Message-ID: <>
Date: Tue, 14 Jul 1998 21:16:12 -0500
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: Gregory Schwartz <grishas@YORKU.CA>
Subject: Russian labour's restless summer (fw)

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Date: Sat, 11 Jul 1998 18:56:22 +0400 (WSU DST)
From: (Renfrey Clarke)
To: Gregory Schwartz
Subject: Russian labour's restless summer

Russian labour's restless summer: The union movement looks to politics

By Renfrey Clarke, Green Left Weekly, [11 July 19998]

MOSCOW—On Russia's labour scene, July traditionally has been a quiet month. Whatever the turmoil of the spring, workers by mid-summer have been ready to set off on holiday, or to spend the warm, twilit evenings relaxing on their garden allotments. True, a holiday away from home has been unaffordable for many workers in recent years, and the hours in the garden are now mostly spent toiling to grow food for the winter and spring, when wages will very likely not materialise. But the lull in industrial protests has remained.

Until 1998, that is. This July, the pace of struggle has failed to slacken. Where the battles of earlier months have been indecisive, workers have gone back on the picket line. And as a steady rise in wage arrears signals that the government has no answers to the country's economic crisis, many labour activists have concluded that only a thorough change of personnel in the organs of power can bring improvements. More and more often, labour activism has become unabashedly political. To set the nerves of state officials still more on edge, there has been the sound that echoes about Moscow's main federal government office building— the so-called “White House” —every two hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. A loud rhythmic crunching, it suggests an army on the march. It is in fact the noise of more than 200 unpaid miners banging their helmets on the paving-stones. The miners are from almost all the coal districts of Russia, but the largest contingent arrived on June 11 from Vorkuta in the arctic north. They have been camped next to the White House ever since, and will leave, they assure journalists, only when Russian President Boris Yeltsin quits office. Not even the pro-government press has dared accuse the picketing miners of being “extremists”, out of step with the feelings of their workmates. As July began, 23,000 miners in Chelyabinsk Province in the Urals staged a one-day strike. And on July 3 the “railway war”, which in May saw Russia's transport system largely paralysed as miners blocked vital rail lines, flared up again. Miners and other workers in the Siberian city of Anzhero-Sudzhensk, in the north of the Kuzbass heavy industrial region, moved back onto the tracks. Undertakings which the government had given in order to end the blockade were not being kept, the miners contended.

At the opposite end of Russia from Moscow, in the Maritime District of the Far East, the failure of wage payments to appear was bringing society close to breakdown. Workers in the district's power stations had gone on strike in protest at wage debts stretching back as far as six months. Electricity users were enduring blackouts from early morning until after midnight. Public transport was largely at a standstill, and water supplies were only sporadic.

The key responsibility, the strikers argued, lay with the federal government. Large military bases and other government facilities in the region were being starved of funds, and were not paying their electricity bills. At the same time, federal tax officials were seizing funds of the regional power company Dalenergo, even though payments owed to the company by state institutions were reportedly four times Dalenergo's tax debt. After receiving three weeks of back wages, the power strikers returned to work on July 8. But the crisis did not abate, since the workers refused to increase electricity output from the low levels maintained during the strike by management staff. Meanwhile, the government's problems in the Maritime District were not at an end; unpaid for even longer than the power workers, defence workers were taking to the streets. On July 8 as many as 4000 people rallied in the district capital, Vladivostok. Many of the participants were submarine repair workers who had already been picketing government offices in the city for several weeks. According to the Moscow daily Trud, the latter workers were threatening not only to block railways, but to seize control of their enterprise and manage it themselves. The same day saw coordinated demonstrations by defence industry workers across Russia. In Moscow, several thousand people picketed Defence Ministry offices before moving on to demonstrate in a square near the Kremlin. A number carried toy guns, declaring, “Next time we'll come with real ones!” The first point on a resolution adopted by the demonstrators was a demand for Yeltsin to resign.

Putting in an appearance at the Moscow demonstration was Mikhail Shmakov, chairperson of Russia's largest labour organisation, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia. Mistrusted by many unionists as too accommodating to government demands, Shmakov was booed and hissed as he began to speak. For once, however, Shmakov was promising action. He had just come, he explained, from a conference of union leaders at which a decision had been taken to prepare for an all-Russian strike around political demands, to be held in early October. In the past, Shmakov has been quoted as calling for elections for the president and parliament to be held ahead of schedule. The growing politicisation of Russia's labour movement came into still sharper focus on July 9 when a congress of the country's main coal union, the Independent Union of Coal Industry Workers, opened in Moscow. Agreeing to let Deputy Premier Boris Nemtsov address them on behalf of the government, the 300 delegates gave him a noisy reception. Later, they were to pass a resolution demanding that Yeltsin immediately resign.

The delegates reacted skeptically to Nemtsov's insistence that the government was handing over money for the coal industry in the quantities foreseen in agreements over the months. In telegrams presented to the congress, miners had complained that wage payments promised in the agreements that ended the May railway blockades had not come through.

Technically, Nemtsov's claim may have been correct. At any rate, the fact that miners have not been paid does not prove that the government has failed to supply money to pay them. Discussing the finances of the coal industry, delegates at the congress described a thicket of suspicious-looking institutions into which government payments routinely vanished without trace. Large amounts of money from coal sales organised by more than 700 coal-trading firms were also failing to make their way back to the mines. Delegates told journalists that mine managers were often implicated in the work of these firms. Many of the coal traders are believed to have links to organised crime. To arguments that such problems are not the government's fault, coal industry workers have been known to reply: since when has enforcing the law been the job of miners? In any case, coal unionists are adamant that the responsibility of the government for their plight goes far beyond the failure of the authorities to stop industry funds being stolen. Very often, the coal industry finds itself at the end of chains of non-payments whose first links are in the federal Finance Ministry. According to the Independent Union of Miners, one of the smaller coal industry unions, federal and local government bodies along with state-owned companies accounted for 2.2 billion rubles out of 3.5 billion rubles in wage arrears owed by the coal industry in early May. Coal miners, along with many other workers, are coming to see the removal of the present regime in Russia as vital if the country's working people are simply to survive. The pressures on the trade union movement to involve itself directly in the political process, helping to decide the question of who exercises power, are mounting steadily.

In the coal industry, the notion of trade unions as non-political organs limited to seeking the economic well-being of their members already belongs to the past. The very distinction between trade unions and political parties is beginning to break down.

Reporting the congress of the Independent Union of Coal Industry Workers, the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta on July 10 quoted union chairperson Ivan Mokhnachuk as saying it was “not excluded” that the union might amend its charter, turning itself into a political movement campaigning for office. This suggestion, the newspaper commented, “corresponded precisely to the mood of the delegates.”

Meanwhile, the news agency Itar-Tass reported the same day that the number of picketers blocking the Trans-Siberian Railway in the Kuzbass had doubled, and that the miners were also threatening to stop traffic on major highways.

All this, observers may remind themselves, is happening in July, when workers in past years have been tending their potatoes and cabbages. What will things be like in autumn, when labour struggles have traditionally resumed in earnest?