Russian miners targeted by anti-worker offensive

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Russian miners targeted by anti-worker offensive

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — According to recently announced plans of the Russian government, 1998 is to be the year when the country's coal industry is gutted and cut up, the most toothsome chunks made ready for handing over to private owners. For scores of thousands of workers, the result will be joblessness, with only vague, unreliable promises of retraining and resettlement.

But miners in the leading coal region have now pledged: only over our determined resistance! On December 29, an extraordinary congress of miners' delegates in the Kuzbass, the west Siberian region that is Russia's largest coal producer, drew up a series of tough resolutions addressed to the country's president, government and parliament.

If key demands were not met, the miners indicated, a general strike of the region's coal sector would be organised.

Of some 200 coal mines currently operating, the government plans to shut down no fewer than 86 by the end of this year. According to the Moscow daily Segodnya, employment in the coal sector has already fallen by 18% in the past two years, to a current total of 359,000 workers. If the planned closures go ahead, the number could shrink by a further 100,000.

The "restructuring" is to be financed by a US$800 million loan from the World Bank, approved during December. Half this sum was due to be handed over by the end of 1997. Delivery of a second tranche, of US$200 million, was made conditional on the government carrying out a coal privatisation program.

From 8.5% in December, the proportion of Russia's coal produced by privately owned mines is to rise to 50% by the end of 1998. During December, large packets of shares were sold in three "promising, profitable" Kuzbass open pits.

Losses

Supporters of the government's strategies argue that large-scale mine closures are inevitable, since the coal sector, reported recently to have debts equivalent to almost US$8 billion, is technically bankrupt. Numerous mines have wage debts to their workers going back six or even nine months, and continue producing only because of state subsidies.

But in many cases, the mines are loss making mainly because the state has withheld investment funds, and because of the peculiarities of state accounting.

In the Pechora coal basin in the far north of European Russia, almost all the mines run at a loss. But the Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta in December cited a study indicating that eight of the nine mines at Vorkuta, the main Pechora coal centre, were potentially profitable. The taxes and penalties the mines were being forced to pay, the report indicated, were greater than the subsidies they received.

In all regions, mines suffer from the failure of customers to pay for deliveries. According to Izvestia on December 18, 56% of the overdue debts to the coal industry are owed by power plants, which in turn are owed large sums by government instrumentalities. To a substantial degree, the need to pay subsidies to coal mines flows from the government's own failure to pay its debts.

Closures of worked-out mines are inevitable. But the government plans to shut down numerous mines containing large reserves of coal that in other countries and times would be considered well worth extracting. Once the pits are closed, these reserves are lost for good.

Markets for the output of these mines allegedly do not exist. Demand for coal in Russia, especially from the metallurgical industry, has fallen sharply during the 1990s.

But there is nothing natural or inevitable about the decline of Russian metallurgy; it is an aspect of the country's six-year economic depression, which was induced deliberately to serve the ends of neo-liberal "shock therapy". Picture

Even in circumstances of depression, the argument that markets do not exist for the output of existing mines starts to look suspicious if we consider a point revealed by Segodnya in December. Despite the loss during 1998 of as many as 100,000 coal industry jobs, coal output is not expected to fall significantly.

While close to half the existing mines will shut down, output will be expanded at a relatively small number of highly productive mines, chiefly open pits. Average costs per tonne, at least as computed by coal firm accountants, will fall.

Social costs

To the financial oligarchs who are being invited to take over Russia's coal industry, these policies make excellent sense. But if the likely social costs of "restructuring" are taken into account, the benefits are by no means clear.

Other work for laid-off miners is hard to find. And if taking up another job means shifting house, these workers often face a hopeless dilemma; continuing, acute housing shortages mean that affordable alternative accommodation can rarely be found.

If laid-off miners had to be treated in civilised fashion, with job retraining and alternative work, the cheapest course for Russian society would often be to keep loss-making mines open.

The government has been forced to announce adjustment programs for miners in the pits that are being shut down. But in the experience of the workers themselves, the government's real strategy is often to try to force them out without any compensation.

"If you don't pay people their wages for five or six months, they'll make off of their own accord, and you don't have to create any new jobs", Aman Tuleev, the governor of Kemerovo province, pointed out to journalists recently.

Where coal industry workers stay on the job long enough to be made redundant, the programs for their support are often merely token — or the funds are misdirected by officials.

Since 1994, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported on December 3, 17 mines have shut down in the Kuzbass. Of 17,000 people put out of work, only 7% have been placed in new jobs.

An appeal sent to the president and prime minister by miners in the Maritime District in mid-December charged that mine shutdowns were occurring without the creation of jobs, and that social welfare commitments to miners were not being met.

The Maritime District miners, Segodnya reported on December 17, "consider that the coal sector in Russia should be state owned".

The demand for a halt to privatisation has not figured in the demands of miners at the national level, where the focus has remained on forcing the government to meet its promises. But the desire of rank and file miners to go into battle around the call for social ownership of their industry — an essential condition if its restructuring is not to be a social catastrophe — seems certain to spread. Picture

Carnage

Since early December, the miners' protest movement has taken on an edge of desperation, as the numbers of dead and injured workers have risen to horrific levels. In the small hours of December 2, a methane explosion in the Zyryanovskaya mine in the Kuzbass claimed 67 lives — the worst mine disaster in the region since 1944.

No less appalling has been the steadily increasing number of deaths in "lesser" accidents. At the time of the Zyryanovskaya explosion, the number of lives lost in Russian coal mines during 1997 already stood at 158 — 32% worse than in 1996.

According to miners' leaders, prime responsibility for the carnage lies with the government, which has failed to provide adequate funds for safety management. The number of safety inspections has dropped. Mines have been left without money to repair ventilating systems, or to buy and maintain safety equipment.

"With the current level of financing, carrying out this work properly is impossible", Ivan Mokhnachuk, deputy chairperson of the Russian Union of Coal Industry Workers, told the newspaper Trud in December.

Direct action

Rank and file miners in the Kuzbass in December took dramatic direct action. In the city of Anzhero-Sudzhensk on December 22, about 250 workers blocked the Trans-Siberian Railway for 10 hours, demanding wages owed from as much as eight months back.

Meanwhile, a group of miners from the Pechora basin were staging a hunger strike in the Moscow offices of Rosugol, the state coal industry holding company.

Through its plans for massive lay-offs, in circumstances where it has neither the will nor the ability to provide for the workers involved, the government has signalled that it aims to deal a knockout blow to the miners, the best organised and most combative sector of the working class.

The assault on the miners will be the spearhead of a much broader anti-worker offensive, as the capitalist counter-revolution enters its most aggressive phase.

Economy minister Yakov Urinson on December 30 revealed that the government plans to cut the number of defence sector enterprises by nearly two-thirds — from 1700 at present to 670 in the year 2000.

And on January 6, under the headline "A reform more painful than privatisation", Izvestia outlined a new labour code, currently at the drafting stage, through which the government plans to "bring order to the relations between employer and employee".

Modelled in part on neo-liberal legislation in New Zealand, this code would reduce trade unions to a marginal role in relations between workers and employers.

Millions of Russian wage workers now have little to lose if they mount desperate resistance.

This is particularly true of the miners, who have strong traditions of solidarity and are well able to provide leadership for much broader working-class layers.