By Irina Glushchenko
MOSCOW — One of the USSR's most militant workers' organisations has resolved to shift into open political organising and campaigning. At a meeting here on July 17, leaders of the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions (MFP) joined with various left organisations in resolving to establish a Party of Labour.
The project has attracted strong interest from a group of left-wing leaders of the Independent Union of Miners (NPG). One of the largest and most strategically powerful unions in the USSR, the NPG arose out of the huge coal strikes of 1989.
From the 1920s to the early years of perestroika, trade unions were thoroughly subordinated to the state and Communist Party apparatus. The first important changes began to appear in 1989.
Some of the established unions were democratised as new leaders were elected in response to the demands of the ranks for action to defend their rights and living standards. Meanwhile, groups of militant workers, above all the coal miners, broke completely from the existing system and set up new, independent union bodies.
A significant development was the decision by the leadership of the trade unions of the Russian Federation to proclaim the founding of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR). The Russian unions did become independent of the Communist Party, but not of the state. Lining up with the populist coalition backing Boris Yeltsin, the FNPR leaders supported criticisms of Gorbachev and of the central government. However, the FNPR was not prepared to oppose the policies of the Russian government in any serious way.
As living standards have plunged, the FNPR leaders have found it increasingly difficult to pretend to represent workers while backing Yeltsin's pro-capitalist policies. To prove their "militancy", the FNPR leaders in April made a series of demands on the central government and even called for a general strike. However, this strike was not supported by the large trade union organisations in the factories.
Fortunately, the FNPR leadership's tail-ending of Yeltsin has not been the whole story in the established trade union organisations. In a number of key centres, lower-level bodies have pursued sharply different policies.
In Moscow, Leningrad and several other large industrial centres, comparatively free elections brought new people to the leadership
of the organisations. In Leningrad this led to a crisis in the trade union structures, since the renewal of the leadership of the city federation was countered with direct sabotage by the middle echelons of the union officialdom. The leaders of the Leningrad union federation, who were supported by the workers in the factories, could not get funds transferred from the city branch unions. As a result the trade union organisations of the large factories threatened to quit the branch structure and to join the federation as independent members.
The election of new leaders in the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions was followed by extensive structural changes and a marked increase in activity. Before long, the Moscow federation came into sharp conflict with the Communist Party, with the new "democratic" rulers of the city, and with the FNPR. Press articles were published that claimed to unmask the "conservatism" of the MFP, which was failing to express delight at the plans of the "democrats" for sweeping privatisation. The MFP was fighting instead for the indexation of wages and for the retraining of workers threatened with unemployment.
Similar battles between left and right have unfolded in the Independent Union of Miners (NPG). From a very early stage, the all-Union and Russian governments mounted an intense effort to coopt the mining union activists who had emerged in 1989.
The leaders of the strike committees were invited to the Kremlin, and were paid salaries for participating in the work of the commissions that were overseeing the implementation of the agreements between the government and the miners. The strike leaders were invited to Britain, to the US and to Argentina. Politicians of all stripes, who had shown little interest in the problems of the coal industry before the 1989 strikes, began to court the miners, trying to draw them onto their side.
Corruption scandals began to break out. The most serious of these shook the NPG in the summer of 1991, when union president Pavel Shushpanov was accused by his colleagues on the executive bureau of improper use of union funds and of failing to keep financial records.
A commission of inquiry discovered numerous irregularities. Money had been transferred to an account held by the NPG in a failed commercial bank, in order to conceal it from creditors. Accounts had not been kept of hard currency donations from miners in other countries, and the families of union leaders had been living in Moscow at the union's expense.
At about the same time, a mine disaster occurred in the Donbass; 32 miners were killed. Despite a general shortage of funds, the union
signed over 32,000 roubles to the families of the dead workers. Then Shushpanov appeared on the spot and, criticising his "tight-fisted" colleagues for valuing the life of a miner at no more than 1000 roubles, handed over 300,000 to the bereaved. Where the union president had obtained such a sum remained a mystery even to other NPG leaders.
On July 11, the executive bureau of the NPG announced that a split had occurred in the union leadership. Shushpanov's right to sign financial documents on behalf of the union had been withdrawn.
The new disposition of forces within the NPG is likely to become clear at a meeting of the union's Council of Representatives early in August. A layer of militant leaders, close to the rank and file and sympathetic to the call for the establishment of a Party of Labour, is expected to emerge with its position strongly enhanced.
Against this background, union militants have debated direct political organising and agitation. Spurring them on has been the prospect of mass joblessness — a situation in which the ability of unionists to defend their positions solely through industrial action will be sharply reduced.
Also contributing to the new stress on political action has been the need for factory-floor union organisations to take their distance from the FNPR; because the latter is closely linked with Yeltsin and the Russian government, making this break is a highly political task. In its shift away from the FNPR leadership, the MFP in Moscow has drawn considerable sympathy and support from union organisations in other major industrial centres of the Russian republic.
Apart from the MFP, the forces that participated in the July 17 meeting and joined in the call for a Party of Labour included the Socialist Party, the Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists and a layer of Greens.
The environment for a new labour-based left party is anything but favourable. Workers are reeling from drastic cuts in their real wages and from the defection of established leaders to flagrantly anti-working-class positions. In many factories, the mood is one of severe demoralisation.
Most of the potential leaders of a new workers' party have little organisational experience. And above all, there remains the task of developing a program that can protect workers' interests through defending and building upon the elements of democracy and socialism that exist in the USSR — a program that can counteract the lies and evasions of Yeltsin's neo-liberals.
Nevertheless, the recognition that working people need to step into the political arena, not as followers of a demagogic populist but as self-acting members of an independent class movement, represents a major advance.