Date: Mon, 12 Feb 1996 17:39:23 CST
Report from Russia's coal fields: Miners fight capitalist assault
By Bill Doares, Workers World, 15 February 1996
Tula, Russia - The snow-covered hills around this city south of Moscow resemble western Pennsylvania, eastern Kentucky, southern Ohio and West Virginia. Like the hills of Appalachia, Tula's sit atop large deposits of coal.
Over the past 15 years U.S. coal towns have been devastated by layoffs. In the 1980s, more than half of Britain's miners lost their jobs when that country's then-nationalized coal industry was handed over to private capitalists.
Now over a million coal miners in the former Soviet Union are on capitalism's hit list.
Most still have jobs. But they haven't been paid in five months.
So on Feb. 1, the world's biggest coal industry ground to a halt as 560,000 miners in Russia and 800,000 in Ukraine went on strike.
The strike crossed 12 time zones, from Sakhalin Island on the Pacific to Donetsk in the Ukraine.
'Our children are hungry'
"Our problems began with the destruction of the Soviet Union," a representative of the Tula coal miners' union told Workers World. "Coal production has fallen from 20 million tons a year in Soviet times to 4 million tons today.
"The reason is our government. It is destroying the coal industry on the orders of the International Monetary Fund. They are trying to impose a market economy on our country and want all but the most profitable mines to be closed.
"Eleven mines have been closed in this region alone, and thousands of miners have lost their jobs. There is no more social protection, and they have no way to support themselves.
"Mine productivity is falling because the government refuses to replace broken machinery. In some mines, 80 percent of the equipment doesn't work.
"The government has refused to sign a production agreement with our union for 1996 so we have no idea what the future holds."
The production agreement is a legacy of the Soviet Union. It guarantees Russian miners a six-hour day, six weeks' vacation and union control over working conditions.
On Feb. 3, the Yeltsin-Chernomyrdin regime agreed to pay part of the miners' back wages. The Russian Coal Union leadership voted six to five to end the strike.
Wildcat strikes continue at several mines. The union says its members will walk again on March 1 if the government doesn't honor its promise.
As of Feb. 5, the Ukrainian strike is continuing.
"Our children are hungry," an ore processor told Workers World at a mine near Tula. "The system used to take care of all the people. Old people could live on their pensions.
"Now," she said, "working miners have to borrow money from our retired parents to feed our families. We are ashamed."
Another worker said: "Miners used to get underground meals free of charge. Now we have to bring our own food, and we can barely afford bread and tea.
"When our boots and clothing were torn, they used to replace them, but they don't even do that anymore."
"In Soviet times, this work had prestige," said a young miner. "Now it's looked down upon, and nobody wants to do it. There's no money for safety anymore, and there are a lot of accidents."
"The miners here used to support Yeltsin," said Alexander Shikolev, Tula district secretary of the Russian Communist Workers Party (RKRP). "Three years ago, when we came to speak to them about restoring Soviet power, some of them threatened to throw us down the mines."
But on Feb. 1, Shikolev got a warm reception from Tula miners when he talked about the need to restore Soviet socialism. They applauded his call for miners to join with other workers in a political general strike to bring down the capitalist regime.
In the last days of the Soviet Union, as Gorbachev's perestroika worsened life for working people, Yeltsin promised miners they would get rich if their coal could be sold on the world capitalist market.
Like everything else about capitalism, it was a big lie.
On the world capitalist market, there is a glut of coal. In the planned socialist economy of the Soviet Union, the coal industry produced for need, not profit.
The miners are not the only unpaid workers in Russia today. At least 275,000 teachers held a three-day strike for back wages.
Auto workers in Moscow and tractor workers in the Chuvash Autonomous Republic may soon walk.
Economic strikes may slow capitalism's onslaught against the former Soviet working class, but they cannot stop it. That can only happen if the working class regains the ownership of the means of production.
Many workers hope the June presidential election will unseat Yeltsin and reverse the "capitalization" of Russia. Working-class militants from around Russia debated that question at the Jan. 28 congress of Workers' Russia in Moscow.
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