Monday, April 27, 2009

Did AvtoVAZ Workers Threaten to Strike Over Hockey Team?

BOULDER, Colorado -- Each week The Hockey News runs a roundup of news from Russia's Continental Hockey League (KHL). In their April 13 issue, their KHL reporter Denis Gibbons wrote something intriguing at the end of his report:
Lastly, employees of the Lada automobile plant in Togliatti were threatening to strike, not because of salary cuts or unsafe working conditions, but because the company decided to cut its financial support for the Lada Togliatti hockey franchise by 50 per cent. On the black market, tickets for Lada playoff games went for 10 times their face value.
This sounded like a really interesting story, even though it was a tiny item buried at the bottom of a briefing. When I looked into it further, however, I was unable to find any news at all about a threatened strike. The cuts to the team's budget were well-publicized, even in some English-language press, but nowhere was there even a hint that anyone had threatened to strike.

I posted a message on the Lada Togliatti fan message board, asking if there was any truth to the story. A user named Leshka responded, "No, they did not plan to or threaten to strike over the funding cuts to the hockey team." Another named Diesel said, "They [AvtoVAZ] will probably drive the people to strike. Not over the Lada hockey team, of course, but nonetheless."

The news about high prices for playoff tickets may be true (Lada lost in the first round to CSKA Moscow), but I find the claim about the strike suspicious for two reasons. First, AvtoVAZ is a company on the verge of collapse, and their workers have already made a number of concessions, including cutting back to four-day work weeks and six-hour shifts in a vain effort to preserve the 104,000 jobs at the gargantuan factory. It is highly unlikely that they would threaten to strike over the hockey team. Second, this is not the first time in recent memory that the car maker has slashed its support of Lada. In 2005, the team's budget was gutted, and they were forced to sell off nearly all of their top players; nobody went on strike over that, even though the company was on (slightly) better financial footing, and the team was much more competitive before the fire sale.

The Russian auto industry is in far more dire straits than even the beleaguered American Big Three. Just two years ago, the sector was the darling of foreign investors, and big international automakers were scrambling to build assembly plants as the Russian market was poised to become the largest in Europe. Domestic demand has now completely collapsed, and Russia did not take advantage of the boom times to restructure and slim down its hulking domestic producers, choosing instead to insulate them with tariffs and import restrictions. Now AvtoVAZ is on its last legs (though the Russian government has promised a massive bailout), and supporting a hockey team, even one as storied as Lada, is the least of their concerns.

As we have reported here before, Russian autoworkers have been known to protest, but strikes have been rare recently - the last attempted strike at AvtoVAZ was nearly two years ago. Many of the recent protests have been government-sponsored propaganda events to drum up support for the Kremlin's protectionist policies. It is entirely possible that at one of these events someone shouted threats to strike, but it doesn't appear as if there have been any organized public demonstrations over the hockey team cuts.

I have been in touch with an editor at THN, and he had this to say about the story:
I’ve talked to the KHL’s North American publicist and he is endeavoring to find out more. But it seems the original piece Mr. Gibbons used in his reporting has been removed from the electronic record. We’re not sure why and I’ll contact you again with any further information I find. In the meantime, the publicist remembers seeing the story as well, but believes the global recession has tempered the fans’ emotions.
They have fed me a couple of English-language pieces from the Internet, none of which in any way corroborate their story. I am also in contact with some newspapers from the Samara/Togliatti area to see if they can shed any light on this claim. We will keep you posted on developments with this story, but my feeling is that THN got caught printing a bit of hyperbole, and they should own up to it.

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