Russian unions prepare for a hard life

December 11, 1991

By Peter Annear

MOSCOW — "As economic laws operate, it is very difficult to work out what laws are governing the defence of labour" under the new "democratic" system, says Mikhail Nagaitsev, vice-president of the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions. Workers are facing a very bleak time indeed.

At current average wage levels, 5.5 million Muscovites are living below the poverty line, and even Yeltsin's promised wage rises will not help. By next year, a million people in the Russian capital alone will be unemployed — especially unskilled workers and intellectual and highly skilled workers, with most job losses in construction and in defence plants.

Women will be much worse affected than men, a reality already evident in statistics, mainly because sectors bearing the brunt of wage and job losses — education, health and technical jobs in Union ministries now closed — are staffed overwhelmingly by women.

Mayor Gavriil Popov's Moscow administration has so far ignored the union federation's demand for 75 million roubles for social provisions and the defence of workers' rights, including benefits for the unemployed, public works to provide jobs and retraining.

"Like a child born in agony" was how Nagaitsev described the law on wage indexation adopted by the Russian parliament on October 24. The federation had fought Yeltsin's government for nine months, and the law was still inadequate.

Reasonable negotiations began with Yeltsin only after threatened strike action in April. Direct action was again posed on September 18, when the draft law was removed from the parliamentary agenda, prompting the federation to prepare an all-Moscow strike. The federation covers most of Moscow's 6 million workers.

State employers are also getting the message. For example, "when a strike at a large car plant breached the legal provisions, the management sued the union for 5 million roubles, but the union won the case. This was a great school for us in tactics." Moreover, the actions persuaded the Moscow government to enter negotiations for an agreement covering city employees.

Because the Russian government has not yet presented a clear program for privatisation — which currently proceeds in a savage, arbitrary and spontaneous manner — the federation is unable to draft a counter-proposal, but it is demanding at least that committees on privatisation include representatives of trade unions.

"Our basic demand for privatised small enterprises is that the primary right to ownership should be with the current workforce, through the work collectives", said Nagaitsev. In practice, the government has shown it is incompetent to run the large enterprises, so if a harsh wartime economy is not imposed, the only option is democratisation, he argued. Because they face similar problems, unions from major industrial cities including Moscow recently agreed to form an association, a move that signals a potential showdown inside the pro-Yeltsin Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions. But the Moscow federation leadership has already recognised that militant union organisation alone will be insufficient.

"The evolution of the economic situation has shown that the labour movement needs its own political support, just to operate normally. We analysed the programs of all the parties and political movements, about 130 in all, but not one focussed on the defence of union interests. So we proposed the formation of the Party of Labour as a party of a democratic type with the specific aim of defending the interests of workers."

Nagaitsev warns that, "under conditions in which everything fell apart and there was total economic collapse and anarchy, then the unions would go under as well, and if there was an authoritarian, totalitarian regime the unions could not survive. The unions need a normal democratic situation in order to exist and operate. However, the danger of a right-wing authoritarian regime is a genuine one."
[Mikhail Nagaitsev was interviewed in Moscow for Green Left Weekly by Renfrey Clarke, Sally Low and Peter Annear.]

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