By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — Remarkable events have unfolded in the Ukraine since early June. A huge wave of strikes has forced President Leonid Kravchuk to endorse the call for a vote on confidence in his rule. The country's parliament has been placed under intense popular pressure to submit to fresh elections. Workers throughout the former "eastern bloc" have been given an example of how to reply to the demands and threats of politicians out to "reform" society so that it can serve capital.
The strikes have centred on the country's eastern provinces, in the Donbass — the coal mining region that was formerly one of the USSR's main energy sources. In 1989 the Donbass miners were a key element in the coal strikes that critically weakened the Soviet regime.
The miners have maintained a high level of organisation and struggle ever since. Conditions in the mines are primitive and dangerous. Wages are often paid many weeks late, by which time they have lost much of their value due to rapid inflation.
The miners and their main union, the Independent Union of Mineworkers of the Ukraine, have learned that workers need to rely on their own strength, instead of trusting the promises of politicians. In this respect, they are ahead of the leaders of the main Russian mining union, who have alienated themselves from their rank and file by slavishly supporting Boris Yeltsin and his policies.
The class consciousness of the Donbass miners appeared unmistakably in a meeting on May 28 in Donetsk, the main city of the Donbass, of representatives of miners' work collectives in Donetsk province. In the words of a correspondent of the Labour Information Centre KAS-KOR, "The miners characterised the policies of the government as anti-popular, and as being aimed at defending the interests of a narrow circle of the old and new nomenklatura. The actions of the parliament were seen as unsatisfactory,
representing 'a mix of communist populism and totalitarian nationalism'."
This meeting adopted a range of political and economic demands. The delegates demanded an all-Ukrainian referendum on confidence in the president and the parliament. Later, miners' leaders modified this demand, calling for the parliament to be dissolved and re-elected.
A further demand was for the granting of autonomy to Donetsk Province. This reflected local anger at discrimination in taxation matters, and exasperation at the way in which Ukrainian customs restrictions were obstructing the province's formerly close economic relations with neighbouring regions of Russia.
The drop which caused the miners' cup finally to spill over came on June 4, when the government decreed price increases of 300% to 500% on basic foodstuffs such as bread, milk and meat. Spontaneous strikes began on June 7. October Square in Donetsk became the site of near-permanent demonstrations and political meetings.
Over the following days almost all of the Donetsk mines, and many in nearby provinces, joined the strike. Workers in numerous other branches of industry began walking off the job as well. By June 14, 214 of 246 coal mines in the Ukraine, 52 related plants and more than 100 enterprises in other sectors were on strike.
The strikers' demands were expanded to include the indexation of wages, pensions and bank savings, as well as guarantees that all payments would be made promptly. Eventually, however, the strikers decided to de-emphasise their economic demands in favour of the political ones, reasoning that economic promises were worthless while the political structures remained unchanged.
The Ukrainian government has considerable experience of buying off miners' struggles. In the past, making concessions even served the government's ends by ensuring that the miners' wages — roughly twice the national average — marked them off from other workers as a privileged layer. Now, the authorities
began announcing a list of tax cuts for coal industry workers and credits for mining enterprises.
The decision by the strikers to concentrate on political issues short-circuited this strategy. A week into the strike, the parliament was forced to conduct a lengthy heated debate on the strikers' demands. President Kravchuk endorsed the call for a referendum and elections, but urged a date in December or January rather than September, as favoured by the miners. With less chance than Kravchuk of retaining their posts, the parliamentarians temporised.
Ten days after it began, the strike remained solid, a remarkable achievement when even well-paid workers rarely have significant savings. On June 17 the parliament finally agreed that a referendum on confidence in the president and the legislature would be held on September 26. However, the strikers' demand for fresh parliamentary elections was not met.
The political ferment surrounding the strike has caused many issues to be debated with a concreteness which the country's political elites would rather avoid. In the meetings on October Square in Donetsk, a recurrent demand was for workers' control over the privatisation process.
Workers have also begun acting on the need for broader and more developed coordination between their collectives. On June 15 it was reported that representatives of labour collectives in Donetsk, Lugansk and Dnepropetrovsk provinces supported the idea of forming a coordinating organ on an inter-industry, inter-regional level. A planning meeting had been called.
Ethnic antagonisms have not become a major issue in the strike, despite accusations by Ukrainian nationalists that the miners' demand for regional autonomy is aimed at taking the country's eastern provinces out of the Ukraine and into the Russian Federation. The miners are of extremely diverse national origins, but are mainly Russian-speaking. They have learned to defuse ethnic tensions by stressing workers' common class interests.
In the parliament, members of the Ukrainian
nationalist bloc argued vehemently against the call for a referendum.
The strikers' clear demands are forcing the country's ruling layers to be more open about their own positions. Addressing parliament on June 15, Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma threatened that if the government currently needed only emergency economic powers to save the state, in a month's time political dictatorship would be necessary.