The Multinational Monitor



Class Struggle in the Soviet Union

by Jonathan Dunn

With the Soviet Union devolving into economic chaos, worker unrest is rapidly intensifying. Leonid Abalkin, one of President Mikhail Gorbachev's most influential advisers, reports that "as a result of ongoing strikes, up to 130,000 people were not working every day in the first quarter of [1990]--twice as many as in September of last year when the number of strikes was at its peak [for that year]." Many observers suspect current strike activity portends much greater worker unrest in the near future.

The declarations of sovereignty by legislative bodies in 13 of the 15 Soviet republics signal Moscow's diminishing influence over the tide of events in the U.S.S.R. After decades of rigid control by a monolithic Communist Party apparatus, new groups are emerging as significant political factions. Potentially one of the most powerful is the increasingly vocal labor movement.

Signs of workers' discontent surfaced this summer, as party officials convened in Moscow for the 28th Communist Party Congress. Coal miners from 11 pits in the rugged Arctic town of Vorkuta walked off the job for a one-day strike. The workers struck to demonstrate their anger with the government's failure to fulfil promises of increased investment in safety equipment, housing and consumer goods.

Government promises of improved working and living conditions came in response to strikes by coal miners which swept through the Soviet Union in 1989, in perhaps the most dramatic display of growing discontent among the nation's industrial workforce. The miners struck to protest declining standards of living and workplace safety. (The rate of fatal accidents has risen 50 percent over the last 10 years.) Fearing the impact of production losses on critically low supplies of fuel for factories and households, Gorbachev and Prime Minister Ryzhkov placated the miners with Council of Ministers Resolution No. 608, which promised improved material and safety conditions. But a year later, the miners are still waiting for economic aid to arrive.

Now, however, their demands are no longer focused solely on economic assistance. As one Soviet commentator put it, "the workers' movement in this country has entered a new phase. It is already shaping up into a solid political tendency with strongly anti-communist feelings." The evolution of workers' discontent from economic to political demands is reflected in the resolution adopted by strikers participating in this summer's work stoppage. Their demands included: the resignation of the Ryzhkov government; the removal of Party and Komsomol (the Party's youth organization) committees from workplaces; preparations for the creation of an independent union; and the recall of representatives to the new Congress of People's Deputies who ran unopposed and gained membership solely because of their position in some public organization. The strikers also declared their support for Gorbachev's rival, Boris Yeltsin.

Unleashing labor

Since their incorporation into the state apparatus soon after the 1917 Revolution, trade unions have played little formal role in labor policy issues such as setting wages. Rather, their main functions have been promoting labor productivity through the enforcement of workplace discipline and providing workers with recreational activities designed to maintain labor peace.

With their leadership carefully screened by the Party and legally deprived of the right to strike, workers have had little or no reason to look to unions as defenders of rank-and-file interests. As the leader of the Fish Industry Union, V. Kuzmenok notes, "The state, being a monopolistic buyer of labor, kept the trade unions on a short leash." Yet, as long as central authorities maintained an ability to deliver on some of their promises to provide housing, food items hard to find in shops and recreational facilities, worker dissatisfaction with the existing trade union structure was manageable.

In the past year, however, many Soviet workers, like the miners who waited so long for the state to deliver on its promises, have determined that the government can no longer be relied on as an adequate source of housing, food and other benefits. Furthermore, political reforms have encouraged the rank and file to question and even reject the traditional anti-democratic practices of Soviet trade unions. Consequently, the rank and file have pressured trade unions to reorganize and redefine their mission.

Meanwhile, union leaders are beginning to distance themselves from the discredited central State and Party apparatus which they fear may become more a political liability than an asset. At a recent roundtable discussion among local and national union leaders from around the country held shortly before the Party Congress, G. Yanayev, chairman of the All-Union Central Committee of Trade Unions, declared, "We must reject the notion that the trade unions are a school of management, a school of control, a 'school of communism'--this has bound the trade unions to the chariot of the party-state system of control." Anticipating the end of the Communist Party's monopoly on political power, Yanayev added that "the degree of engagement with regard to any one political party or another should be determined by the way their platform corresponds to our idea of social justice and the protection of workers' interests."

Breaking away

Despite the repositioning of leaders of the official trade unions, declining worker support for the Party-affiliated trade union organizations is coinciding with the breakup of the Party's monopoly on state power. In the Russian Republic and elsewhere, workers are forming independent unions and asserting their new-found political power. The largest of the new labor organizations, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FITU) of the Russian Republic, was established in March 1990 and is reported to already include 45 million workers. The rapid growth of independent unions reflects the reluctance of the Party and federal government to clearly redefine the role of the existing trade unions.

The independent unions' support of opposition figures has had an important impact on the country's politics. Support from FITU and an increasingly irate Russian working class helped Boris Yeltsin overcome substantial opposition on his way to becoming president of the Russian Republic. Yeltsin's condemnation of the government's plan to push ahead with substantial price hikes on basic food items, harsh attacks on the administrative elite and promises to protect the interests of "the average worker" have attracted widespread working class support. In the weeks following his dramatic exit from the Party Congress (including resignation from the Party itself), Yeltsin set out to tour the heartland of the Russian Republic. The trip included an excursion down a mine shaft at Vorkuta and numerous rallies to convey this commitment to defending the interests of the workers as he leads the republic into the initial phase of his 500-day plan for transition to a "market economy."

Coping with the market

Yeltsin's concern about the impact of economic reforms on Soviet workers is echoed by leaders of emerging independent unions as well as leaders of the traditional unions fearful of losing rank and file support. In his address to this summer's Party Congress, Yanayev stated, "The trade unions are in favor of market relations, but we believe it is necessary to examine various alternative options for the transition to the market.... We are for a stage-by-stage transition to market relations without any version of 'shock therapy,' which might turn out to be 'a shock without the therapy' for the people." Declaring that "we must not idealize the market," Yanayev cautioned, "There will be mass unemployment. There will be inflation, super- inflation, and a sharp drop in the workers' standard of living.... We already have 80 million workers on the verge of poverty."

Estimates vary widely as to how many workers could be displaced by the government's plan to implement a market economy, ranging from conservative projections of 5 to 10 million to Yanayev's claim of 21 million. Government spokespeople such as Abalkin and Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, the point person for the current leadership's plans, deny that massive unemployment is inevitable. Many Soviet workers, however, agree with V. Borodin, head of the Chemical and Petrochemical Industry Trade Union, that "the government is looking for a way out of the economic crisis and has taken the easiest path--to place all the weight on the shoulders of the workers."

Ryzhkov, Abalkin and other leading government officials have tried several tactics in their attempt to dispel fears of massive unemployment. First, the leadership has backed away from its open support for a swift transformation of the economy. Second, leading economic policy-makers argue that the growth of long-neglected sectors of the economy, particularly the service sector and consumer goods production, will counterbalance widespread closure of unprofitable industrial plants. Third, they note that demographic trends have already reduced population growth rates, especially among the Slavic--Russian, Ukranian, Byelorussian--and Baltic populations, which make up the largest share of the industrial workforce. A tighter labor market in the coming decade will improve the chances for displaced workers to find employment elsewhere, they argue. Finally, the leadership is proposing to allocate substantial funding for unemployment insurance and job retraining programs to ease the impact of industrial restructuring and transitional unemployment. Ryzhkov has expressed support for a 3 to 4 billion ruble fund for retraining workers affected by the expected bankruptcies of inefficient enterprises.

What constitutes an appropriate policy for financial support to disemployed workers is a contentious issue, however. The State Committee for Labor (Goskomtrud)'s proposed compensation of 70 rubles a month is paltry, roughly equal to $12 according to the official exchange rate and merely $5 at the current black market rate. With inflation currently running at 7.5 percent by official estimates and likely to explode when price controls are removed, unemployed workers could not possibly live on 70 rubles a month. The trade union leadership, with support from the powerful government planning committee (Gosplan), is proposing a more generous allotment of one-half the wage of a worker's last job for a period of 12 months, with the constraint that monthly payments not exceed the average wage for the republic in which the worker resides.

Even the more liberal of these plans cannot be very reassuring to Soviet workers. Under the established "social contract," workers have been guaranteed job security and an income averaging roughly 200 rubles per month almost irrespective of their performance.

The paths ahead

The role trade unions will play in the emerging political alliance between Yeltsin and Gorbachev and in the revamped economy remains uncertain. A variety of conflicting factors will shape labor's power.

The labor movement's current fragmentation, with some rank-and- file workers willing to let the traditional unions carve out a new deal and others abandoning the traditional organizations in favor of the more radical independent unions, is one of its greatest weaknesses. And although growing labor unrest will almost definitely force government policymakers to heed workers' interests in the design and implementation of economic reforms, more than six decades of subjugation to the State have left Soviet trade unions unsure of how to assert themselves as an independent political and economic force. Trade union chairman Yanayev has declared that the official trade unions will "defend our view, taking advantage of the entire arsenal of methods at our disposal, including extreme measures." Thus far, however, the official trade unions have been reluctant to condone strikes carried out by the coal miners and other local groups, including transportation workers in Kiev and Sverdlovsk. This may change as economic reforms in the Soviet Union take a heavy toll on workers, as they have in Poland.

One factor buttressing trade union strength may be political reforms which increase the importance of elections on the local, republican and national levels. Candidates competing for votes are likely to seek the support of an organized labor movement.

Perhaps more significantly, combined populist and nationalist appeals of the sort made by Yeltsin may offer the labor movement the means to overcome its fragmentation. A clearly defined nationalist movement will provide a source of cohesion. Labor unions are too divided to play a significant role in linking opposition movements among different nationalities in the Soviet Union, but the political dynamic is different in the republics. Yeltsin or other strong central figures could potentially use worker and nationalist support to carry out far-reaching economic-political transformations in the republics.

Jonathan Dunn is a graduate student at the University of Washington, where he is studying Soviet affairs and economics.

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