How Trade Unions Are Helping With Ukraine’s Humanitarian Crisis

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has already forced 1 million people to flee the country. Across Eastern Europe, organized labor is helping to welcome refugees.

Volunteers carry supplies to Kiev on March 3, 2022. (Diego Herrera / Europa Press via Getty Images)

At 5 AM last Thursday, Vladimir Putin’s government gave the Russian army the green light to invade Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of refugees started moving out of the country, with volunteers waiting at the border to help with paperwork, food, transportation, and even lodging. NGOs developed information platforms helping refugees to understand the legislation of the countries they are transiting through. Yet trade unions have also been involved — both in Ukraine itself, and in neighboring countries where organized labor is standing with its brothers and sisters.

Labor Under the Bombs

Olesia Briazgunova is the international secretary of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Ukraine (KVPU). She was sleeping in her house in Kiev when she was woken by a nearby explosion. For the next three days she stayed in the capital, unwilling to abandon the city she has been calling home in recent years; she said that she would rather fight than leave. Yet the drastic circumstances soon forced her out of Kiev, to an undisclosed location from which we talked; she whispered to me over the phone, with the lights in the apartment turned off. Olesia said that she was afraid of the Russian military finding out where she was, especially since the KVPU has explicitly condemned the Russian invasion.

In the first three days she could not sleep, but stifled her tears: she wanted to be strong for her mother. But after a couple of days, her feelings ambushed her, especially when her best friend wrote to her, saying that she loves her and that she is prepared to die. When we spoke, Olesia referred to her trade union brothers and sisters, saying how many of them have either fled the country or headed off to fight. They have mobilized people wherever they could, all around Ukraine, helping people move around and organize bunkers and supply centers. They have found refuge in undisclosed locations where they are preparing resource-packages for the people who are fleeing, but also providing protective gear to those that need to fight.

This is not the first time that trade unions have had to adapt to a war situation. In 2014, with the conflict in the Donbas, the KPVU also had to get everyone out. Olesia recalls how some of the local leaders were kidnapped and trade union organizations were forbidden in the eastern part of Ukraine. Now, they are trying to help as much as possible, getting people out to safe houses and offering them resources. But intervening on the ground is more difficult than ever. The situation no longer allows trade unions to call for peace with marches in the streets where unions wave their flags. According to Olesia:

Our trade union had to go into military service, especially men. We also have volunteering soldiers, like a territorial defense who usually stay at block posts for a whole night to protect their districts and cities. I think it is a tragedy for us. I think that it is very hard to take up weapons, especially for people who are peaceful and kind people. They have to do it . . .

In an international virtual meeting of more than a hundred eighty union leaders from Europe, Ukrainian labor union leaders reemphasized the humanitarian crisis which everyone is going through. KPVU deputy chair Nataliya Levytska spoke about her family, about how saddening it is to have six children who have to experience war. She said:

My son is twenty years old, and he did not flee Kiev. He feels it is his duty. I’m afraid for him, I cannot sleep at night. Nobody can. I do not understand why our kids instead of going to school have to run to the bomb shelter.

Trade unions quickly mobilized at an international level to lend help to people in Ukraine. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) condemned the invasion, demanding that all Russian forces leave Ukraine immediately. The ITUC developed a support fund, where they encourage individuals and organizations to donate money so that they can support the major Ukrainian trade union confederations (Federation of Trade Unions or FPU, and KVPU) in purchasing food, water, medical supplies, and hygienic items. Public service unions EPSU and PSI organized a public meeting in which Ukrainian trade union members shared their stories of what it means to live during times of war. Union members expressed deep feelings of sadness, wishing that no one else in their family will have to live through such turbulent conditions.

Helping Refugees

In countries neighboring Ukraine, trade unions focused their attention on getting resources to the refugees transiting through their countries or else seeking asylum. In Moldova, to the southwest of Ukraine, the major union confederation offered to host refugees in three resort spaces they have throughout the country. Days later, the confederation asked its member groups to transfer financial resources to help host the Ukrainian refugees and to get them what they need: food, lodging, and money for transportation.

Over the border in Romania, trade unions condemned the war as soon as the news of the invasion broke. Cartel ALFA — one of the major trade union confederations — issued multiple statements to this effect, pressuring its own government to take adequate measures in helping the people displaced as a result of the war.

Vasile Gogescu, president of the Retail Workers’ Federation Union, said that he was in a union meeting when a message on WhatsApp caught his attention. Someone close to the border-crossing point of Isaccea messaged him telling him that there was a hotel available for the people coming into Romania, but that they needed food for those staying the night. Vasile interrupted the meeting, asking every member present to vote on allocating resources, insisting that they must help their union brothers and sisters still stuck in Ukraine:

We voted immediately on the matter and decided to allocate 5.000 RON, sending someone to purchase the required materials and deliver them to the hotel. We purchased tons of diapers, because we were informed that the majority of people crossing the borders were holding babies in their arms. As a Federation we could not help with more, given our meager resources, but we mobilized our trade unions to raise an additional 10.000 RON ($2,215) for the refugees.

Other union leaders jumped in to help as they could, some as individuals, others rallying their members to donate food, clothing, or even money, later to be given to the people transiting through the country. Florian Marin, president of the Federation of Free Trade Unions in Romania, said that the unions’ work had to be adapted to the current war situation. Alongside members, he spent the night of February 28 helping fifty Ukrainian refugees who were left by themselves outside of Bucharest. He got in contact with NGOs who have been helping in his area and drove out to the refugees, getting them to a safe place.

Marin explained that such efforts will not be over anytime soon — and that further collaboration between unions, NGOs, and the local authorities will be needed. Bogdan Hossu, president of the Cartel ALFA union, insisted that we must prepare for an even more tragic situation, when hundreds of thousands of refugees will cross our borders daily, who we will have to integrate in our society. In the northwest of the country, Cartel ALFA set up a donation fund, asking union members to donate whatever they could and urging people to show solidarity.

The government workers’ union PUBLISIND created an online platform with a centralized and transparent fund collection. From the early days of the crisis, they have mobilized buses to the border of Romania and Ukraine, transporting the refugees to a shelter organized overnight, offering them warm meals and help with navigating bureaucracy. The penitentiary workers union emptied a bus and drove it all the way to the Isaccea border-crossing point, waiting hours upon hours to be allowed to cross and take refugees in the country. With the help of other unions, they collected water, food, and blankets, distributing them to the people waiting to cross the border.

Mobilizing Resources

Unions have mobilized across Europe to provide resources and personnel to help with the humanitarian crisis. Hungarian, Polish, Slovak, Moldovan, and Romanian unions all sent people to the border, with buses to transport as many refugees as possible to the government agencies that will help with their transition or integration.

While unions around the world jump in to help, the major Ukrainian labor unions FPU and KVPU are gathering all their resources to help internally displaced workers find shelter and enough food for these turbulent days.

Olesia’s voice was shaking during our phone conversation, telling me about the courage her members have shown in this war — a situation in which working people are never winners. She explained that they are mobilizing all funds they have left and all the money they get from overseas in helping the people who suffer the blows of this conflict.

She spoke proudly of her union brothers and sisters from Ukraine, but also from abroad, showing gratitude for everything that was done so far, but also wishing for greater courage. She spoke about the values of solidarity and mutual aid, becoming a living reality in this moment. Unions in Ukraine no longer fight for membership, collective bargaining contracts, and higher wages; they are mobilizing for the challenges of war.