By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — More than half a million employees of the Russian coal industry stopped work for 24 hours on September 6, halting production in 133 of the country's 259 underground mines. The national stoppage was the latest in a series of actions in which workers have made clear that no solution to the country's problems is possible while industry is starved of funding and workers are denied their wages.
Coal miners here have a tradition of militant unity forged in the vast coal strikes of the 1989-1991 period. At that time their main target was the Gorbachev leadership of the USSR. Having done much to weaken the old system and hasten its end, the miners later formed a significant base of support for the pro-capitalist administration of President Boris Yeltsin.
The new regime, however, viewed the support pledged by the miners as an invitation to abuse and exploit them. Agreements on wages and industry subsidies have largely been ignored. Funds for these purposes have often been made available only in part, and months after they have fallen due. Wages are routinely paid a month late, and in some cases miners have been made to wait as much as four months. Lack of essential capital spending has led to endless breakdowns, and has prejudiced safety.
By early this year, the miners' support for Yeltsin had been replaced by indifference or antagonism. Convinced they had been "used", many rank and file mining unionists came to regard all politicians with hostility.
The sense of betrayal was heightened in July when the government began applying its neo-liberal doctrines to the coal industry. On July 1 coal prices were liberalised, and subsidies to the industry were slashed. In August rail freight charges were raised by 120%, followed by a further 25% increase in September.
For large sections of the coal industry, profitable operation became impossible. To cover costs, coal prices in many cases had to be raised beyond the means of major consumers. The latter either reduced their orders or, after taking delivery of coal, failed to pay for it. The increase in freight charges meant that some of Russia's largest and lowest-cost mines, in the Kansk-Achinsk basin in Siberia, became uncompetitive.
Spurred by the huge coal strike in the Ukraine, unrest began breaking out in the Rostov province mines of southern Russia as early as June. By mid-August there was widespread sentiment in favour of a coordinated national stoppage. The simple call for the government to meet its pledges on wages and subsidies formed a powerful mobilising weapon.
From late August, the state became suddenly generous, meeting many of the overdue payments. Nevertheless, a conference on September 2 of regional organisations of the Independent Union of Coal Industry Workers decided to go ahead with a national stoppage four days later. In an interview, union chairperson Vitaly Budko summed up the objectives of the strike:
"In essence we are demanding one thing — the funds needed to preserve the Russian coal industry. Above all, funds for the development of new mines and the reconstruction of existing enterprises, for the materials and equipment needed to create safe working conditions, and to build housing for miners."
In a statement on the day of the strike, the deputy chairperson of the union, Ivan Mokhnachuk, argued that all miners were expressing their moral support for the stoppage. Next day, the pro-Yeltsin newspaper Izvestia sought to refute this claim, headlining its article on the action "Only Half the Russian Mines Struck on Monday".
Mokhnachuk, however, was scarcely exaggerating. If the strike failed to achieve a blanket shutdown of the coal industry, it was not because miners thought the government deserved industrial peace. The key reason that large numbers of mines continued to operate was a belief among their workers that strike action would have little effect because major consumers of coal had built up their stockpiles during August.
An additional reason was the attitude taken by leaders of the smaller of the two coal industry unions, the Independent Union of Miners (NPG). Formed in 1990 on the basis of organisations which arose spontaneously in the 1989 strike, the NPG has aligned itself closely with the Yeltsin government.
In a telegram sent to workplace organisations on August 19, NPG chairperson A. Sergeev urged members not to take part in actions called by other unions. Among the reasons he cited was an expression of intent by the World Bank to finance the restructuring and reform of the Russian coal industry. Sergeev later described the strike as ill timed, claiming that it was directed against a government that was "fulfilling its obligations toward the miners".
For many miners, however, the fact that the strike would have little economic impact was less critical than the need to make a militant protest. Even miners who were unconvinced of the usefulness of the stoppage often went out in solidarity with workmates. Many NPG members stopped work along with members of the rival union. In numerous mines where extractive work continued on September 6, coal loading was deliberately halted. In the Vorkuta coalfield, where local leaders had criticised the decision to call a national strike, four pits stopped work, and a further five ceased loading.
The latest round of struggles in the Russian coal industry has only just begun, and future stoppages may well have the economic impact that was missing on September 6. Izvestia on September 7 quoted unnamed "experts" predicting mass actions by miners in early October. High freight charges, the paper noted, would by that time have cut purchasers' stockpiles.
Meanwhile, the September 6 coal strike has underpinned plans by Russia's mass trade union body, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), to mount a broad campaign of struggles in coming months. The Independent Union of Coal Industry Workers is affiliated to the FNPR.
On September 3 the leadership of the FNPR decided to call a conference on September 28 of representatives of coordinating committees of regional and sectoral union organisations. This conference is expected to work out a plan for "collective action" to include industrial stoppages, protest meetings and demonstrations.