By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — Angry miners inflicted a notable defeat on the Russian government in mid-August. A mass hunger strike in the coalfields of southern Russia, accompanied by large-scale picketing, forced the Moscow authorities to make provisions for the prompt payment of overdue wages, and to admit responsibility for the continuing financial crisis in the coal industry. The government now faces the prospect of further outbursts of miner militancy during the campaign for the December parliamentary elections. The miners, who between 1989 and 1991 helped seal the fate of the Soviet regime with a series of huge strikes, have since turned bitterly hostile to today's nomenklatura-capitalist rulers.
The coal industry is badly run down, and large numbers of mines need state subsidies to continue operating. By delaying payments to the coal firms, the government is able to make important savings as it seeks to enforce its tight-money policies.
Starving the miners in order to please the International Monetary Fund, the government has provoked an industrial cold war that flares periodically into open conflict. In recent times, the struggle has taken the form of a cycle repeated once or twice each year. Promised subsidies are not disbursed, the coal enterprises fall behind in their wage payments, and labour struggles break out. Before these struggles become really threatening, the government negotiates with the coal unions and makes concessions. Past bills are paid, and a new schedule of payments is worked out. Then, after a few months, the government breaks its promises, and the cycle resumes.
This year, in the coalfields of Rostov province in southern Russia, this pattern has varied. The government has more or less met its schedule of payments for 1995 to Rostovugol, the state coal firm that is a major shareholder in most of the mines of the region. But a massive debt of 119 billion roubles (about US$27 million), dating from the last quarter of 1994, remained unsettled through mid-August; this accounted for the bulk of some 200 billion roubles which the Rostov mines owed to their workers. As of August 15, the last pay which most coal industry workers in the province had received was 40% of the sum due for May.
At a meeting during the second week of August, the Rostov Province Territorial Committee of the Russian Union of Coal Industry Workers decided to force the issue. A call was issued for unionists to begin a hunger strike and to take part in mass picketing.
Warning that the situation in the mines was "on the verge of civil disobedience", the union's province chairperson, Vladimir Katalnikov, declared that the miners were ready for "more active measures" unless the government took decisive moves to settle the debt within two or three days.
In a square in the regional coal centre of Shakhty on August 15, a tent city was set up, and a total of 143 worker activists declared themselves on hunger strike. Meanwhile, more than a thousand unionists demonstrated outside the Rostovugol administration building.
The Russian government agreed to immediate talks, and later on August 15 the chief economic minister, First Vice-Premier Anatoly Chubais, met in Moscow with coal industry union and management representatives. According to Izvestia, the meeting reached agreement within half an hour on the main points at issue, with Chubais showing a rare generosity. The government side claimed that 27 billion roubles of the outstanding debt had already been forwarded, and promised that a further 30 billion would be dispatched shortly. An extra sum of about 60 billion roubles was to be sought "within the bounds of budget financing".
The promises had been made. The tent city was dismantled, and the hunger strike called off. But promises had been made before. Were the miners entitled to think that the government was more serious this time than it had been in the past?
In the days after August 15, Moscow officials of the mineworkers' union were predicting that the first sums promised, totalling 57 billion roubles, would come through as pledged.
The remaining sum of 60 billion roubles was more problematic. Though assigned at one point for the coal industry, this money has since vanished into the thickets of state accounting. The chance of the government now finding it within the 1995 budget seems remote, since unallotted reserve funds are believed to be virtually nil, and funds in other budget areas are defended by well-organised lobbies.
Enough money seems assured for miners' wages from May through August to be paid by mid-September. But in the months after that, they can expect only another train of broken promises. Whatever the risks of provoking the miners during the election period, the government is not giving up its cat-and-mouse game just yet.
If the prospects for wage payments beyond September look dim, the government has nevertheless been forced to make a concession which will significantly undermine its ability to continue trimming its deficits at workers' expense. At the insistence of the general director of Rostovugol, the agreement reached on August 15 stated clearly: "The main cause of the situation which has arisen is the federal budget debt to Rostovugol for 1994 of 119 billion roubles".
Here Chubais admitted directly that the non-payment of wages was overwhelmingly the government's fault. He thus gave the lie to years of attempts by government propagandists to lay the blame elsewhere — above all, on delays engineered by coal industry officials. The government and its supporters have often accused enterprise administrators of holding on to funds meant for wage payments, and of using the money for private commercial dealings. If many of these allegations are no doubt correct, Izvestia nevertheless pointed out on August 17 that the authorities have made little effort to prosecute the people involved.
In reality, there has never been any question of crooked managers accounting for more than a lesser part of the wage non-payments in the coal industry. Miners in Russia, along with millions of other workers, go unpaid because an anti-worker government has a policy of not paying them. The key defeat suffered by the government in mid-August was that Chubais was forced to make this policy a matter of public record — just as an election campaign was getting under way.
With the election campaign, Russian miners have a chance to break the cycle of non-payments of the past few years, forcing the government to accept the need to fund the coal industry on a regular, stable basis. Achieving this will require a deliberate mix of industrial and political action. In the industrial field, the miners need to vigorously exploit the government's willingness to make concessions in order to limit the extent of labour struggles during the election period.
At the same time, coal industry unionists need to intervene as an organised force in the election campaigning. The thrust of this activity must be to make the rights and interests of working people the key issues on the basis of which citizens cast their votes.
Russian miners mobilise to beat pay scam
By Renfrey Clarke