Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 24 Nov 97 15:39:56 CST
From: rich@pencil (Rich Winkel)
Subject: GL: Russian labour's autumn of discontent
Organization: PACH
Article: 22623

Russian labour's autumn of discontent

By Renfrey Clarke, Green Left Weekly, [24 November 1997]

MOSCOW—Unpaid in many cases for months, large numbers of Russian workers are spoiling for a fight. After record-setting levels of labour struggles during the first half of 1997, there has been a renewed rise in the autumn. The bitterest of these disputes—in the Maritime District of the far east during September—brought much of the regional economy nearly to a standstill.

In almost all these struggles, wage arrears have been a key element. But in a growing number of cases, the clashes have also involved issues familiar to labour activists in the west.

Employers are making increasingly blunt calls for long-established benefits to be surrendered and for jobs to be slashed. The traditional relationships of the Russian workplace, based on paternalism and concepts of “partnership” between management and labour, are slipping into history.

If statements by union leaders are to be believed, the changes in the industrial climate will now be reflected in a major shift of orientation by Russia's mass labour organisation, the 50-million-member Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR).

Talking to journalists in mid-October, FNPR chairperson Mikhail Shmakov indicated that the FNPR's strategies were being redirected away from attempts to influence federal government authorities, to winning disputes with specific employers, mainly in the provincial areas where most industry is located.

According to the State Statistics Committee, the number of strikes in the first half of this year was five times greater than in the corresponding period of 1996. The number of participants was up by three times, amounting to about 3% of Russia's total employed population.

By far the most numerous among the strikers were teachers, who in some cases had gone unpaid for more than six months.

Concern in the Kremlin increased in March when the FNPR called an all-Russian day of protest, around demands that included prompt payment of back wages. The federation claimed that as many as 2 million workers joined in the protests.

After this, the government's attitude to unpaid budget-sector workers became more accommodating. A presidential decree in July ordered all back wages to state employees to be paid by January 1. On September 1, Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Sysuev claimed that the government had begun “intensive work” to pay off the wage debts to teachers.

Sysuev insisted, however, that half the funds for back wages would have to be found by the authorities in Russia's 89 administrative regions.

Meanwhile, the main education trade union reported that when the educational year began on September 1, some 1130 schools were shut by strikes.

Forcing tax arrears out of large corporations, and selling off state assets, the government has made big inroads into the budget-sector wage debt. There are doubts, however, that the debt will be reduced much further; federal tax collection in the first nine months of this year was only 52% of target.

Meanwhile, the overall wage backlog has not fallen significantly. In recent months it has been static at 54-55 trillion roubles (about US$9.2 billion).

Labour actions resumed strongly after the customary summer lull. The Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta on October 4 spoke of “almost incessant” strikes in various regions.

In the Kuzbass heavy industrial region of Siberia, coal miners struck during September in the cities of Prokopyevsk and Berezovsky. The most notable actions, however, have been in the Maritime District.

Here, the impact of non-payments by district authorities and federal military installations has been augmented by losses due to a criminalised energy wholesaling system; the latter has allowed resellers to cream off much of the revenue from electricity sales.

As a result, both power station workers and the coal miners who supply the district's generating facilities with fuel have gone unpaid for long periods.

On August 11, the 3000 workers at the Luchegorsk open pit, which provides 40% of the Maritime District's coal, stopped loading supplies for non-paying customers. On September 14, all extractive activities at Luchegorsk were halted.

Workers in the district's other mines then stopped loading coal. On the evening of September 16, more than 500 miners and energy workers picketed administrative offices in Vladivostok.

As energy officials debated whether to burn winter coal reserves, power station repair workers joined the stoppage. Power cuts in Vladivostok soon reached 12 hours per day.

The Luchegorsk miners went back to work on October 1 after receiving 17 billion roubles ($2.9 million) in back wages, and after federal officials had intervened to reform the Maritime District's energy payments system.

On September 29, members of the Federation of Trade Unions of Air Traffic Controllers began an indefinite national strike over wage arrears and efforts by the Federal Aviation Service to cut annual leave entitlements. About 50 airports were affected.

The strikers' triumph was swift; an hour after the stoppage began, aviation service chiefs agreed to the workers' demands.

Relatively few workers have the strategic muscle of the miners or air traffic controllers. Often, their most effective weapons are pickets, hunger strikes and bluntly worded denunciations of government policy.

Nuclear weapons designers and assemblers, who are legally banned from striking, have held protest meetings and threatened stoppages in at least three centres. The nuclear workers charge that pay delays of three and four months, together with shortages of essential funding, are jeopardising safety.

On October 1, thousands of researchers of the Russian Academy of Sciences picketed government offices in many cities. As well as calling for increases in the allocations for science in the 1998 federal budget, the scientists demanded that the government pay debts to the academy still owing from 1996.

An ominous sign for the government has been labour ferment in the 1700 enterprises of the devastated “military-industrial complex”. The government owes the defence plants some 19 trillion roubles (US$3.2 billion), and the plants in turn owe their workers the equivalent of close to a billion dollars.

Defence workers held protest meetings and pickets in numerous cities during the second half of September. In Moscow, several hundred representatives of defence enterprise labour collectives picketed federal government offices for three days.

Interviewed by the news agency RIA-Novosti on October 2, FNPR secretary Andrey Isaev reported that 13 of the federation's territorial and sectoral affiliates were calling for indefinite strikes. These affiliates included trade union federations in St Petersburg and Murmansk; in Yaroslavl, Sverdlovsk, Omsk and Sakhalin provinces; and in the Altai district of Siberia.

Also demanding resolute strike action were workers in the defence, radio-electronic and aviation industries. Another 14 affiliates pledged to organise protest marches, rallies and pickets.

In the more notable labour actions, the ultimate targets have mostly been the federal government and its austerity policies. But more than 80% of wage debts are now owed by privatised companies.

To win pay-outs from private firms in the past, FNPR unions have mostly sought to join with management in placing pressure on the government. Together with enterprise directors, union leaders have called on the state authorities to pay for goods delivered and to grant subsidies or other forms of relief.

Workers have often been convinced that the “inability to pay” of these employers is fraudulent.

The approach to defaulting employers obviously needs to be much tougher, and to listen to FNPR leaders, an age of determined, factory-by-factory struggles is now to dawn.

Isaev cited struggles at the Ryazan Electronic Devices plant south-east of Moscow, where workers are demanding the dismissal of the director, and also at the Novomoskovsky Household Chemicals plant in Tula province, 200 km south of Moscow. The Novomoskovsky plant has been taken over by the US firm Procter and Gamble, which is trying to shut down several production sections and cut 700 employees.

The union at the Novomoskovsky plant has fought the bosses tooth and nail, but it remains to be shown that the FNPR leadership is correspondingly serious.

The FNPR leaders have not, for example, posed an obvious demand: that non-paying employers hand over all their financial records for scrutiny by workers. At best, Shmakov and his colleagues seem intent on leading the fight against delinquent employers from behind, coordinating initiatives taken by local union bodies.

Activists have been dismayed that the FNPR has not called another all-Russian day of protest, despite the government's wage debt remaining massive. The FNPR leadership's shift thus looks suspiciously like an excuse to relax the pressure the federation has until now placed on the government, while failing to develop serious campaigns in other areas.

Derelictions by the FNPR leaders will not necessarily demobilise worker activism.

For months, the pro-government media have been trumpeting that the economy has “bottomed out”, and that recovery is at hand. Although there is no hard evidence of material improvement, surveys point to a lift in the popular mood. In the history of economic depressions in the west, it has been when confidence in the future has begun to revive that millions of workers have decided: “Now there has to be something for us!”

Paradoxically, the lack of vigorous leadership from the FNPR is causing some more thoughtful supporters of capitalism real disquiet. “Convinced of the powerlessness of their trade union leaders”, Trud wrote on September 18, “workers are beginning to look for defenders in the ranks of left political parties, among extremist figures and groups”.