Date: Tue, 17 Aug 1999 22:24:59 -0500 (CDT)
From: “Workers World” <>
Organization: WW Publishers
Subject: Unpaid Russian workers take over plants
Article: 72959
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Via Workers World News Service

As fighting unions emerge: unpaid Russian workers take over plants

By Bill Wayland, Workers World, 19 August 1999

A year ago this month, the Russian ruble collapsed. The largest republic in the former Soviet Union, which bankers had considered the world's most credit-worthy state, defaulted on its debt payments to Western banks. As with the fall of the Soviet Union itself, the working class suffered most.

The past 12 months saw official unemployment rise by 26 percent while the average wage dropped from the equivalent of $100 a month to less than $10. Millions of employed workers have not been paid at all since early last year. But the past year also witnessed the rise of a militant strike movement among Russia's multinational working class.

The workers' movement in Russia had seemed dormant since the fall of the Soviet Union. That was due to the combined effects of economic depression and political demoralization. Most work stoppages were led by management-controlled “official” trade unions that didn’t challenge privatization. That period has ended.

A new mood in the working class was evident before last August's financial collapse. It was symbolized by the Siberian “railway war” in the spring of 1998. That was when coal miners from Anzhero-Suzhinsk in the Kuzbass region blocked the Trans- Siberian Railway to demand unpaid wages and protest the closing of coal mines dictated by the International Monetary Fund.

Activists in the Russian Communist Workers Party (RKRP) and the local wing of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) helped organize the region. Soon miners, ore processors and factory workers across the Kuzbass were on strike, blocking railroads and highways. This battle led to the founding of a Russia-wide council of strike committees under the slogan “All power to the strike committees.”

Another major development is the rebirth of the anti- capitalist labor federation Zaschita Trud (Defense of Labor). It is the only Russian labor federation that is independent of government control and doesn’t allow managers to join. Zaschita was formed in 1991 but was weakened by internal dissension fomented in part by state security forces.

In the past year it has been rebuilt. It now has locals in most of Russia's 87 regions. One of its leaders, Oleg Makshakov, was assassinated in March in Astrakhan.

The past two years have seen the first plant seizures by workers in Russia since 1917. The first liberated plant was the Sovietsky paper mill near Vyborg, in the Karelian forest on the Finnish frontier.

In 1997 the modern plant was bought by a British company. The new owners didn’t want the mill; they wanted its markets and machinery. When the workers found there were plans afoot to remove equipment, they seized the plant and elected a “people's director.” The bosses called in special police units, but they retreated when confronted by workers armed with rifles.

Today the workers still control the plant. In July they repulsed an attack by police commandos and paid vigilantes, who wounded two workers.

Yasnogorsk is a machine-building center in the Tula region south of Moscow. Like hundreds of Soviet-built industrial towns and cities, it was devastated by the return of capitalism. It has now become a center of working-class resistance.

“We were well off in Soviet times,” a Yasnogorsk machine builder told Workers World in May. “Our plant produced coal- mining equipment for the entire Soviet Union. Everything we have we got in the Soviet Union. We could afford furniture and TV sets and some of us had cars. There were good schools and Pioneer camps for our children. Now the Pioneer camp is closed, and we are living off the potatoes we grow in our gardens. We can’t even buy bread. But the managers and directors vacation in the Canary Islands.”

Last September, after 11 months without pay, the workers seized the plant. “It operated under our control,” said strike committee leader Andrei Guan Ti Fa. “We produced and paid wages. Workers' guards protected the plant, and nothing moved without our permission.” When two plant directors elected by the workers were arrested, strikers blocked the railway line and took plant managers hostage.

On July 9, after 10 months of struggle, the bosses gave in. They signed a collective agreement that guaranteed back pay for all the time of the strike and gave the workers' committee veto power over decisions by the plant administration.

The Russian left newspaper Perspektiva said, “Such unprecedented terms would be hard to imagine not only in Russia but in any developed capitalist country.”

The Yasnogorsk workers are now planning to run a worker candidate, Vyacheslav Regusov, in the December parliamentary elections. The stated purpose of the campaign is to use the state duma as a platform for revolutionary ideas. On July 21, inspired by the Yasnogorsk victory, 3,000 industrial workers in nearby Kimovsk voted to go on strike after 17 months without pay.

Said Guan Ti Fa: “If workers can run a plant, we can also run the country. Lenin said: factories to the workers and land to the tillers. We hope workers all across Russia will take power in their plants. But the next stage will be the fight for political power, for workers' control over the economy of the entire country.”

For Russia's working class such struggles are about survival. The monopoly-dominated world capitalist market cannot absorb the productive capacity of the Soviet-built planned economy. The IMF wants Russia's plants shut down, and Russia's new capitalists often find speculation more profitable than production.

“We discovered our bosses and German investors planned to shut our mill down,” says a woman worker at the Leningrad Metal Works who is in the RKRP. “So we physically removed the plant administration. In 1917 our plant provided the first armed workers' detachment for the Bolshevik Revolution. We will do that again.”