. Unfortunately, decades of overbearing Communist Party dominance in the labor sphere and marginalization of unions during the Soviet era have left contemporary Armenian trade unions weak and ineffective. They function more as advising intermediaries between the workers and the bosses, taking the side of the capitalists rather than fighting for the rights of those they represent.

What the trade unions of Armenia need is a leader – a force to organize them, revitalize them, politicize them within the context of leftist thought and defend them in case of retaliatory legal action by the bourgeois class. There is only one entity in Armenia that has the organizational know-how, the funds for legal defense and the necessary leftist philosophy to accomplish this: the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF).

This is not a role that is unfamiliar to the 132-year-old ARF. During the socialist movement of the first decade of the 20th century, the ARF organized countless strikes and created innumerable trade unions. During the era of the First Republic of Armenia, the ARF-dominated parliament often sided with the trade unions against the greedy corporatists: “in October [1920], Parliament defended the [railway] union’s position and quickly voted an extraordinary appropriation for salary increments” (Richard Hovanissian’s The Republic of Armenia).

And for those individuals for whom the solution to domestic exploitation is not a compelling issue, this is also a nationalist imperative. One can only imagine how much easier the ongoing process to remove the traitorous Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan would be if the ARF and other opposition forces were able to call a general strike. Without major influence in trade unions, such an action is not possible. Furthermore, the opposition also would have already solved or could credibly promise to solve the myriad of socio-economic issues that prevent many Armenians from thinking through a nationalist lens.

Since this appears to be an important task from both the national and social ideological standpoints, what steps must be taken toward this end?

The ARF, either by itself or in conjunction with other labor organizations, must organize the local labor unions.

The ARF’s structure naturally lends itself to this task, as its city committees (Kaghakayin Gomideh) would be able to act as local organizing liaisons. With each committee comes a host of members who have years of experience in internal democracy and organizational leadership, both at the level of the committee (gomideh) and the group (khoump). When strike action is necessary, a local body of individuals may be called upon to join the striking workers and prevent the crossing of the picket line.

Meanwhile, the provincial committees (Marzayin Gomideh) can be called upon to help organize workers by their industry, which can facilitate industry-wide strikes and widespread collective bargaining. For national-scale issues – general strikes, political action, etc. – the ARF Supreme Body of Armenia (Kerakouyn Marmin) would be the main point of contact.

The formation of a trade union organization

The organization could be fully incorporated into the structure of the ARF or function as a separate organization. The first structure was implemented in this context in 1905, with the ARF Tailors’ Union in Baku and other similar trade unions formed during that time; the second structure can be seen in organizations like the Armenian Relief Society, which have their own conventions and internal structure. The main difference is that in the first case, the ARF would direct local unions with its local structures, while in the second, it would be higher bodies (like the Supreme Body or ARF Bureau) that would direct the labor organization.

Insignia of the ARF Tailors’ Union Bureau of Baku (Source: Hratch Dasnabedian’s History of the ARF)

The best structure, however, would be that which is utilized by the ARF’s youth wings: a separate organization with local guidance and help from the ARF and nationally subordinate to the largest ARF body. Thus, the local union would be advised and aided by the city gomideh but directed by the regional branch of the ARF national Trade Union. The regional branch would be guided by the provincial ARF gomideh and directed by the national Executive Body of the trade union. The national Executive Body would be responsible to its members but also directed and aided by an ARF body (either the Supreme Body of Armenia or Bureau).

One great victory for the workers of Armenia

To revitalize the trade unions of Armenia, what is necessary is one victory for the labor movement. For instance, this might take the form of legal defense after bourgeois reprisal following strike action. This will assuage the fears of lack of legal protection that have, to this day, strangled the voice of Armenian workers, who are too fearful to engage in strikes, not because they are cowardly, but because they know that both the state and the union currently protect the interests of the bosses, not the workers. This great success will show the working class that they are protected, that they have a knight in shining armor whose name is the Tashnagtsutiun, equipped with its glorious shield of labor and its deadly sword of class and national struggle.

Of course, in the early days, it will be mostly Tashnagtsagan workers who are involved as leaders and members of the ARF-organized trade unions. However, this is not a disadvantage; on the contrary, it will allow those with genuine socialist and national ideology to flourish as organizers, preventing anti-national liberals (Nikolagans), bourgeois apologists (supporters of capitalism), and cosmopolite class reductionists (Marxist-Leninists) from reaching great heights within these labor organizations.

Though the benefits of a strong labor sphere may not manifest themselves immediately, in time, with proper leadership from the oldest Armenian democratic socialist party, the trade unions and workers will be victorious in the eternal struggle against capitalism. A “free Armenia” requires economic freedom and liberation for the Armenian working class – a process that begins with strengthening the economic power of the Armenian worker. The substitution of the Turkish yataghanwielding feudal lord with a tricolored exploiter in Yerevan should not be mistaken for the true liberation of the Armenian people. Until a democratic and socialist Armenian republic is organized, we shall yet remain unfree.

Aram Brunson

Aram Brunson

Aram Brunson is a student at the American University of Armenia (AUA) from Boston, MA. He is a proud member of the AYF-YOARF Greater Boston “Nejdeh” Chapter and serves on the AYF’s Central Hai Tahd Council. In addition, he is a committed socialist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

1 Comment

  1. While I agreee with the thrust of this article, i.e., the need to organize workers in Armenia, the author’s belief that the ARF can lead such a movement is ludicrous and more than naieve. The ARF in Armenia has been in bed with successive administrations, led by economic oligarchs, in a vain attempt to achieve poitical power despite low levels of popularity. The ARF is in no position, morally or ideologically, to spearhead such a movement. The author apparently has no historical understanding of the ARF’s role in Armenia’s socio-economic life since the country became independent. Such bravado stems, apparently, from the author’s own partisan political adherence and beliefs. He should look beyond these rigid perceptions and propose something that has an objective basis in fact rather than partisan politics.

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