Russian unions call day of protest

Issue 

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — Millions of workers throughout Russia are expected to join in job-site protests and street demonstrations on April 12, as the country's main labour federation mounts a day of action "against the worsening of the living standards of the working people." As of March 31, more than 60 of the 78 regional organisations of the 50-million-member Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) had resolved to take part. Numerous industry-based union bodies had also endorsed the protests.

On April 12, the FNPR's federal leaders will voice a series of economic demands — above all, for the payment of huge sums owing in back wages, and for providing guarantees of employment. But in almost all the regions that will take part, workers and their unions will be concentrating on political slogans. In most cases, these will include calls for the immediate resignation of the Russian government and the holding of early presidential elections.

The decision by Russia's main union body to call its members onto the streets followed an avalanche of strike action during February, as workers set out to force the handing over of wages often months in arrears. According to the newspaper Trud on March 17, time lost due to strikes in Russian enterprises in February alone was greater than during the whole of 1994. The total of unpaid wages has grown massively in real terms during the past 12 months, as has the number of enterprises with debts to their workers.

With a third of the population in January reportedly receiving less than the "survival minimum" income, union leaders have come under strong pressure to coordinate local struggles into a general campaign. A further incentive to united action has been the refusal of the government to take its own promises seriously. This has been especially evident in the case of undertakings given by the authorities following an earlier FNPR day of action on October 27.

Repeatedly, governments in post-Soviet Russia have used the tactic of negotiating with trade unions, of making the promises needed to blunt moves for militant collective actions — and then failing to deliver. Union leaders have understood this tactic perfectly, but have often lacked the confidence or conviction to call actions that might force real concessions.

Hot and cold

Now, FNPR leaders insist, this situation is about to change. Federation chairperson Mikhail Shmakov declared on March 15 that relations between the trade unions and the government were at a dead end. Talks had been dragged out by the authorities, while the wage debt had increased; therefore, future negotiations by the trade unions would have to be from a position of strength. "This is the only language the country's leaders understand", Shmakov argued.

But since the call to action was endorsed by the FNPR leadership on March 13, key officials of the federation have blown hot and cold on the issue. Militant statements from Shmakov and other leaders have been offset by their refusal to raise openly political demands, despite the fact that such demands are being voiced by most of the FNPR's member organisations.

While calling on unions to mobilise their ranks on April 12, officials of the FNPR have undercut this by insisting that the day of action is only one of the mechanisms being employed — and a lesser one at that. "As before, we consider our main tool to be the process of negotiations", FNPR first deputy chairperson Alexei Surikov reportedly stated.

Indications are, however, that workers' anger at the collapse of their living standards will bring them into the streets in large numbers whatever the faint-heartedness in the FNPR headquarters. In the Maritime Region of the far east, where many workers have not been paid since November, union organisations have resolved to call a two-hour general strike on April 12 and to blockade the Trans-Siberian Railway. No economic demands will be raised, only political ones; local unionists consider that the government's promises are so worthless that the only meaningful demand is for the ministers to be turned out of office.

The day of action is also likely to include work stoppages in the Altai Region in Siberia, where teachers and food industry workers have declared their readiness to go out. Unions in the Altai Region have attacked the FNPR leadership for failing to advance political demands.

In Saratov province on the middle Volga, unions have mapped out an ambitious list of actions including demonstrations, marches and pickets outside local administrative offices. In various other cities, organisers of the day of action have decided against such pickets — because the local authorities have pledged full support for the unions' demands.

In St Petersburg, unionists will demonstrate on Palace Square around demands that include the resignation of the government and the holding of early presidential elections. The situation in Moscow — Russia's most prosperous large city, where the labour movement has been relatively quiescent — is more problematical.

On October 27, an embarrassingly small turnout of about 5000 people for a demonstration called by the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions (MFP) allowed the government and media largely to ignore the broad spread of actions in other centres. This time, the MFP has called on workers to picket the House of Government, the well-known "White House". But whether the MFP's mobilising effort will be more serious than in October remains to be seen.

Parliament

In his statements since mid-March, Shmakov has dwelt on the need to fit collective actions into a framework that includes deliberate intervention by trade unions in the parliamentary elections due for December. This perspective is necessary — provided the program around which the unions are to campaign is really one of defending workers' interests. Shmakov's statements, however, give rise to some nagging doubts.

The FNPR chairperson has made clear that he sees the elections, and winning a majority for a "left-centrist coalition", as the culminating point of the union protest actions. But there is real doubt that the elections will be allowed to happen, and President Boris Yeltsin is not afraid of parliaments, especially when they have been rendered almost powerless by an ultra-"presidential" constitution.

The only opposition that Yeltsin needs to fear is an organised, active movement of millions of politicised workers. It is the movement, not the parliament, that ought to be in the centre of Shmakov's attentions.

Meanwhile, what is a "left-centrist coalition", and what would it do? Shmakov has said little about its concrete program, except to state that it should "resist destructive experiments on our Russia, and onslaughts by radicals and extremists of the right and left". The composition which Shmakov has suggested for this proposed coalition gives some hints of what its goals might be.

To his credit, Shmakov has not succumbed to anticommunist phobia, and would assign a place in the coalition to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. But he has also called for the inclusion of the Federation of Commodity Producers. This is an organisation made up basically of managers of former state enterprises disaffected with the course of "reform".

As a force opposed to the dismembering of Russian industry, the Federation of Commodity Producers might well be an occasional ally of workers against the neo-liberal right. But if Shmakov can see the Commodity Producers struggling for a fundamentally new program of reforms, in the interests of workers rather than of the "nomenklatura bourgeoisie", his imagination is unusually rich.

To draw this group into a coalition, the other partners would have to pay a definite political price. And if the Commodity Producers were then to demand changes of line as their price for staying in a parliamentary bloc, would the leaders of the coalition be likely to knock them back?

The Russian trade union movement needs to move beyond purely economic demands, and to seize a place for itself in the political arena. But if in doing so it accepts the obligation to defend the interests of particular sectors of employers, the endeavour will become futile.

Fortunately, the brisk tempo of struggles in workplaces suggests that workers will not, on the whole, allow themselves to be led into this trap. Large turnouts in many centres on April 12 seem likely to further increase workers' confidence in their collective strength, and to pressure the FNPR leadership to shape its political campaigning around genuinely pro-labour policies.

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