Russian Labour, Autumn's of Discontent

We publish this article by Renfrey Clarke, the Moscow- based left wing journalist, about the present situation of the labour movement. We think the article not only provides us with a lot of information supressed in the Western press about the current wave of strikes in Russia but also contributes to the debate about the challenges facing the Russian working class.

We publish this article by Renfrey Clarke, the Moscow-based left wing journalist, about the present situation of the labour movement. We think the article not only provides us with a lot of information but also contributes to the debate about the challenges facing the Russian working class.

MOSCOW - Unpaid in many cases for months, large numbers of Russian workers are spoiling for a fight. After record-setting levels of strike activity during the first half of 1997, the autumn has seen a renewed rise in labour struggles. The bitterest of these disputes - in the Maritime District of the Russian Far East during September - brought much of the regional economy to a near-standstill.

In almost all these struggles, wage arrears have been a key element. But in a growing number of cases, the clashes have also involved issues that are familiar fare for labour activists in the West. Amid the pressures of the capitalist market, employers are making increasingly blunt calls for long-established benefits to be surrendered and for jobs to be slashed. The traditional relationships of the Russian workplace, based on paternalism and on concepts of "partnership" between management and labour, are slipping into history.

If statements by union leaders are to be believed, the changes in the industrial climate will now be reflected in a major shift of orientation by Russia's mass labour organisation, the 50- million-member Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR). Talking to journalists in mid-October, FNPR chairperson Mikhail Shmakov indicated that the FNPR's strategies were now being redirected away from attempts to influence federal government authorities. Instead, the emphasis would be on winning disputes with specific employers, mainly in the provincial areas where most Russian industry is located. "The centre of the struggle for the rights of workers now has to be shifted to the regions," the newspaper Trud on October 15 quoted Shmakov as saying.

According to figures from the State Statistics Committee, the number of strikes in Russia in the first half of this year was five times greater than in the corresponding period of 1996. The number of participants was up by three times, amounting to about 3 per cent of Russia's total employed population. By far the most numerous group among the strikers were teachers, who in some cases had gone unpaid for more than six months.

Concern in the Kremlin at the potential for labour revolt increased in March when the FNPR called an all-Russian day of protest, around demands that included the prompt payment of back wages. The labour federation claimed that as many as two million workers joined in the protests, either striking, demonstrating or participating in workplace meetings.

After this, the government's attitude to unpaid budget-sector workers became more accommodating. A presidential decree in July ordered all back wages to state employees to be paid by January 1. On September 1 Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Sysuev claimed that the government had begun "intensive work" to pay off the wage debts to teachers.

Sysuev insisted, however, that half the funds for back wages would have to be found by the authorities in Russia's 89 administrative regions. Meanwhile, large numbers of teachers refused to front up to classes until their wages were brought up to date. Russia's main education trade union reported that when 1 the educational year began on September 1, some 1130 schools were shut because of strikes.

Forcing tax arrears out of large corporations, and selling off state assets, the government has in fact made big inroads into the budget-sector wage debt. There are doubts, however, that this debt will be reduced much further; federal tax collection in the first nine months of this year was only 52 per cent of target. Meanwhile, the overall wage backlog has not fallen significantly. In recent months it has been more or less static at 54-55 trillion rubles (about US$9.2 billion).

With workers across broad swathes of industry still denied their earnings, labour actions have resumed strongly after the customary summer lull. The Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta on October 4 spoke of "almost incessant" strike activity in various regions of the country. In the Kuzbass heavy industrial region of Siberia, coal miners struck during September in the cities of Prokopyevsk and Berezovsky. The most notable actions, however, have been in the Maritime District.

Notorious for its erratic, populist leadership and corrupt administration, the Maritime District has long suffered from problems with its energy sector. Here, the impact of non-payments by district authorities and federal military installations has been augmented by losses due to a criminalised energy wholesaling system; the latter has allowed resellers to cream off much of the revenue from electricity sales. As a result, both power station workers and the coal miners who supply the district's generating facilities with fuel have gone unpaid for long periods.

On August 11 the 3000 workers at the Luchegorsk open pit, which provides 40 per cent of the Maritime District's coal, stopped loading supplies for non-paying customers. On September 14 all extractive activities at Luchegorsk were halted. Workers in the district's other mines then stopped loading coal. On the evening of September 16 more than 500 miners and energy workers picketed administrative offices in the district capital, Vladivostok. As energy officials debated whether to burn winter coal reserves, power station repair workers joined in the stoppage. Power cuts in Vladivostok soon reached twelve hours per day.

The Luchegorsk miners went back to work on October 1 after receiving 17 billion rubles ($2.9 million) in back wages, and after federal officials had intervened with moves to reform the Maritime District's energy payments system.

Another recent victory has been scored by Russian air traffic controllers. On September 29 members of the Federation of Trade Unions of Air Traffic Controllers began an indefinite national strike over wage arrears and efforts by the Federal Aviation Service to cut annual leave entitlements. About 50 airports were affected. The strikers' triumph was swift; an hour after the stoppage began, aviation service chiefs agreed to the workers' demands.

Relatively few workers in Russia have the strategic muscle of the miners or air traffic controllers. Often, their most effective weapons are pickets, hunger strikes, and bluntly worded denunciations of government policy. Typical of such protests have been actions in recent weeks by scientific workers.

Nuclear weapons designers and assemblers, who are legally banned from striking, have held protest meetings and threatened stoppages in at least three centres. The nuclear workers charge that pay delays of three and four months, together with shortages of essential funding, are jeopardising safety. On October 1 thousands of researchers of the Russian Academy of Sciences picketed government offices in a long series of cities. As well as calling for increases in the allocations for science in the 1998 federal budget, the scientists were demanding that the government pay debts to the academy still owing from 1996.

An ominous political sign for the government has been labour ferment in the 1700 enterprises of the devastated "military- industrial complex". The government owes the defence plants some 19 trillion rubles (US$3.2 billion), and the plants in turn owe their workers the equivalent of close to a billion dollars in back wages. Defence workers held protest meetings and pickets in numerous Russian cities during the second half of September. In Moscow several hundred representatives of defence enterprise labour collectives picketed federal government offices for three days from September 22.

The tempo of labour struggles now seems to be accelerating. Interviewed by the news agency RIA-Novosti on October 2, FNPR secretary Andrey Isaev reported that 13 of the federation's territorial and sectoral affiliates were calling for indefinite strikes. These affiliates included trade union federations in St Petersburg and Murmansk; in Yaroslavl, Sverdlovsk, Omsk and Sakhalin provinces; and in the Altai district of Siberia. Also demanding resolute strike action were workers in the defence, radio-electronic and aviation industries. Another 14 affiliates pledged their willingness to organise protest marches, rallies and pickets.

In the more notable labour actions this year, the ultimate targets have mostly been the federal government and its austerity policies. But more than 80 per cent of wage debts are now owed by privatised companies, allowing the government and its supporters to claim that workers are misdirecting their protests.

To win payouts from private firms in the past, FNPR unions have mostly sought to join with management in placing pressure on the government. Together with enterprise directors, union leaders have called on the state authorities to pay for goods delivered and to grant subsidies or other forms of relief. Meanwhile, workers have often been convinced that the "inability to pay" of these employers has been fraudulent.

The approach to defaulting employers obviously needs to be much tougher, and to listen to FNPR leaders, an age of determined, factory-by-factory struggles for wage arrears is now to dawn. Outlining the FNPR's new orientation at the beginning of October, federation secretary Isaev noted that it was no longer rare for unions in Russia to take on private employers in more-or-less classic industrial disputes. Isaev cited struggles at the Ryazan Electronic Devices plant south-east of Moscow, where workers are demanding the dismissal of the director, and also at the Novomoskovsky Household Chemicals plant in Tula Province, 200 km south of the Russian capital. The Novomoskovsky plant has been taken over by the US firm Procter and Gamble, which is trying to shut down several production sections and cut 700 employees.

The union at the Novomoskovsky plant has fought the bosses tooth and nail, but it remains to be shown that the FNPR leadership is correspondingly serious. The FNPR leaders have not, for example, posed an obvious demand: that non-paying employers hand over all their financial records for scrutiny by workers. At best, Shmakov and his colleagues seem intent on leading their fight against delinquent employers from behind, coordinating initiatives taken by local union bodies.

Meanwhile, labour activists have been dismayed to find that the FNPR has not called another all-Russian day of protest for the current autumn. This is despite the fact that the government's wage debt remains massive. The FNPR leadership's shift thus looks suspiciously like an excuse to relax the pressure the federation has until now placed on the government, while failing to develop serious campaigns in other areas.

Derelictions by the FNPR leaders will not necessarily have the effect of demobilising worker activism. The thinking of Russian workers may now be reaching a point where no efforts to stifle workplace militancy would have much effect. For months, the pro- government media have been trumpeting the argument that the economy has "bottomed out", and that recovery is at hand. Although there is no hard evidence of material improvement, surveys point to a lift in the popular mood. In the history of economic depressions in the West, it has been at this point, when confidence in the future has begun to revive, that millions of workers have decided: "Now there has to be something for us!"

Paradoxically, the lack of vigorous leadership from the FNPR is causing some of the more thoughtful supporters of Russian capitalism real disquiet. "Convinced of the powerlessness of their trade union leaders," Trud wrote on September 18, "workers are beginning to look for defenders in the ranks of left political parties, among extremist figures and groups."

Fears that radicalised workers will flock into the ranks of the Stalinist-nationalist opposition are almost certainly misplaced. But in conditions of rising confidence and militancy, the increasing politicisation of the Russian labour movement is inevitable. The autumn and winter hold the prospect not just of big, hard-fought strikes, but also that workers will make progress toward creating a political leadership that defends their interests consistently and effectively.