After months of frustration with an economy sagging under the weight of international sanctions, workers across Russia are starting to protest against unpaid wages and go on strike.
MOSCOW — In the far east, the teachers went on strike. In central Russia, it was the employees of a metallurgical plant. In St. Petersburg, autoworkers laid down their tools. And at a remote construction site in Siberia, laborers painted their complaints in gigantic white letters on the roofs of their dormitories.
“Dear Putin, V.V.,” the message said. “Four months without pay.”
After months of frustration with an economy sagging under the weight of international sanctions and falling energy prices, workers across Russia are starting to protest against unpaid wages and go on strike, the first nationwide backlash against President Vladimir Putin’s economic policies.
Russian companies tend to avoid laying off workers in a downturn to limit severance payments — or to evade the wrath of officials trying to minimize unemployment in their districts. So with the Russian economy expected to contract this year and next, many workers are going unpaid or being sent away from their factories for a few days at a time of unwanted “vacations.”
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Unpaid wages, or wage arrears, an old scourge in Russia, rose on April 1 to 2.9 billion rubles ($56 million), according to the Russian statistical service. That is a 15 percent increase over a year earlier, but experts say that still does not capture the scope of the diminished pay of workers involuntarily idled.
Discontent over unpaid wages was tamped down by a surge in national pride after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine a year ago, and by repeated messages on state television that the hardship is an unavoidable price to pay for standing up for Russia’s interests. The strikes, in any case, have not been widely publicized in state news media.
Yet the strikes and protests in the hinterlands — like the huge graffiti addressed to the president — are posing a new challenge to Putin’s government, which presided over an energy-driven economic expansion for most of the past 15 years.
During that time, most high-profile anti-government protests, including the so-called White Ribbon movement in Moscow in 2011, promulgated political causes rather than economic ones. Those were met with corresponding political measures by the Kremlin such as arrests and stricter laws on staging rallies.
A further chill fell over the liberal political opposition last winter after the assassination of a prominent leader, Boris Y. Nemtsov.
But the labor actions are putting forward financial demands and are being staged in towns where the government is unlikely to find easy solutions so long as the recession lasts and oil prices remain low.
Regional newspapers described the teachers strike this month, in Zabaikal province bordering China, as the first such labor action by teachers in Russia in years. The strike went ahead even though a regional governor had implored the teachers to work unpaid for patriotic reasons, which suggested some waning of the nationalistic pride over the Crimean annexation.
“Yes, it is serious when salaries are not paid, but not serious enough not to come to work,” the governor, Konstantin Ilkovsky, had insisted. He said the federal government had delayed transferring tax revenue to the region, causing the delay in payments.
The construction-worker protest in Siberia was all the more remarkable for coming at a highly prestigious site, the new national space center, the Vostochny Cosmodrome. There, deep in a forest off a spur of the Trans-Siberian Railway, laborers laid concrete and built gigantic hangars for rockets long after salaries stopped being paid in December.
“We haven’t seen a kopeck since December,” Anton Tyurishev, an engineer, said in a telephone interview. Some people walked away, but he stayed burrowing tunnels through the frozen soil for communications wires near the launchpad, hoping to be paid. “The company should have laid people off if they didn’t have enough money.”
In all, 1,123 employees of a main subcontractor, the Pacific Bridge-Building Co., have not been paid since December. Most work stopped March 1, though dozens of employees stayed to guard equipment. Their labor protest took the form of writing the giant message to Putin on the roofs of their dormitories.
In a rare twist for Russia’s unpaid workers, somebody finally noticed.
After the message appeared, a Russian state television crew showed up to ask the workers to appear on a televised call-in show with Putin on Thursday. Hours before the show, the general contractor paid about 80 percent of the salaries to the 70 or so employees who remained at the space center, Tyurishev said.
The contractor, Spetsstroy, earlier paid a portion of back wages for all employees for December.
“Because of the indifference toward us, we just despaired, and decided on this original means to appeal directly to you,” Tyurishev told Putin on the call-in show, referring to the sign. “So you saw us, and helped in our situation, to resolve our problem.”
Putin said he would ensure the whole group was paid in full.