Russian nuclear workers fight for wage pay-out


By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — Workers in Russia's nuclear power plants appeared close to forcing important concessions from the government in mid-August following weeks of struggle for the payment of back wages and of debts owed to the industry.

The fight has been spearheaded by workers at the Smolensk plant, 400 kilometres south-west of Moscow. Because strikes in the Russian nuclear power industry are banned, the workers have made imaginative use of the tactic of the sit-in, drawing wide attention to their cause and placing considerable political pressure on the authorities.

Russia's nine nuclear power plants account for 12% of the country's electrical generating capacity. In the course of 1994 the nuclear power industry has been thrown into crisis through the failure of the electricity distribution monopoly, the mainly state-owned joint stock company United Energy System of Russia (EESR), to pay debts owed to electricity suppliers.

EESR claims that it cannot settle more than a fraction of its debts due to massive non-payment by its customers. And indeed, huge numbers of Russian enterprises have been unable to pay their energy bills — and many other bills besides — due to a chain of debt non-payments initiated quite deliberately by the government.

Nuclear power workers, however, remain sceptical that EESR is as hard up as it claims. At a press conference early in June, officials of the nuclear power industry released statistics indicating that in April EESR received payment for 60% of the energy it sold, but paid nuclear power producers for only 30% of the electricity they supplied. In May the company paid for only 3.5% of deliveries.

In a statement at the end of July, the Union of Workers of the Atomic Energy Industry noted that despite "crying poor", EESR had been paying dividends to its shareholders. "Where's the money coming from?" the union asked. In effect, the statement noted, the generating plants were providing the distribution firm with free credit, "which is put into circulation by all sorts of commercial structures which receive behind-the-scenes income".

In April nuclear power workers picketed the House of Government in Moscow, protesting at a situation in which some workers had not received their pay in full for as much as five months. Their action forced an official meeting in which Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets promised that a series of the industry's central demands would be met. But as the trade union later complained, these promises along with other decrees, laws and government decisions were not fulfilled.

By late July the situation in the nuclear power industry had become critical. Pay arrears of three and four months were now almost the norm. Instead of concentrating on plant safety and efficiency, operators were often preoccupied with the question of how to feed their families.

The summer months, when demand for energy is less, are the time when important maintenance work is normally scheduled. This year, management officials and trade union activists have been complaining that severe cash shortages have disrupted repair programs. With funds short and replacement parts expensive, plant managers and engineers are faced with the temptation to bend established rules in order to keep plants operating.

In various statements, spokespeople for the nuclear power industry have been emphatic that there have been no compromises with safety. But it is clear that in failing to fund the nuclear power industry adequately, the Russian government is gambling with millions of lives. The only reassuring aspect of the situation is that in recent months many of Russia's nuclear power plants have been operating at only a fraction of capacity, due to their inability to pay for supplies of nuclear fuel. Late in July the Smolensk plant was functioning at only about 20% capacity. Soon afterwards it was reported that the Leningrad plant had shut down two of its four reactors and was on the verge of shutting down the remaining two for lack of money to buy fuel rods. Factories producing the rods were themselves also threatened with having to halt their operations.

If large parts of Russia's nuclear power industry were to close down completely, that would mitigate the risk of further Chernobyl-type disasters. But in various respects, total plant shutdowns are not a pleasant prospect. For example, the city of Desnogorsk near the Smolensk plant depends on the plant's reactors to heat apartments and offices during the region's bitter winters.

For nuclear power workers, the first protest action of the summer began at the Smolensk plant on July 28. Some 70 operators ceased leaving the plant immediately after their shifts finished, instead remaining for a further eight hours in an assembly hall before going home. Several days later a tent city began springing up outside the administration offices, with a further 40 to 50 people constantly present. By the end of the first week of the protest the number of employees sitting in had increased to around 350.

On August 1 a further 150 nuclear power workers at the Kola plant in Murmansk Province began a similar action. As the days passed, members of workers' families and other supporters joined in the actions in increasing numbers. Pledges of support poured in from workers at other nuclear power plants and from union leaders.

The protesting workers, some of whom had received as little as 32% of their earnings since the beginning of the year, were demanding immediate payment of all wages owed. In addition, they were calling for their plants to receive prompt payment for electricity produced, for the drawing up of firm state orders for electrical energy, and for the postponement of tax payments owed by the plants to federal and local budgets. Leaders of the trade union demanded that the government set up a commission charged with resolving the problems of the nuclear power industry and of the nuclear fuel complex.

The demands took on an openly political edge when the protesters called for the sacking of the fuel and energy minister and of the president of EESR.

The workers' tactic of concentrating people in and around the plants, while maintaining electricity output, caught the government flat-footed. The authorities could not claim that the protesters were an isolated handful, or that they were breaking the law or ignoring the well-being of electricity consumers. Meanwhile, the protests were attracting broad and often sympathetic media coverage.

Two weeks into the protest actions, the pressures on the government began yielding results. A meeting in Desnogorsk on August 11 brought the directors of all Russia's nuclear power plants and the heads of the plant trade union committees together for discussions with Nuclear Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov, representatives of the fuel and energy ministry, and officials of EESR. A protocol was signed in which all present pledged to work toward the settling of wage debts and the securing of state loans to keep the industry functioning. An appeal to Russian President Boris Yeltsin was drawn up, setting out the sums that would be required.

On August 15 the workers' coordinating committee at the Smolensk plant agreed to suspend the sit-in until September 1, to give the government side a chance to meet its undertakings.

The Russian government has made promises to nuclear power workers before, and has proceeded to ignore these pledges. In fact, it is almost a standard ruse for state authorities to make concessions to labour movement representatives during talks, and for the Finance Ministry then to refuse to sign over the money. Nevertheless, the government will think twice before continuing to deny nuclear power workers their earnings.

In their struggle so far, the nuclear workers have shown themselves to be united, resourceful and determined. They will clearly go back on the offensive if their demands are not met. This example of combativity is not something the Russian authorities want to see before the country's workers during the autumn, as industry continues to collapse and as the attacks on living standards gain in intensity and vindictiveness.