Soviet Trade Unions: Their Place in Soviet Labour Policy. Isaac Deutscher 1950

Chapter V: Machinery and Organisation of Trade Unions

The organisation of the trade unions has undergone many changes since the revolution. The Second Congress of the Trade Unions adopted the ‘production principle’, which required that all workers and employees of any enterprise, regardless of their craft or trade, should be members of the same union. The workers and employees, say, an engineering plant, no matter what their individual occupation, joined the trade union of the metal workers. The Seventh Trade-Union Congress (1926) adopted the rule ‘one economic organ — one union’. This was designed to adjust the structure of the trade unions to that of the economic administration so that one commissariat should as far as possible deal with only one union, and vice versa. [1] Subsequently the number and organisation of trade unions varied in accordance with changes and reforms in the economic administration. In 1930 there existed only 23 national trade unions. Since then their number has steadily grown with the multiplication of economic commissariats (or, later, of ministries). In 1931 there already existed 45 national trade unions; in 1934 — 154; in 1939 — 168; in 1944 — 176; but in 1949, after several mergers there existed only 67 national trade-union organisations. [2]

The membership of the trade unions has steadily grown, with the exception of a short period in the early 1920s when there was a considerable decline during the transition from military communism to NEP. A noteworthy feature in the organisation of the unions has been the so-called single membership card: a member of any union, when he changes his occupation, becomes automatically a member of any other union, without paying a new entrance fee. This principle underlines the organic unity of the entire movement and its freedom from sectional or craft divisions.

The accuracy of the membership statistics cannot be ascertained. The following table gives the official claims of membership in various years between 1917 and 1948: [3]

June 1917 1,450,000
January 1918 2,532,000
January 1919 3,639,000
April 1920 4,326,000
July 1921 8,400,000
January 1922 6,700,000
September 1922 5,100,000
1925 6,950,000
1926 8,768,000
1928 10,995,000
1933 17,126,000
1940 25,000,000v
1947 27,000,000
1948 28,500,000

In 1918-22, under military communism, membership was ‘collective’ and compulsory. The workers and employees of any business joined the trade union as a body; and the individual worker or employee had no right to contract out. With the transition to NEP the principle of voluntary and individual membership was adopted, primarily on Lenin’s insistence. This caused the spectacular decline in membership in 1921-22, even though the transition to voluntary membership was only gradual. In the 1920s the voluntary character of the organisation was real enough, although adherence to the trade union did, of course, secure advantages to the worker. In precept, the principle of voluntary organisation has been preserved until now. But the material advantages of membership have grown so enormously that one wonders how it is that only 90 and not 100 per cent of the total number of workers and employees is claimed to belong to the trade unions. It will be remembered that the worker who does not belong to a union receives only 50 per cent of the sickness benefits paid to the trade unionist.

In the early years the trade unions organised almost exclusively the manual workers. As a matter of principle they refused to admit the higher technical personnel, and they were not over-anxious to organise civil servants. Soon after the revolution, professional people and clerical employees were drawn into the movement, and trade unions of teachers and of the ‘medical and sanitary personnel’ were formed. Later, the higher technical and administrative personnel were also organised, including industrial managers, whose standing in relation to the workers was actually that of employers. [4]

The massive vertical structure of the trade unions rests upon the fabzavkom or the factory committee, its basic unit. The factory committees, as we know, aspired to independence from the unions and even tried to act as their rivals in the early days of the revolution. This aspiration was completely defeated, and, after a complex evolution lasting nearly two decades, the factory committees took up a position in which they are much closer to the administration and the industrial managements than to the workers.

The factory committee is elected at a general meeting of all trade unionists in any factory, mine or office. In precept, the general meeting is the sovereign master of the factory committee; in actual fact the committee takes its orders and instructions from the trade-union hierarchy, the party and the management rather than from its electors. In the intervals between the general meetings — according to the rarely-observed statutes the factory committees ought to be elected every year — the factory committee represents the trade union on the spot. Its chairman is usually one of the three all-powerful personalities — the troika — in any industrial concern — the other two are the manager and the secretary of the party cell.

The factory committee works through the following specialised commissions:

(a) The Council of Social Insurance.

(b) The Wages Commission.

(c) The Commission for Labour Protection.

(d) The Commission for Cultural and Educational Activities.

(e) The Housing Commission.

(f) The Commission for Workers’ Supplies.

(g) The Commission for Workers’ Inventions and Rationalisation.

(h) The Commission for Gardening and Auxiliary Farming.

(i) The Commission for Assistance to Servicemen’s Families. [5]

Apart from these permanent bodies, temporary commissions may be set up to deal with special tasks. The factory committee also participates in the important RKK (Rastsenochnaya Konfliktnaya Komisya), the Norms and Conflicts Commission, which deals with complaints from workers and managers. The factory committee is represented in the RKK on a basis of parity with the management; but as a rule the manager, or his appointee, presides over the RKK.

Within the limits set by governmental labour policy the functions of the factory committee are manifold and important. During 1948 and 1949 the factory committee concluded collective agreements. But its initiative in this field was limited, because the local collective agreements must be strictly modelled on the central collective agreement concluded for a whole industry between the ministry in charge of that industry and the central committee of the corresponding trade union. The local collective agreement can at best introduce only very minor variations in the general norms of output and productivity, wages and so on. The role of the factory committee is more important in the fields of labour protection, in providing for industrial safety, and in a large variety of welfare activities.

In most industrial concerns the factory committee is the basic but not the lowest unit of the organisation. Below it is the shop committee which is elected in any shop employing at least 100 workers. The structure of the shop committee is closely modelled on that of the factory committee; nearly all the commissions of the factory committee, listed above, have their counterparts in commissions of the shop committee. The lowest link in the organisation is the so-called Profgrup, a group of trade unionists consisting of 20 members and usually comprising a brigade or a team of workers employed in a particular sector of the shop. It is through joining the Profgrup that the worker usually becomes a member of the trade union. The Profgrup elects its own insurance delegate and its own ‘inspector’ for labour protection, and one or two other functionaries. The organiser of this smallest unit is called the Profgruporg; and he represents his team vis--vis the industrial management and the trade-union hierarchy. The organiser is elected at a meeting of the members of the Profgrup.

Periodical production meetings are one of the vital functions of the factory committees. At these meetings the fulfilment of the collective agreement by workers and managements should be checked once every three months. Special production meetings are convened from time to time to encourage workers’ inventions and projects for rationalisation of labour. At such meetings workers are expected to communicate their observations and suggestions about possible improvements in machinery, organisation of labour, handling of materials, etc. The observations and suggestions are collected, sifted and classified by the special commission of the factory committee which deals with such issues. The industrial managers have special funds at their disposal from which premiums are paid to worker-inventors. Like so many ideas in Soviet trade unionism, this imaginative scheme for the accumulation and utilisation of the mass inventiveness of producers has in practice often been marred by official routine: at the production meetings the customary longwinded, monotonous speeches, followed by unanimous adoption of official resolutions, have often swamped any business-like discussion of projects for rationalisation of labour. Very often, too, the production meetings have been used merely for the whipping up of the crudest forms of competition between the workers. [6]

Above the factory committee there are the town, regional, republican and central committees of the various trade unions, all elected by secret ballot. [7] At the top of the entire organisation there is the All-Union Central Council of the Trade Unions. Re-elected at the Tenth Congress of the Trade Unions in April 1949, it consisted of 175 members and 57 alternate members. The Central Council in its turn elects a smaller body, the Praesidium, to act as its executive.

As in all Soviet institutions, so in the Soviet trade unions the organisation is in theory governed by the principles of democratic centralism which require that all directing bodies be regularly elected in accordance with statutes but that they should, in the intervals between elections, be the real masters of the organisation, with a claim to absolute discipline on the part of the membership. In practice, bureaucratic rather than democratic centralism prevails. The power of the centre is practically unlimited, and the statutory provisions about the responsibility of the trade-union officials to their electorate are disregarded. This has been strikingly illustrated by the fact that no less than 17 years elapsed between the Ninth Congress of the Trade Unions which took place in 1932 and the Tenth Congress convened in April 1949. In violation of all statutory regulations the Central Council of the Trade Unions did not even bother to go through the formal motions of an election over all these years.


1. VII Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (Seventh All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1927), p 43.

2. Trud, 23 May 1949.

3. This was the figure given by Andreev at the Fifth Congress of the Trade Unions (V Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (Fifth All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1922), p 41). Bolshaya Sovetskaya Entsiklopediya, SSSR (Moscow, 1948) gives the membership for May 1921 as only 6.5 million, nearly two million less than the figure given by Andreev. Similar discrepancies occur between figures for other years as well. Thus the Encyclopaedia claims a membership of more than 9.5 million for 1926, whereas the number given at the Fifteenth Party Conference was less than 8.8 million. See VKP (b) o Profsoyuzakh (All-Union Communist Party on Trade Unions, second edition, Moscow, 1940), p 239.

4. The inclusion of managers in the trade unions was justified by the familiar argument that they, and the economic administration at large, represented the proletarian state and were therefore by definition not opposed to the workers. ‘As, in the USSR’, says the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, ‘there do not exist and cannot exist any class antagonisms between workers and economic administrators, and as the parties to any collective agreement are representatives of the same class and pursue the common objectives of developing socialist production and raising the material and cultural level of the toilers, the essential purpose of any collective agreement is at present: to secure the fulfilment and over-fulfilment of production plans, to further higher productivity of labour, to improve the organisation of labour and to raise the responsibility of the administration and trade unions for the material and cultural well-being of the workers...’ (Bolshaya Sovetskaya Entsiklopediya, SSSR (Moscow, 1948), p 1758). This view does not quite tally with Lenin’s insistence on the need of the workers to defend themselves against the state, in so far as that state is ‘bureaucratically deformed’ and is not a proletarian state tout court, but a state of workers and peasants. Nor does the view of the perfect harmony between managers and workers explain why collective agreements, if they are not a pure formality, are needed at all.

5. This branch of the factory committee has been in existence only since the Second World War.

6. It has been customary for the production meetings to advance the so-called Vstrechnyi Promfinplan. When the administration has put before the workers the targets of output which their particular factory has to reach within a certain period, the workers are then expected to counter the official targets by higher ones — these form the ‘industrial-financial counterplan’ or Vstrechnyi Promfinplan. The factory committees are also supposed to carry out periodical surveys of industrial plant in order to ensure its proper maintenance. See N Shvernik, O Rabote Profsoyuzov v Svyazi s Resheniyami XVIII Syezda VKP (b) (Trade-Union Activities in Connexion with the Decisions Taken by the Eighteenth Congress of the All-Union Communist Party, Moscow, 1939), pp 37, 89.

7. As an exception, insurance delegates and inspectors for labour protection are elected in open ballot.