The intensification of the struggle of the working class led to the consolidation and mobilisation of all the forces of the manufacturers and mill-owners. The rising tide of the labour movement frightened the capitalists. Fines, disciplinary punishments, arrests of the ringleaders – all these measures had been tried. Now the united capitalists brought into action a powerful long-range weapon, mass dismissals. The lock-outs threw thousands of workers on to the streets and threatened them with destitution and starvation.
The partial crisis through which the textile industry of Russia was passing at that time strengthened the hands of the millowners. From the beginning of January 1913, lock-outs became common at the textile factories in St. Petersburg, especially at the bigger firms.
The most protracted lock-out was that at the Rossisskaya cotton mill, where 1,200 workers were employed. It was obviously deliberately provoked by the management, which decided to discharge all trade unionists. Moreover, the employers wanted to get rid of old workers who had been at the factory for twenty to thirty years and replace them by younger men.
On January 21, thirty workers in the carding department were informed without any previous notice that their wages were reduced by 10 kopeks a day. The next morning the workers in this department declared a strike to maintain the old rates of pay. This was precisely what the management desired. That night, when the new shift arrived, the steam engine was stopped, the electric light extinguished, and the workers were told as they arrived that the factory was going to suspend work for an indefinite period and that all workers would be paid off. The provocative nature of the owners’ action was obvious. The demands of the thirty workers concerned only amounted to three rubles a day, but on account of this, 1,200 workers who were not involved in the strike were doomed to unemployment and starvation.
Ignoring the provocation, the workers presented themselves for several days at the factory at the correct hour, but they were not allowed to enter. Two days later, a notice was posted on the gates inviting the workers to attend at the office to be paid off. At first the workers refused, demanding two weeks’ wages in compensation for dismissal for which the mass of the workers were in no way to blame. However, the owners found allies to assist them. The house-owners and tradesmen of the neighbourhood refused to continue supplying goods on credit until the workers paid off their old debts, which were rather large owing to the recent Christmas holidays. Under this pressure, the workers were forced to attend to be paid off. Each worker had about ten to twenty rubles to draw; the whole of this had to be paid to the local tradesmen, but in return they could obtain further credit and on a semi-starvation level pull through for a few more days.
From the early morning of the day of the lock-out, a nervous tension was apparent in the district around the mill. The teashops and inns, the “labour clubs” of that period, where workers met and discussed their affairs, were crowded with men who had passed sleepless nights in anticipation of the moment when they and their families would be faced with starvation.
Owing to their low wages, textile workers could barely make ends meet even when employed, and the first day of unemployment was the first day of severe hunger.
The more class-conscious workers, Social-Democrats and trade unionists, devoted their efforts to bringing about some sort of order and organised action. Several hundred copies of Pravda containing an appeal to the workers not to surrender were rushed to the spot for distribution. Attempts were made to arrange meetings to discuss the state of affairs at the mill, but the police dispersed all gatherings, however small.
When the first outburst of panic and despair caused by the lock-out had subsided, the mood of the workers underwent a change. The workers began to prepare for a long struggle, and in spite of the police a meeting of those locked out was called. It was decided that all workers locked out should keep in touch, that an appeal for help should be made to all St. Petersburg workers, a determined struggle waged against the use of alcohol during the lock-out, and that workers’ educational societies should be requested to organise free lectures, etc. No man or woman was to approach the gates of the factory, and to plead for him or herself, or on behalf of groups of workers. When the factory was re-opened, no worker was to return unless all were reinstated.
Considering that the owners had broken the government factory regulations, the workers applied to the factory inspector, who, theoretically at any rate, was there to protect the interests of the workers. The conversation which took place in the office of the senior factory inspector for St. Petersburg showed very convincingly whose interests he really “protected.”
The representatives of the textile union who went to the inspector to state their case were told by him:
“I cannot conduct any negotiations with a trade union organisation. According to the law, I only have the right to discuss matters with the workers of the particular undertaking where the dispute has occurred.”
“But we, too, are acting in accordance with the law,” replied the delegation. “According to our statutes confirmed by the lawful authorities, the union has the right to negotiate concerning the needs of its members both with private persons and with the representatives of government institutions.”
The conflict between these two contradictory “legal enactments” was solved by the happy chance that one of the dismissed workers happened to be among the representatives of the union. Therefore the factory inspector allowed the interview to proceed. The conversation lasted two hours with the inspector comfortably stretched out in his armchair, while the union delegates stood, cap in hand, before the “defender” of labour interests.
“As regards the police rough-handling the workers and beating up those who went to the factory,” said the inspector, “you should complain to the Chief of the Police. It is no business of mine and I cannot help you.”
But it appeared that neither could he interfere with the actions of the works management. He thought everything was perfectly in order. Workers were not entitled to receive a fortnight’s wages in advance. His department had no power to stop the lock-out which the factory owners had decided among themselves. “You have got a bad case,” was the inspector’s parting shot.
The visit to the factory inspector showed once more by whom and for whom the laws of Russia were framed. The workers could only rely on themselves and on the comradely help of the St. Petersburg proletariat. And they obtained this help. The ready assistance given by the workers to the men and women affected by the lock-out – at about the same time over 2,000 men were dismissed in a similar provocative fashion in another large cotton mill – showed the strong solidarity uniting the working class. A struggle at one factory was perfectly understood by the workers to be a struggle of the whole working class.
The lock-out at the textile factories raised a storm of indignation among all St. Petersburg workers. At some places agitation was conducted by anarchist elements, who called on the workers to retaliate by breaking machines, by arson and other terrorist methods. Social-Democrats vigorously opposed this propaganda which only promised new dangers for the working class. Such methods were always rejected by Social-Democrats as entirely useless and harmful to the labour movement. Fortunately only a handful of people supported the anarchists and we were soon able to overcome these tendencies.
The assistance given by the St. Petersburg proletariat to the textile workers assumed a different form. Collections in relief of the dismissed workers were soon started in all factories and workshops. The money collected was sent to the Duma Social-Democratic fraction, which arranged for its distribution in the correct way.
In the early days of the lock-out, the textile workers had applied to the Social-Democratic fraction with the demand that an interpellation be introduced into the Duma concerning the revolting treatment of thousands of workers by the employers. An emergency meeting of the fraction decided to draft the interpellation at once and to introduce it at the first opportunity. It was drafted and introduced in the beginning of February, but was not put down for discussion until March 1, almost six weeks after the beginning of the lock-out. The Duma majority purposely postponed the discussion of the question so as to allow the excitement of the workers to die down before it was taken.
Interpellations could be addressed to the government only on the ground of some infraction of the existing laws. A lock-out did not constitute such an infraction, since the law of the Russian Empire did not prohibit mass dismissals of workers. Therefore in order to formulate the interpellation in a legal fashion we had to make it a question of the failure of factory inspectors to carry out their duties. Behind this formal ground was the real substance – the exposure of the organised campaign of the capitalists against the working class and its trade union organisations.
The text of the interpellation opened with a general description of the lock-outs declared by the mill-owners. In conclusion, the fraction proposed that the Duma ask the Minister for Trade and Industry whether he was aware of the unlawful actions on the part of factory inspectors and what he proposed to do “to induce these officials under his department to carry out their duties as imposed on them by law.”
Although this interpellation was accepted by the Duma it fared no better than the other interpellations introduced by our fraction. On receiving the interpellations, the ministries concerned set in motion the entire bureaucratic machine of red tape, “making enquiries,” “waiting for reports,” etc. While the interpellation was thus being thickly covered with office dust, the acuteness of its subject-matter passed and it was only then that the minister fulfilled his formal duty and presented his “explanations.”
The interpellation was answered, after six weeks’ delay, by Litvinov-Falinsky, an official of the Ministry of Trade and Industry. This official was well known as the inspirer and executor of the whole labour policy of the tsarist government. His explanations excelled in open cynicism anything that had been said before by the tsarist ministers. Litvinov simply asserted that the state of affairs referred to in the interpellation did not exist; that there had been no reduction in wages in the carding department of the cotton mill, that there had been no lock-out and no unlawful actions on the part of factory inspectors. This answer was simply revolting even when judged by the standards that prevailed at that time. The Markovs, Purishkeviches and their colleagues on the extreme Right were delighted and applauded heartily, while mocking at the “lies of the Left.”
The struggle at that cotton mill had hardly ended when a fresh lock-out occurred in the textile industry. This affected the workers at Maxwell’s factories, where a bitter dispute had already taken place in December 1912. Here the owners’ attack was even more blatant. As was the case in the previous dispute, the workers were summarily discharged for participating in a political strike (on the anniversary of the Lena shootings).
A meeting was held and the workers decided not to accept payment and dismissal but to reply by a strike, demanding the reinstatement of all workers previously employed at the factory: Incidentally additional demands were made referring to working conditions. Despite their privation, the workers fought with enthusiasm and, as before, relied on the support of the St. Petersburg proletariat.
The strikers asked me to organise the collection of relief funds and, during the first days of the strike, I published an appeal in Pravda addressed to all workers. The response was immediate and satisfactory; collections were made at all factories. In the evening the money was brought to me and I handed it over to the strikers’ representatives. The first day brought in 700 rubles, the second over 500, etc.
The lock-out and strike lasted for a whole month. When the factory reopened on May 2, all the workers were not reinstated, but the management did not succeed in carrying out its plan in full. Instead of the wage-reductions and longer hours announced when the lock-out was declared, the old rates were maintained. This constituted a victory for the workers, who had conducted the long struggle in an organised manner.
In the spring of 1913, further lock-outs were declared in the textile industry involving a number of mills. The system of lock-outs was applied by the mill-owners as long as the state of the market was against them. In the summer, with the gradual improvement of the textile market in view of the approaching Nijni-Novgorod fair, the lock-outs became no longer profitable to the employers. This led the workers, by a number of economic strikes, to improve their conditions of work and to gain higher rates of pay.
During the lock-outs of 1912–13, the St. Petersburg textile workers suffered many hardships, but despite a number of defeats great favourable results could be noted. The textile workers, the most backward of the proletariat, learned the great importance of organisation and solidarity. The suffering was not in vain, it played its part in preparing the workers and steeling them for future battles.
Last updated on 14.9.2011