Irakli Petriashvili has trade unionism in his blood. “It’s like a genetic trait,” said Petriashvili, 42, president of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC). “Since I was a child, I have had it in my heart to help those who were victims of oppression and unfair treatment.”
Petriashvili began his union activism shortly after he joined the Tbilisi-based energy distribution company Telasi right out of college, his electrical engineering degree in hand. He soon found working conditions less than ideal.
“The administration delayed workers’ wages but led a fashionable life,” he said wryly. “The director was in charge of the unions.”
Without a clear idea of worker rights, Petriashvili led a strike for 64 dispatchers. “It was not organized, and we did not know whether it was legal,” he said. “We just knew that Tbilisi would be dark if we did not work.”
He was detained as punishment for initiating the strike but faced down the company director as 20 strikers watched. After that, he said, his co-workers started to bring their issues to him, and he became a worker rights activist. “I was diagnosed with the ‘disease’ of trade unionism—a good poison.”
In 1999, Petriashvili attended a course for young trade unionists, organized jointly by the Solidarity Center, the AFL-CIO, and the International Labor Organization. In 2000, he was elected to head the union at Telasi. Under his leadership, the union became a more vocal advocate for its members’ interests, extraordinary in a country where unions were largely vehicles of the state. During his continuing fight for worker rights at the company, he led a groundbreaking hunger strike that led to a collective agreement securing many of the unions’ demands.
Petriashvili continued to rise through the ranks of union leadership. In 2005, he was elected president of the GTUC and began the democratization of the union movement. “We were taking the trade union movement to a whole new level,” he said. “We believed unions must be built from the bottom up, not the top down. We put an end to the practice of appointing union leaders. Now members democratically elect their leaders.”
Today the independent trade union movement in Georgia is under attack. President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration has launched an array of anti-union legal maneuvers that are choking off fledgling union organizations. The 2006 Labor Code, crafted and implemented by the Georgian government without union input, violates international worker rights standards. For example, it enables employers to hire and fire without reason, promoting discrimination in the workplace and putting the burden of proof on workers who challenge an employer’s action.
The government also denied two of the country’s largest unions the right to collect dues through payroll deductions (a method called a dues check-off system), flouting the terms of valid collective bargaining agreements and bringing the unions to near-bankruptcy. As a result of the government’s attacks, GTUC affiliates now comprise 219,000 dues-paying members—a loss of 100,000 over a five-year period.
The GTUC is fighting back, and Petriashvili says that there have been small victories: an unprecedented wave of strikes in multiple sectors, which proves the GTUC unions are now independent from employer control, and a handful of reinstated workers. But as long as 22 percent of Georgia’s population lives below the poverty line and the unemployment rate tops 16 percent, “there can be no major victories.”
Petriashvili values ongoing cooperation with the Solidarity Center and other international labor organizations. In a country where the only faces seen on government-controlled television belong to those who applaud the government’s actions, he wants the voices of “ordinary Georgians” to be heard. “Workers all over the world must join in solidarity. Otherwise the notion of democracy will fade away in the eyes of Georgians.”