By Renfrey Clarke MOSCOW — Coal miners in Ukraine returned to work on February 16 after one of the hardest-fought strikes in the former Soviet republic in recent years. The resumption of work followed an agreement by the government to negotiate with the miners on their demand for the payment of wages owing since October, and after an initial pay-out offer had been substantially increased. The government continued to resist miners' demands for major new investment to revive the country's decaying, accident-prone coal industry. In this, the authorities took their cue from the International Monetary Fund, whose negotiators were holding talks with government officials while the strike was at its height. Along with the World Bank, the IMF favours widespread mine closures in Ukraine. The miners have had to mount repeated struggles to force the government to sign over money to pay their wages, now reduced by inflation to the equivalent of US$50-75 a month. A coal stoppage in 1993 forced then President Leonid Kravchuk to call an early election, which he lost. A further strike in December 1994 ended with the government agreeing to pay US$270 million in wage arrears. During 1995 the government drastically reduced its subsidies to loss-making mines and drew up plans to close 38 pits employing 40,000 miners. Economists pointed out that the cost to the state of supporting large numbers of jobless miners would make it cheaper to keep the mines open. In the event, all of Ukraine's 250 or so coal mines have continued to operate. But as the government tries to meet insistent IMF demands for reductions in the state budget deficit, miners' wages have fallen repeatedly under the cost-cutters' axe. By late January, the coal unions put the total unpaid wage bill at the equivalent of US$122 million. Some disability payments to injured miners had not been paid since July.
The strike began on February 1. On the morning of February 2, a total of 142 mines, accounting for more than 70% of industry output, were reported to have shut down entirely. At almost all the remaining mines, workers were refusing to load coal for shipment. Trade union sources put the number of miners and other coal industry employees on strike as high as 800,000. The stoppage affected pits not just in the traditionally militant, mainly Russian-speaking Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, but also the mines of Lviv province in the Ukrainian-speaking west. On February 1 protest meetings in the Lviv province coalfields drew a reported 15,000 participants. On February 5, with the strike solid, some 1000 delegates from mines throughout Ukraine gathered in the Donbass centre of Donetsk and announced that the stoppage would continue until the government joined talks on settling the conflict. As well as payment of wages owed, the miners were demanding that the government pledge the equivalent of US$1.5 billion in subsidies in order to renovate the industry. The strikers had caught the government at a vulnerable moment. Ukraine during the first half of February was in the grip of the most sustained period of intensely cold weather in half a century. Electricity production, dependent largely on accident-prone nuclear plants and imports of Russian oil and gas, was on the brink of collapse. If coal-fired generating plants were forced to cease operating for lack of fuel, widespread industrial shutdowns were inevitable — and the cost to government revenues could easily exceed that of meeting the miners' pay claims. Accordingly, the government's offers to the miners began to creep upward. Initially, deputy prime minister Vasyl Yevtukhov told parliament that the equivalent of US$21 million had been allocated for paying miners' wages. Ministers stated that additional funds would have to come from outside the budget. Coal industry customers, including coking plants and electricity generating plants, are said by the government to owe the mines a total of US$320 million. As the energy situation grew more critical, the government's financial possibilities seemed mysteriously to increase. On February 8, as 5000 miners demonstrated in Donetsk, Prime Minister Yevhen Marchuk was quoted as saying that the miners would get no more than the sum — put by him at the equivalent of US$79 million — already pledged. This, however, was still less than two-thirds of the sum the miners were demanding as a minimum.
A few days later, the feared energy crunch arrived. On February 12 the Russian government cut off electricity sales after the frequency of the current in the Ukrainian network fell to critical levels. Extended blackouts followed in most areas of Ukraine. In the industrial centre of Dnipropetrovsk, electricity supplies were cut by 40%, forcing the closure of most plants. By this time, threats and promises from the government had eroded the strike to the point where the miners were no longer capable of forcing a decisive victory. On February 13 union sources reported that 40 mines remained fully shut down, with workers in another 87 refusing to load coal. The government's options were limited by an extensive solidarity movement. On February 14 it was reported that the Coordinating Council of Trade Unions of the Machine Building and Defence Complex, and the Association of Trade Unions of Basic Industrial Sectors, had called for an all- Ukrainian protest action on February 21. This was to include a general one-hour stoppage, around demands that included meeting the miners' claims. Nevertheless, the miners were forced to drop their call for massive state support to the coal industry, and to limit their demands to the payment of wage arrears. On February 16, with 25 mines still fully on strike, the miners' leaders announced that they had decided to suspend the stoppage and take up a government offer of talks.
The miners' movement has emerged from another hard-fought conflict with its militant traditions and popular backing recharged. For the government and the IMF, eager for the implementation of a long list of anti-worker policies, the combativity in the mining centres presents an obstacle that will not be easily overcome. But the steady collapse of the Ukrainian coal industry places a question mark over the miners' longer-term prospects. The output of Ukraine's coal mines fell by a further 11% in 1995, to a figure less than half that of 1990. Once a leading centre of the Soviet coal industry, Ukraine is now a coal importer. The refusal of the government to invest in the coal industry has made work in the mines mortally hazardous. On February 18, three miners in the Donetsk region drowned when a cage was lowered into a shaft that had filled unexpectedly with water. The miners' deaths brought the number of fatalities in the Ukrainian mines this year to 43. Even as output has plunged, the death toll has risen.