Russian teachers, miners walk out

Issue 

By Renfrey Clarke MOSCOW — From late January, a powerful strike wave has swept across Russia, involving close to three-quarters of a million workers. A massive stoppage by teachers has been followed by an exceptionally large and well-coordinated strike by coal miners. Also downing tools have been workers at Russia's largest plant for the manufacture of heavy earth-moving equipment. Air traffic controllers and workers at the ZIL truck plant in Moscow are also planning industrial action. The coal strike was the largest such action since the six-week stoppage in 1991 that fatally weakened the administration of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Almost all the strike activity has centred on the failure to pay wages on time. During 1995, total wage arrears rose in real terms by close to 40%. Affecting many millions of workers, the pay shortfall was a prime reason for the defeat of pro-government forces in the parliamentary elections on December 17. On January 30, as strikers moved into action, President Boris Yeltsin pledged to ensure that overdue wages were paid promptly. A special reserve fund, he promised, would be set up to prevent further delays in wage payments in state enterprises and ministries. Among trade unionists, however, there is little confidence that a change of rhetoric by Yeltsin will throw open the pay windows. For one thing, money assigned by the federal government for wages usually has to make its way through other official and semi-official bodies. The teachers, for example, are not paid directly by the federal government, but by provincial and republican administrations. Regional authorities often divert these funds to patch up their own structures. Or, money may be held and lent out by corrupt local functionaries. As of late January, unpaid salaries owing to school teachers reportedly amounted to US$210 million, even though all central funds for the education system were supposedly being transferred to the regions on schedule. According to the English-language Moscow Tribune, deputy prime minister Vladimir Kinelyov, responsible for education and science, had "vowed to track down an allotted 1.7 trillion roubles [US$361 million] from the federal education budget which was not received by local schools". State subsidies for the coal industry are administered through Rosugol, the state holding company that is a major shareholder in most mines. Investigations in recent years have found widespread corruption in coal industry management. Although government officials insist that all sums pledged to Rosugol for 1995 were handed over, in late January hundreds of thousands of miners had received little or no pay since October. Supporters of the government argue that it is not to blame for most of the pay shortfalls. But this rings hollow. Federal authorities have done little to impose proper auditing procedures on the regional administrations and on Rosugol. Meanwhile, the claim by the central authorities to have paid out all the subsidies owed to the coal industry for 1995 is little better than deception. As Izvestia pointed out on February 2, delayed subsidy payments for three to four months of 1994 were met by the government out of funds provided for 1995. It is not surprising that the coal sector's wage funds began running dry several months before the end of last year. The teachers' strike began on January 30 and continued for three days, with at least 225,000 education workers taking part. More than 4000 schools were shut. Leaders of the teachers' union have promised another, still larger, stoppage in April if the government's promises are not kept. On Russia's coalfields, the inability of mines to pay their workers had brought about a desperate situation by late January. In Vorkuta in the Arctic, bread sales in the shops were running at half the levels of December. In other regions, miners were walking many kilometres to and from work because they could not afford buses. On January 24, miners gathered in an angry picket outside the House of Government in Moscow, with slogans that included: "We can work on our knees, but we'll never live on our knees", and "Miners must not be hostages of reform!" Inside, government officials were meeting with leaders of the main miners' union, the Russian Union of Coal Industry Workers (PRUP). The miners' key demands included overall state support for the coal industry in 1996 of 10.4 trillion roubles (US$2.2 billion), instead of the 7.4 trillion projected in the 1996 budget. Where mines were not being paid by their customers, the union argued, the coal enterprises should have the right to reserve 50% of available revenues for wage payments before being required to pay taxes. For once, the government had to listen seriously. Significant areas still depend heavily on coal for their electricity and heating, and in various districts of western Siberia and the far east, the coal stockpiles at power stations were down to a few days' supply. On January 25 Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin met with PRUP chairperson Vitaly Budko and pledged that the 10.4 trillion roubles would be met. An initial 600 billion roubles would be made available by the end of January. The miners' patience, however, had run out. Mere promises would no longer suffice; the strike would go ahead unless money for wages actually appeared. On January 31 Budko reported that no money had yet reached the mines' bank accounts. On February 1 mines began shutting down. The strike was more solid than any of the numerous stoppages in the industry since 1991. Close to half a million of Russia's 580,000 coal miners went out, and according to PRUP, 90% of underground mines ceased operating. The government was finally stirred to action. On February 1, money began reaching the mines. The pledge of increased funding was reaffirmed. Union leaders were presented with a detailed schedule for wage payments through June. Not all of the miners' demands were met; a call for measures to deal with non-payments by coal consumers went unanswered. Nevertheless, union leaders late on February 2 voted to call for an end to the strike. A decision was made to renew the stoppage from March 1 if the government was not fulfilling its promises. Shaken by the miners' victory, proponents of tight-money policies are now predicting with alarm that unpaid workers in many other areas of the economy will walk off the job. On February 3 the 18,000 employees of the Promtraktor earth-moving equipment plant in Cheboksary on the Volga River were reported to be on strike, after not receiving wages since September. Few workers in Russia have the economic leverage of the miners, and most of the battles for overdue wages will be far more difficult and drawn-out. But there are signs that very large numbers of workers have grasped the lesson that it is only through militant industrial and political struggle that the survival of whole work forces can be assured.