By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — At least half a million workers took to the streets of Russian cities on April 12, in some of the largest coordinated labour demonstrations in the country's history. Further millions took part in workplace protest meetings.
The "day of all-Russian united collective trade union action" was organised by the country's mass labour movement body, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR). According to FNPR leaders, protest actions took place in 78 of the country's 82 administrative regions, with 40 of the federation's 42 affiliated unions taking part. Also participating were eight unions outside the FNPR.
In building the protests, FNPR leaders restricted themselves to raising economic demands. These centred on calls for the government to make funds available to ensure the payment of huge wage debts — many workers have not been paid for several months — and to take effective measures against unemployment.
But local union bodies often added demands of their own, and these as a rule were bluntly political. Most of the demonstrations on April 12 had a clear anti-government thrust, whether in the official slogans or simply in the red flags and bitterly worded placards carried by demonstrators.
Popular calls were for the immediate resignation of the government, for early presidential elections and for redirecting the course of reform so as to defend the interests of working people. In St Petersburg, these slogans were officially endorsed by the local labour movement's Intersectoral Strike Committee. In Vladivostok, Kemerovo and many other centres, similar demands were put to a vote during mass meetings and were overwhelmingly adopted.
In various regions the all-Russian day of action merged with local strike waves to produce a high pitch of labour militancy. Rallies in the Siberian industrial city of Omsk and in three provincial centres in European Russia adopted motions stating that if the authorities failed to respond to union demands, more decisive measures would be needed — including a general strike.
The protests make it possible to draw some conclusions about the present state of the labour movement. The first such conclusion — voiced with relief by pro-government commentators — is that in most parts of the country the movement is not yet able to mobilise its ranks in a massive and determined fashion. The FNPR has more than 50 million members; even according to the most generous estimates, only a small minority took an active part in the April 12 actions.
Nevertheless, April 12 also showed a widespread readiness to mobilise among workers in regions and occupational groups that have been hit especially hard by the collapse that has accompanied capitalist "reform". Where workers failed to take part in protests, the reason very often was not innate passivity. In regions where local union bodies showed seriousness in organising for the April 12 actions, the turnout was usually impressive.
Finally, it is clear that in most regions there are significant numbers of workers who are no longer content with simply placing economic demands on the government, but who see political campaigning as essential.
Russia's labour movement still has a long way to go before becoming a powerful, independent force in the country's society and politics. But it is making up ground fast.
Assessing the results of the day is made difficult by the frequent practice in Russia of exaggerating the size of public gatherings by as much as four or five times. But it is clear that the protests were especially vigorous in the far east, now largely abandoned economically by Moscow and beset by crippling energy shortages. Reports from Vladivostok describe one of the city's main squares as filled to overflowing with demonstrators despite pouring rain. Impressive actions also took place in many other far east cities.
In the Altai region of central Siberia, demonstrations and pickets reportedly took place in 36 cities and towns. Here the day of action was combined with a one-day strike by agro-industry workers, as well as with an extended strike by teachers. In Samara on the central Volga, a column of demonstrators reportedly stretched for two and a half kilometres; the marchers carried coffins symbolising the death of the Russian defence and aerospace industries.
The largest demonstration took place in St Petersburg, where the FNPR claimed that 80,000 people rallied on Palace Square. Other centres where relatively large rallies and marches took place included Omsk, Yekaterinburg, Saratov, Kemerovo and Stavropol.
In Moscow, the FNPR's regional affiliate, the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions, made no effort to draw workers to a large gathering, limiting itself to a four-hour picket of the main government office complex. Although many unionists came in buses from nearby cities to join the picket, total participation was only about 5000.
In many provincial centres where sizeable demonstrations took place, the so-called "intellectual proletariat" — economically hard-pressed teachers, health workers and students — played a prominent part. In Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, several hundred students were arrested after trying to break through to the building of the local administration.
A further notable feature of April 12 was that for the first time the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Russia's largest political formation, with a claimed membership of 500,000, threw itself seriously into helping build trade union protest actions and mobilising its supporters.
Observing that many of the largest protests were time-zones away in remote provinces, and that the Moscow picket was unimpressive, various pro-government spokespeople since April 12 have tried to dismiss the action as a failure. But a more careful look at the actions and statements of government leaders shows that the protests caused genuine alarm in the official camp.
Shortly before the day of action, first deputy premier Anatoly Chubais made a point of claiming that the delivery of funds to pay wages at defence industry enterprises was on schedule — a statement met by union leaders with scorn and disbelief. Trying to redirect workers' anger away from the central authorities, labour minister Gennady Melikyan accused regional officials of delaying the distribution of federal payments.
On the evening of April 11, Chubais held extended talks with FNPR chairperson Mikhail Shmakov, promising to present a new schedule for the payment of defence industry wage debts. Money was also promised to pay the wages of teachers.
The union protests, Shmakov argued to journalists on April 12, were having an impact and forcing the government to act, even though this response still included "far more minuses than pluses". But as he stressed at a press conference two days later, the issue of delayed wage payments will be resolved only when the money is actually in workers' pockets.
Experience has shown that unless the Russian government is kept under pressure, it will persistently fail to meet its agreed obligations. The temptation for the authorities to delay wage payments is likely to be especially marked from now on, as the government struggles to meet burdensome conditions for a US$6.8 billion IMF loan.
With only limited power to force concessions through conventional strike action, workers in Russia will need to defend their interests through a combination of mass protests and organised political campaigning.