Russian coal strike opens mass political campaign

Issue 

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — Coal miners in Russia are moving toward an all-out confrontation with the government following a massive one-day warning strike on February 8.

The first all-Russian stoppage to be organised jointly by the country's two mining unions, the strike was called around demands for the prompt settling by the government of debts owed to the coal industry, and for the payment of wage arrears. Around 90% of more than 200 mines and other coal industry installations in Russia were shut down.

The miners' struggle has drawn conflicting responses from the government, but in important quarters, the reaction from the authorities has been highly provocative.

Meanwhile, the larger of the mining unions, the Russian Union of Coal Industry Workers (PRUP), has made clear that February 8 was the last time it will limit itself to raising economic slogans. Unless workers' demands are met, PRUP chairperson Vitaly Budko warned on February 2, an indefinite strike will be called in early March around demands for the resignation of the government and for new presidential elections.

In foreshadowing a shift to direct political action, the miners are acknowledging that they now have little economic leverage. For years, the Russian coal industry has been denied investment funds and allowed to run down to the point where the mines now depend on state subsidies for more than 40% of their income. Much of the promised state funding never arrives; around half of the vast debts owed to Rosugol, the state coal firm which has an important shareholding in most coal industry enterprises, consists of subsidies that the authorities have failed to sign over.

Many coal customers, especially in the energy sector, have been unable to make payments because they too are suffering from the reluctance of the state to pay its bills.

Jobs threatened

Claiming that it can no longer support unprofitable mines, the government is now planning widespread shutdowns. A report prepared last year by the World Bank suggested that as much as US$600 million might be contributed by the bank to restructuring the coal industry, provided that as many as half the jobs in the sector were sacrificed.

The government's own projections involve shutting down 80 mines by the year 2000; according to the unions, around a third of coal industry jobs will be lost.

Anxious both to save money and to induce miners to quit, the government and Rosugol have consciously stalled on the funds needed to pay wages. Early in February, few Russian miners had been paid a rouble in the previous three months. The government has warned that there will be worse to come, since the 1995 state budget provides for drastic cuts to last year's nominal level of subsidies.

Largely spontaneous protest actions have broken out frequently on the Russian coalfields during the past six months. These actions have ranged from sit-ins and hunger strikes to blocking traffic on the trans-Siberian railway. With the miners growing more angry and desperate, it was almost inevitable that such protests would coalesce into mass stoppages. During January it was reported that the Fuel and Energy Ministry was receiving an average of five telegrams a day from mineworker collectives threatening to strike.

Late in January in the Rostov coal region, two miners were killed in a cave-in caused by lack of funds to purchase materials for pit-props. The patience of the local work force came to an end. From January 31, workers in all 26 of the Rostov region's mines began an indefinite stoppage, demanding payment of back wages and talks with government leaders on funding for the industry. In the Vorkuta coalfield in the far north of European Russia, where few miners had been paid since October, a one-day protest strike was planned for February 6.

In a meeting on February 2, the PRUP leaders decided to call a one-day all-Russian warning strike for February 8. At first the authorities appeared to retreat. Following an emergency meeting involving trade union and Rosugol officials, the government agreed to pay its debts to the coal industry. First deputy prime minister Anatoly Chubais instructed the Ministry of the Economy to draw up a detailed schedule of payments.

Nevertheless, the strike in the Rostov region continued, and the stoppage in Vorkuta went ahead. By this time, the messages issuing from the government had become strangely contradictory.

On February 4 the Ministry of the Economy recommended that the sum of 2.3 trillion roubles (about US$600 million) be made available to the coal industry during the first quarter of 1995 for the payment of debts and subsidies. This sum was in line with the miners' demands. But Chubais, the government's chief economic minister, who doubles as the head of a state commission on the coal industry, insisted that no more than 1.2 trillion would be transferred.

Broad response

In effect, Chubais was telling the miners to strike and be damned; with every ton of coal mined costing the state money in the form of subsidies, only the miners would lose if production stopped. But Chubais had made a serious political error. His provocation united the miners and ensured that the February 8 action would be larger and more militant.

The response to the strike call was significantly broader than expected. The only coal regions unaffected by the stoppage were eastern Siberia and the far east, where miners judged that critically low coal stockpiles at electrical generating stations and heating plants made the risk to the population of even a one-day strike unacceptable.

At more than half of the Rostov province mines, and at three pits in the Moscow coal basin, workers raised the demands for the resignation of the government and for early presidential elections.

Even after the February 8 stoppage had shown that miners were ready for major struggles, Chubais did not retreat. Speaking on national television, the deputy prime minister stated that 100 billion roubles had been transferred to the coal industry for January, and that 600 billion per month would be paid for February and March. As PRUP leader Budko pointed out at a press conference on February 10, this was even less than the rate of payment promised in the budget, and took no account of 840 billion roubles still owed from 1994.

Chubais' claim that the government could not meet its debts to the coal industry without "taking money away from doctors and teachers" was a cynical lie, Budko went on to argue. After all, the government had found money for the war in Chechnya.

"If the actions of February 8 do not bring the results we expect from the government", the miners' leader was quoted as saying, "on March 1 there will be a strike — not one-day, not a warning — but a countrywide strike of coal workers, a full stoppage of work".

Earlier, Budko had indicated some of the types of action that were likely to accompany the stoppage. A thousand miners, he suggested on February 2, might well come from all over Russia to picket the House of Government in Moscow.

Electoral bloc

More than 800,000 people are employed in the coal industry, and a shift by miner activists to concerted political organising would spell an end to the almost complete absence of workers and their representatives from political life. In mid-December a conference of PRUP local leaders from coal enterprises throughout the country took a decision to found a "Miners of Russia" electoral bloc, with the aim of having miners' representatives elected to the State Duma.

There is no guarantee that this bloc will develop a program capable of defending miners' interests. For one thing, the miners are handicapped by suspiciousness toward existing left parties. At worst, miners' representatives in the parliament might act simply as a lobby for coal industry enterprises, similar to the lobbies that already represent agro-industry and defence firms.

However, the high level of mineworker activism in the past six months suggests that the PRUP's efforts at political organising could serve as a bridge allowing large numbers of mineworkers to make the transition to genuine left politics. With further big struggles to come, the re-emergence of the working class in Russia as a mass political force, defending its own specific interests, is a serious prospect.

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