Labour struggles in the Urals


The Urals region is one of the main industrial centres of Russia. However, its social infrastructure lags behind that of cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg, while such industrial centres of the region as Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk), Chelyabinsk, Perm, Magnitogorsk and Nizhny Tagil rank among the most polluted areas of the former USSR. The cuts in centralised funding for social services, health care, environmental protection and culture have hit extremely hard.
In the six months since price liberalisation, there has been a marked differentiation of wages and living standards among working people. In some enterprises, enjoying monopolies of particular products or in very profitable areas of the economy, wages have more or less kept pace with inflation. At the other end of the scale, misery is spreading among low-paid (particularly white-collar) workers and among pensioners.
Despite a general mood of passivity, teachers, health workers and bus drivers have struck during the past few months, demanding higher wages and better conditions. During the late 1980s a variety of small socialist study circles and workers' clubs appeared throughout the Urals. In 1990 the most important of these established a "social-political union" named Rabochy ("Worker"). BORIS IKHLOV, of the Rabochy group in Perm, is one of the veterans of the socialist opposition. He was interviewed in Perm by POUL FUNDER LARSEN.

Can you outline the reactions in Perm to the fall in living standards during the past few months?

At first everything was calm, but now most of the factories have declared states of pre-strike readiness. The bus drivers are preparing to go on strike. The miners are trying to rid themselves of the restrictions of the official trade union. One newspaper has even called for the organising of a consumers' movement against the commercial sector — that is, for people to stop buying goods.

The demands the drivers put forward are not primarily for an increase of wages, but for the maintenance and replacement of the buses. Similar things are happening in Chelyabinsk, Magnitogorsk and Sverdlovsk. The drivers are going into action on their own initiative, without pressure from any organisation.

The teachers have had very little success with their actions. The doctors have held a one-day stoppage, but it's clear that some hospitals will be closed. Such strikes are only a first step, a transient form. So far no political structures have been established. In that sense everything is as it used to be, except for the commercial sector, which is booming. The administrative apparatus is getting in on the act. For example, the so-called commercial departments of the city administration are buying sugar for six or seven roubles a kilogram and selling it for 60. In Moscow the organisations coming out of the Communist Party — and primarily the more conservative forces among these — have set the pace of protest over the last months, while the official trade unions have been very slow in reacting. Is the picture the same in Perm?

There's a relatively large and militant group of the Russian Communist Workers Party (RKRP). Earlier it seemed that it might be possible to collaborate with them, but they don't really have any constructive ideas. They called a demonstration recently, but only a hundred people showed up; people are getting tired of demagogues. So the workers have a cautious attitude towards the RKRP.

There's an association of enterprise managers, in which some deputies are participating. A few times the labour collective councils of different factories have met. Now the regional council of the official trade unions is organising an employment service, but nobody trusts those people.

The workers need independent organisations. I don't believe it's possible to reform the official trade unions in the provinces. They don't understand what politics is about; they don't take any political steps or propose constructive solutions. They can't even provide a lawyer to help a labour collective get someone reinstated in a workplace.

What concrete steps have been taken in this region toward privatising the large state enterprises, and what's happened with the "small" privatisation of housing and shops?

There's been a great deal of talk about the government's privatisation schemes. However, the official privatisation has hardly begun, while the unrestricted "nomenklatura privatisation" is proliferating.

The telephone factory, which is a monopoly enterprise, has become a joint stock company, but it's technically bankrupt. No-one's in a hurry to privatise, because no-one knows what it means, or who's really in charge of the process. The trade unions don't know who to negotiate with.

Various political parties argue that the labour collectives should have the right to the ownership and economic management of the enterprises. In principle this is absolutely justified, but I don't think the conditions for this slogan have matured as yet. If the workers received the right to distribute profits at the moment, the enterprises would be ruined. The profits would go straight into the workers' pockets, because people are tired of being hungry and poor.

The representatives of the regional soviet and the regional administration are intimidating people, demanding that they have The privatisation of shops is being carried out through mafia structures, and it isn't laying the foundations for any kind of real market.

A lot of enterprises, including in this region, are operating only because they've been bailed out by government credits. What do you think will happen when unemployment emerges on a mass scale?

At the Lenin plant here, there are currently 37,000 workers, and the plan is to reduce this by 3000. Among some workers you find an ultraright point of view: "We'll sack the spongers, and the money we get from that can go into our pockets". But it's an illusion that lay-offs will solve the problems of those who are still employed. As soon as people are outside the factory gates, the management can start cutting wages, because they can always replace their workers with some of the unemployed.

If unemployment rises by 1%, we'll see crime rise by several per cent. This isn't the west; this country can't maintain 10 or 15 million unemployed.

Perm is known to be a badly polluted city — has this led to the rise of an environmental movement?

The environment is one of the main issues Rabochy has been concerned with. We're among the leaders of an ecological committee. Because of pressure from our side, the regional soviet prohibited the building of a nuclear power station. Perm is among the 10 most polluted cities of the former USSR, and this includes radioactive pollution. Large numbers of people in the region are suffering from cancer.

You've participated in some of the meetings of the Party of Labour initiative. How should the task of building a workers' party be approached today?

In Perm there are now attempts to organise the Party of Labour through the regional trade unions, but I don't believe the leaders of these unions are really interested in setting up the party. I can't support the formation of the party from above. I can only propagate the idea of a Party of Labour, but people are tired of parties. I think structures have to arise in the provinces themselves, and after that we can negotiate with Moscow.