By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — Since the end of July, the Russian government has been challenged by the largest wave of strikes since the coal industry struggles of 19891991. Even more impressive than the size of the actions has been the range of workers involved — the broadest since the 1917 revolution.
Once again, coal miners have been in the front ranks of the labour movement offensive. But the groups that have moved into struggle include timber workers, defence industry workers, television and radio employees, public transport workers, health workers — and even weather forecasters.
An important new feature has been the mounting of coordinated regional strike actions. In the Primorye Territory on the Pacific coast, a general stoppage on August 10 brought an estimated 600,000 workers out in protest against crippling increases in electricity charges.
Probably the most crucial new development, however, has been the shift by the leadership of Russia's mass trade union federation to direct, active opposition to the government. After lengthy efforts at collaboration with the Yeltsin regime resulted only in broken promises, leaders of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) several months ago began developing a "Plan of Collective Action". This is intended as a coordinated strategy for the defence of workers' rights, aimed at maximising the labour movement's political and legal strengths and culminating, if necessary, in massive strike action later this year.
Since President Boris Yeltsin launched his campaign of procapitalist "reforms" in January 1992, workers in Russia have seen their secure and modestly comfortable living standards replaced, in many cases, by stark poverty and the threat of starvation should illness or unemployment strike. Until recently, however, protests were astonishingly muted. The government's argument that the pain of "shock therapy" would in time be followed by stabilisation and recovery — an argument plugged relentlessly in the proYeltsin mass media — was broadly accepted.
It is fair to say that this belief was shared by most trade union leaders — and not only in the small, outspokenly progovernment "free" union movement. Until well into 1993 the strategy of the FNPR, which covers a large majority of Russian wage workers, was concentrated on the Tripartite Commission set up by Yeltsin as a forum for consultation between the government and representatives of employers and labour.
Workers patience runs out
By early this summer, however, the willingness of the Russian public to give the government's policies "time to work" was running out. The conviction was spreading that "shock therapy" could produce only stagnation. In a poll taken early in August, only 26% of respondents indicated that they "approved of the policies of the president". Union leaders, meanwhile, were listening attentively to economists who used orthodox Western theory to produce damning criticisms of the government's "market fundamentalist" approach.
By this time as well, large numbers of union activists had come to see Yeltsin and his ministers as antiworker and persistently treacherous.
The president routinely ignored his pledge that major policy initiatives would be discussed in advance on the Tripartite Commission. As time went on, direct demands by the FNPR for talks with government leaders were increasingly snubbed. The regime also systematically violated legally binding wage agreements. In a practice clearly designed to bolster its "tight money" policies, the government provided finance for the payment of wages months late, often failing to provide the full sum.
During the early summer, the FNPR leadership was forced rapidly to the left — as much as anything else, by the fear that unless the union movement mounted a coordinated campaign, workers would move spontaneously into struggle in a chaotic process that would lead to exhaustion and defeat.
The initial stages of the fightback did, indeed, consist mainly of spontaneous sectoral struggles. In late June coal miners conducted spirited pickets of government offices in Moscow, demanding prompt fulfilment of the industry wages agreement. Timber workers, who had been in a state of "prestrike readiness" since May 25, followed up with pickets early in July.
The first massive and coordinated action was a onehour warning strike on July 29 by workers at more than 100 defence complex plants in the Urals region, demanding that the provisions of the law governing the conversion of military to civilian production be met in full.
On August 9 coal miners in Rostov Province in southern Russia held a regional stoppage that shut down 38 pits for 24 hours. Workers at a number of coal enterprises in the Kuzbass in Western Siberia halted shipments in sympathy. As well as demanding that the government fulfil the sectoral wage agreement, the miners were protesting against a dramatic increase on August 1 in rail freight charges.
Together with the withdrawal in July of coal price subsidies, the new freight charges will make coal supplies in Russia so expensive that according to one calculation, Russianproduced metals will cost from 40 to 80% above world prices. As many as 70% of metallurgical plants face bankruptcy — and along with them, large sections of the coal industry.
On the Pacific coast, the raising of electricity prices to levels 20 times the Russian average will have an analogous impact. The twohour stoppage on August 10 shut down at least 360 enterprises in almost all the cities and towns of the Primorye Territory. Thousands of workers took part in angry public meetings. A coordinating council has now been set up to organise "united actions" by workers in the provinces ssian Far East.
On August 12, designated by the Agrarian Union and the Union of Agro Industrial Complex Workers as the "Day of Defence of the Peasants", farmworkers demonstrated in a number of Russian cities. According to police estimates, 15,000 people took part in a picket in Moscow demanding increased credits for agriculture, lower taxes, and measures to end the disadvantageous relationship of agricultural prices to those of industrial products.
As the political temperature rises, old struggles are now coming back onto the boil, and formerly passive groups of workers are moving into action. The timber workers, whose sector employs two million people, have threatened a twoday strike if promised subsidies are not received by the end of August. Health workers have given the government until September 1 to respond to their demands. Train drivers on the Moscow metro will strike over work conditions unless the results of hearings in a conciliation commission are satisfactory. Citing an intolerable lack of financing for their work, weather forecasters in Siberia and the Far East planned to begin a stoppage on August 20. Radio and television workers were due to strike on August 23.
As in previous years, the critical group of workers in the new round of struggles is likely to be the experienced, relatively wellorganised coal miners. On August 12 a leadership plenum of the Independent Union of Coal Industry Workers declared a state of prestrike readiness, promising a Russiawide coal strike on September 6 unless the government met its obligations under the sectoral wage agreement.
The situation in the coal enterprises is complicated, however, by divisions within the workforce. Most coal face workers are members not of the Independent Union of Coal Industry Workers, which is affiliated to the FNPR, but of the Independent Union of Mineworkers (NPG). The NPG, which arose in 1990 out of disillusionment with the "official" union structures, has in the past given strong support to Yeltsin. In a recent interview, NPG Deputy Chairperson Sultan Mamedov declared his union's "fundamental disagreement" with any attempt to force the resignation of the government.
Have the NPG ranks left their leaders behind in this respect? Russians are likely soon to find out. Yeltsin, to say the least, should not be confident.
Throughout August, unions have worked with encouragement from the FNPR to set up regional and sectoral strike committees. In close touch with the rank and file, these committees have been assigned a key role in the FNPR's "Plan of Collective Action".
As explained in an article in the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta on August 11, the plan involves a vigorous drive to build an allRussian conference of strike committees, to be held in Moscow in midSeptember. Yeltsin, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, and hasbulatov will be invited to attend, in order to defend their actions and hear the views of workers.
Simultaneously, a Supreme Court suit will be launched, calling high officials to book for their failure to implement wage agreements and for other breaches of labour legislation. Assuming that the government does not meet its obligations in the meantime, the union movement by midOctober will have in its hands both the political and legal weapons it needs for unleashing a concerted campaign of strikes.
The unions' demands, needless to say, will not be purely economic. As FNPR deputy chairperson Vasily Romanov told journalists in midAugust, "if the government continues to ignore the demand of the trade unions that it sit down at the negotiating table, one of our slogans will be the call for the resignation of the present cabinet."
Yeltsin, of course, has his own plans for the coming autumn — above all, a clash with the parliament that he hopes will sweep the legislature into oblivion along with the present constitution. But like most totalitarian fantasies, this leaves the population out of account, or assigns them the role only of applauding spectators.
The developments in the Russian trade union movement during the past months suggest a quite distinct scenario, in which the main obstacle to the president's ambitions is not the "conservative, Sovietera" parliament, but millions of angry, mobilised workers. That is an opposition of a very different calibre.