By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — With the massacre of real wages since the new year, labour unions in Russia and the other republics of the former Soviet Union are facing the toughest test in their recent history.
The response by union officials to this challenge has rarely been impressive. In many cases where protest strikes and demonstrations have been held, the initiative has clearly come from rank and file members.
In Russia, the union movement has suffered from a grave handicap in the policies and actions of its peak body, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR).
The FNPR is a close lineal descendant of the old union federation of the "stagnation era". Although the new body styles itself as independent, its leaders are widely recognised as having exchanged their subservience to the former Communist Party apparatus for a close client relationship with the Yeltsin regime.
Even now, when Yeltsin is conducting an onslaught on mass living standards, the FNPR leaders refuse to make basic criticisms of the Russian government or to break with its fundamental perspectives.
In an interview published on January 21 in the trade union paper Trud, FNPR president Igor Klochkov stated that his organisation did not oppose the government's economic "reforms".
"Indeed", he said, "we're ready to participate constructively in the radical processes.
"A period of belt-tightening, of lowered living standards, is objectively inevitable.
"But we reject attempts to load all the burdens of the transition to the market on the shoulders of ordinary Russians."
To the extent that the FNPR has campaigned against government actions, its criticisms have been directed almost exclusively against the failure by the state apparatus to enforce various social protection provisions of Yeltsin's price liberalisation decrees. As FNPR vice-president Vasily Romanov complained in an interview published on January 16, the price controls that remain on a few of the most basic consumer items have been widely ignored.
"The trade unions are not against the market", Romanov assured his interviewer. "We do not call for the indefinite freezing of prices on basic consumer goods, but only for the list to be broadened and for controls to continue until wage indexation comes into force."
To back up their demands, the FNPR leaders scheduled a two-hour protest strike for January 27. But despite winning strong support in a poll of 113 member unions, the strike call was revoked after FNPR leaders met on January 24 with representatives of business
organisations. This meeting drafted a resolution on "social
Fortunately, the FNPR leaders do not speak for all the trade unions in Russia. Among organisations that have shown more backbone in defending their members have been the unions in the coal industry.
Almost alone among workers in the former USSR, the coal miners have maintained most of their former buying power. They have achieved this despite leadership corruption scandals and the fragmented nature of the coal industry, in which widely dispersed mining regions operate under strikingly different economic and technical conditions.
Coal miners now average about 4200 roubles a month, while workers at the actual coalface can make as much as 7500 roubles — 10 times the wages that apply in other industries. This is a reflection both of the strategic nature of the coal industry and of the miners' combative traditions. Government leaders tread warily among workers who in 1989 proved their ability to force a halt in large sectors of metallurgical production.
In mid-January the coal basins were again on the boil. Key grievances included the continuing lack of consumer goods, and a price stampede in the cafeterias that forced miners to purchase their meals for as much as 70 roubles — two days' wages for many lower-paid workers. Often, the miners were further enraged by the failure of management to pay wages for December or even, in some cases, November.
The most militant struggles took place in the Karaganda region in northern Kazakhstan, where for some days almost all of the pits were on strike. The Kazakh government dealt with the situation by granting almost all of the miners' demands, which included raising wages to the levels of Russian miners, providing guarantees of future food supplies and allowing the mines to sell 15% of their output at free prices. The miners also won virtually unlimited freedom to decide the legal status of their enterprises.
In Siberia, coal miners went on strike in the Krasnoyarsk region
and in Khakassia. Union leaders in the major coal region of the Kuzbass in Western Siberia declared a "pre-strike situation" while they went to Moscow to press their demands, and miners' leaders from the Vorkuta coalfields in the far north of European Russia were negotiating with the government as well.
Amid economic chaos and hyperinflation, miners in the former USSR have been unwilling to limit their fight to questions of wages and conditions. Often, they have demanded the right to dispose of part of the coal they produce, as a way of ensuring supplies of food and other consumer goods.
The Vorkuta miners have demanded 25% of the metal smelted with Vorkuta coking coal, since metal is more readily exchanged than coal in the primitive barter system which now underpins the Russian economy.
This approach, however, is intensifying regional particularism and has led the miners into a variety of deals founded in bizarre liberal schemes for local salvation. In the Kuzbass, for example, the miners' organisations have put their weight behind a call for the government to declare the region a "free economic zone".
Even the most militant of Russian workers are having to relearn the lessons of workers' unity and class independence. Their road to enlightenment may be a painful one, involving sell-outs and costly defeats.