Russian day of action demands back wages

Issue 

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — Hundreds of thousands of workers took part in nationally coordinated demonstrations on October 27, demanding that the government pay wage arrears and combat unemployment. In addition, workplace meetings and conferences were held in thousands of enterprises.

The day of action was organised by the country's largest union body, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR).

Beginning in the cities of the far east, unionists rallied in public squares or picketed local administrative offices. At times, symbolic queues formed for wages that are often paid months late.

As well as the narrowly economic slogans endorsed by the FNPR leadership, workers and their representatives often voiced tough political demands. According to the Moscow daily Segodnia, a majority of the meetings called for the resignation of the government and for early presidential elections.

To an impressive degree, workers overcame the divisions that have plagued the Russian labour movement. Of the "alternative" unions that are outside the FNPR structures, all but a handful endorsed the actions and urged members to participate.

The prospect of mass demonstrations clearly had the authorities worried. President Boris Yeltsin's administrative chief, Sergei Filatov, made a series of appeals for the FNPR to abandon its plans. In negotiations, government representatives began making significant concessions, including agreeing to tighten controls on illegal sackings and to introduce new legislation governing the payment of wages. To avoid a showdown with coal miners, who had threatened an indefinite strike from November 1, the government promised to pay subsidy arrears to the coal industry.

$3 billion owed

The total of overdue wages in Russia has risen rapidly during the past few months, and now stands at the equivalent of almost US$3 billion; of this sum, arrears on the wages of state employees account for roughly a third. Meanwhile, the International Labor Organisation has concluded that open unemployment stands at about 8% of the work force, while "suppressed unemployment" affects another third. The potential obviously exists for a massive outpouring of protest.

October 27 represented the largest planned protest action in Russian history. FNPR officials claimed next day that as many as 8 million people had taken part. A figure of 70,000 participants was claimed for the largest public rally, in St Petersburg.

Still, a real question remains whether anything like the full potential of the day was realised — and whether the protests were large enough, and the demands sufficiently hard-hitting, to put real pressure on the authorities.

Of the "8 million participants", most were simply people working in enterprises where the trade union committees organised some kind of protest activity. The turnout for the public rallies represented real interest and support, but there is a rule of thumb for gauging the size of demonstrations: divide the claimed attendance by four or five.

When these factors are taken into account, it is clear that the FNPR failed to mobilise more than a small minority of its more than 50 million members — or even of the many millions seriously affected by wage non-payment.

In Moscow, with its working population of about 5 million people, only some 5000 turned out to a demonstration on Teatralnaya Square. Lacklustre organising by the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions (MFP) helped ensure that of the people present, most had come at the summons of Stalinist-nationalist groups rather than of trade union bodies. To the humiliation of the MFP, the official speakers were largely drowned out.

No doubt taking heart from the unimpressive Moscow rally, the government has ridden out the brief storm, and has not changed the basic anti-worker thrust of its policies.

Of course indifferent and inept union leaders were not the sole, or even the main, reason that millions of workers did not pour into the streets on October 27. The working class still suffers from a terrible burden of disorientation inherited from the Stalinist past. But when union leaders preside over debacles such as the demonstration in Moscow, they cannot put all the blame on history.

Negotiations from weakness

Although unemployment is rising and real wage payments are continuing to drop, the FNPR has failed to mount a consistent struggle, or even to formulate a general strategy for the defence of workers. Instead, the federation's leaders have restricted themselves almost entirely to negotiations — conducted from a position of obvious weakness — and to episodic attempts to pressure or cajole this or that element of the state machine.

Late in April, FNPR chairperson Mikhail Shmakov was among the signatories of Yeltsin's Pact on Social Accord. Under this wide-ranging agreement, union leaders undertook not to demand early elections and, for practical purposes, renounced strikes. In effect, the government was handed permission to solve its budgetary problems at workers' expense. Wages owed to state employees rose steeply.

By the end of the summer, the situation of large numbers of workers had become intolerable. The FNPR leaders were forced to promise Russia-wide protest actions. But the "organising effort" consisted of little more than setting a date and urging affiliated bodies to stage protests.

Many unionists were shocked to find FNPR leaders pledging loyalty to the government and doing their best to stop openly political demands from being raised. At a press conference on October 25, Shmakov was quoted as saying: "... it would be thoroughly disadvantageous for us to change the government, since it has just set to work on dealing with our problems". The FNPR, Shmakov stated, had "confidence in the government for the present".

The prospect that radical working-class groups would join in the protests, raising political demands, spurred the FNPR leadership to something close to panic. On October 26 Shmakov was reported to have sent telegrams to the heads of all FNPR affiliates, warning that the desire of parties and movements to take part in the day of protest could "give it a political colouration", "distort the process of discussions between the FNPR and the government" and even "wreck the actions".

Political demands

There was often no need for "parties and movements" to introduce political demands. Regional and sectoral union leaders were quite ready to introduce such demands themselves, responding to rank and file sentiment. The more militant flavour that resulted probably boosted attendance.

Nevertheless, the evasions and retreats of the FNPR leadership unquestionably left many workers demoralised, limiting their involvement.

According to Izvestia, unpaid state wages in Russia have increased by eight and a half times since January, a rise in real terms of more than 400%. The government's record on other rights of workers is equally shocking; the ILO recently slammed the regime for violating no fewer than 15 international conventions.

Shmakov's argument that the government should be tolerated "since it has just set to work on dealing with our problems" ignores his own experience and that of other union leaders who have struck deals in the past few years with the state authorities. In dealing with the labour movement, the regime has made shameless use of the strategy of signing agreements and then making no effort to implement them. Today's promises are worth no more than yesterday's.

There is no sense in which the Russian government represents the interests of workers, and workers have no reason to want it to stay in office. Until the FNPR leaders recognise this, there will be large numbers of union members who are angry and potentially combative, but who will not take the federation's calls to action seriously.