By Poul Funder Larsen
MOSCOW — While the first autumn snow fell lightly, at least 10,000 people, and up to 50,000 according to some media, assembled on October 23 in the Manezh square in central Moscow. This was the first demonstration in which large numbers of Russian workers have confronted the government of President Boris Yeltsin with its economic and social failures.
The action was called by the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions (MFP) around demands including social protection, control by the labour collectives over privatisation and indexation of wages. Sizeable contingents of workers were present from key economic areas that included machine-building, shipbuilding, communications and transport, defence industries and state administration.
1>Only one Russian tricolor flag was on display, but there were many red banners. The placards brought by participants set the tone: "The enterprises belong to the workers collectives — not to the administrations!" "For reforms that create jobs, not unemployment!" "Gorbachev-Yeltsin — feed and clothe the people!" "We need flats, not fairytales about housing privatisation!" "Free prices equal starvation for the workers!"0>
MFP speakers demanded that the Russian parliament immediately adopt laws pledging collective contracts in the enterprises and the indexation of wages. A shop steward from the large car plant AZLK aroused cheers when he warned of the dangers of the current "pirate privatisation".
A woman trade unionist drew the loudest applause when she outlined the desperate situation of women workers earning as little as 200 roubles a month (the MFP now puts the subsistence level at 510 roubles per month). She went on to attack the speculators and would-be capitalists who take advantage of the shortages, and called on working people to strike to have their demands fulfilled.
This call was endorsed by MFP Chairman Mikhail Shmakov in an interview with Central Television following the demonstration. Boris Yeltsin's political honeymoon is clearly coming to an end.
An important theme in several speeches was the effort by the new rulers of Russia to create a "strong executive power". The less than democratic thrust of this government strategy was again in evidence on the eve of the demonstration, when the protest organisers were denied access to their first choice of venue, the square in front of the Moscow Soviet building.
Another illustration of how the ruling "democrats" view the rights of other forces has been the reluctance of the Moscow City Soviet to include representatives of the trade unions in its Committee on Privatisations. The hypocrisy of the new Russian leadership was pinpointed by Alexander Popov, a city soviet deputy and member of the Socialist Party.
While government leaders were paying lip service to the workers' movement at the Congress of Workers Collectives on October 19 and 20, Popov told the crowd, Yeltsin was preparing decrees on the ending of price controls — a move which will sharply reduce workers' living standards. n