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

Chapter VI: The Tenth Trade-Union Congress

It is not very clear why after an interval of 17 years a Trade-Union Congress was convened in 1949. There had been no apparent reason for this sudden return to half-forgotten ‘parliamentary’ procedures. Nothing startling happened during the congress; no new policy was announced; nor was any fresh light shed on the evolution of the trade unions since the congress of 1932. The chairman of the All-Union Central Council, VV Kuznetsov, did not in his report even attempt to review the trends or discuss the changes in Soviet trade unionism between the two congresses. The newly-adopted statute did not alter the structure of the organisation, except in one point to be discussed later. Finally, the election of the new All-Union Central Council brought little or no change in the leadership. The only hypothetical explanation for the calling of the congress is that the regime may have been anxious to revive, within limits prescribed by the single-party system, some of the formal democratic practices that had been suspended in connexion with the political convulsions of the 1930s and the Second World War.

A significant sidelight on the character of the trade-union leadership was given in the report of the Mandate Commission on the composition of the congress. (The rapporteur was NV Popova.) From this it is clear that the delegates to the congress represented, to a greater extent than is true of such gatherings outside Russia, the trade-union hierarchy rather than the rank and file. Only 23.5 per cent of all delegates were workers; 43 per cent were full-time trade-union officials; 39 per cent were members of the central committees of the trade unions in control of the 67 national organisations; 9.4 per cent of the delegates came from the technical intelligentsia (compared with only two per cent at the previous congress); 20-odd per cent of the participants, at the most, were trade-union officials of medium or low rank. [1] Eighty-five per cent of all delegates had some governmental award, the distinctive mark of a member of the ‘labour aristocracy'; 71 per cent of the delegates had secondary or higher education — only about 20 per cent had received not more than elementary education. (At the Ninth Congress 60 per cent had only elementary education.) Seventy-two per cent were either members of the Communist Party or had applied for membership. (A striking feature was the very active participation of women: nearly 40 per cent of the delegates were women, compared with only 18 at the previous congress.)

These data reflect the dominating position held inside the unions by the officials and the ‘labour aristocracy’ and also the higher educational standards attained by these groups since the early 1930s.

Some significance may be attached to one postwar development which was not, however, discussed in any real sense by the congress, namely, the resumption of collective agreements between trade unions and industrial managements. This practice, too, had been discarded since the early 1930s. In February 1933 collective agreements were formally abolished by governmental decree; but even before that, under the First Five-Year Plan, they had tended to become meaningless. What used to be their central feature — the settlement of wage claims and of conditions of labour — was directly regulated by the government. Since 1947, however, collective agreements have been revived ('on Comrade Stalin’s demand’, as VV Kuznetsov stated at the Tenth Congress) [2] in order ‘to stimulate the fulfilment and over-fulfilment of the economic plans’. The explanation explains nothing, for the government must have been equally anxious to ‘stimulate the fulfilment of economic plans’ in the 1930s, when collective agreements were declared to be no longer needed. It can only be surmised that in this instance, too, the government has been anxious to give its labour policy some democratic appearance, possibly in order to calm a postwar malaise in the working class.

The renewal of collective agreements gave rise to a faint controversy in the press over their scope and meaning, but it has been commonly agreed that the contracts are not meant to settle wages and conditions of labour, which continue to be regulated by the government. Where collective agreements do include clauses on wages such clauses do not embody the results of any collective bargaining; they merely incorporate passages from governmental decrees and instructions. [3] In view of this, the discussion over the meaning of the collective agreements concerned only minor legal points. The ‘contracts’ nominally impose obligations upon both managements and workers, but such obligations arise out of the economic plan and would have existed no matter whether a collective agreement was concluded or not. [4]

The total exclusion of wages policy from trade-union activity must be held responsible for the strange fact that in the main report to the congress — the report by VV Kuznetsov which covered more than four full pages in Trud — only the tiniest paragraph was devoted to wages. The congress was given not a single piece of information about the structure of wages, their purchasing power, and so on. [5] The resolutions of the congress were equally uninformative, but they contained the characteristic statement that ‘it is necessary henceforth, too, to wage the struggle against uravnilovka...’, that is, against egalitarian attitudes. [6] Since after all the official anathemas hardly anybody would now have dared to advocate egalitarianism, this statement merely means that the government regards further differentiation of wages, that is, the further growth of inequality, as necessary and that the trade unions accept this view.

A noteworthy change in the organisation of the trade unions, carried out in 1948 (again ‘on Comrade Stalin’s initiative’), is the formation of provincial, regional and town councils of trade unions. On these councils sit the representatives of all trade unions of any province or locality. Until 1948 the trade unions were organised almost exclusively along vertical lines. The local and provincial bodies of any union were connected with the higher and lower links in their own hierarchy. No solid horizontal organisation existed to coordinate the activities of various trade unions on a local scale. Thus, the coal miners’ union in any locality had hardly any stable links with the union of the steel workers or with that of the textile workers in the same place. Its official intercourse was confined to that with other bodies in the national Coal Miners’ Union, whose central committee, in its turn, was subordinated to the All-Union Central Council. This scheme of organisation was characteristic of the over-centralisation of the trade unions. The local and provincial councils now set up have introduced an element of horizontal organisation which should allow various trade unions on the spot to concert their activities. This reform, too, seems to have been dictated by a desire to weaken somewhat the rigidity of the vertical organisation, or at least to give the rank and file the impression of relaxation.

All these reforms — the convening of the congress, the revival of collective agreements, and the setting up of local trade-union councils — may add up to a degree of democratisation, but will hardly affect the functions and character of the organisation as a whole. Somewhat more emphasis than usual was placed on internal democracy in the trade unions and also on the right of the worker to lodge complaints against the management. On the other hand, the newly-adopted statute fixes the terms for which the various trade-union bodies are to be elected in a manner calculated still further to enhance central control over the entire organisation. Thus the Central Council of the Trade Unions is elected for four years. The central committee of any trade union is elected for two years only; so are the regional, provincial and republican councils. Finally, the primary organisations, the factory committees, are elected for one year only. The higher the trade-union authority the greater is its statutory stability and therefore also its power over subordinated bodies.

The reports given at the Tenth Congress leave no doubt about the broad scope of trade-union activity in the fields of social insurance and welfare. For that activity the trade unions have built up a vast and in many ways highly impressive organisation.

At the base of the organisation there were in 1949:

(a) One million voluntary organisers of trade-union groups — profgruporgi.

(b) More than 1.2 million voluntary insurance delegates and inspectors of labour. [7]

(c) More than one million members of the wages commissions.

(d) More than two million rank-and-file trade unionists active in welfare commissions.

(e) Altogether more than nine million ‘activists’, that is, members voluntarily engaged in part-time work for the unions. The number of ‘activists’ amounts to one-third of the total membership.

In 1948 more than two million production meetings are reported to have taken place, at which four million suggestions for the rationalisation of labour were made.

The mass of voluntary unpaid part-time workers has been a highly important characteristic of the unions — it has a strong flavour of that ‘production-democracy’ which was juxtaposed to political democracy in the debates of the early 1920s:

I cannot imagine [says S Gorbunov, chairman of a shop committee, in one of many typical utterances on this subject] how we, the leaders of a trade union, engaged in intensive productive work all day long, could achieve anything without the backing of this broad mass of activists. Seven people have been elected to our shop committee, but in their work they have been assisted by 230 activists. About 100 people are members of the various commissions of the shop committee. We have 26 group organisers, 52 social inspectors and insurance delegates. [8]

It is largely through this vast mass of ‘activists’ that the trade unions have been able to assist in the training of new workers — under the present Five-Year Plan nearly 14 million workers have been undergoing some degree of retraining, while nearly eight million have been receiving full-time training. The scope of the health services and welfare activities was indicated by VV Kuznetsov in his statement that the trade unions gave medical services and facilities for rest to two million of their members in 1948. [9]


1. Trud, 23 April 1949.

2. Trud, 20 April 1949.

3. ‘The present-day collective agreement usually includes norms regulating the remuneration of labour (rate systems, with coefficients and grades, progressive scales, etc). These norms, however, are not the result of the collective agreement contract. They originate from the appropriate state authorities. The inclusion of such norms in collective agreements is intended... to facilitate the mobilisation of manual and office workers in campaigns for the plan...’, states Professor VM Dogadov in an article on the subject, the English translation of which appeared in Soviet Studies, no 1, 1949, pp 79-84.

4. In the article just quoted VM Dogadov cites the following excerpt from a collective agreement concluded in an ordnance factory: ‘Open hearth furnace no 5 is to be made automatic... capital repairs are to be carried out at electro-furnace no 1... a school for young workers is to be built with accommodation for 600 pupils; a building for a polyclinic serving the workers of the factory is to be built; one five-storey building, three two-storey buildings, and three three-storey buildings with a total living space of 6000 square metres are to be built and put into use...’ Other collective agreements do include some provisions about conditions of labour, but only, to quote Dogadov, about ‘isolated, individual matters’.

5. Kuznetsov stated inter alia that the value of social insurance and health services amounted to one-third of the national wages bill.

6. Trud, 11 May 1949.

7. The All-Union Central Council has five research institutes and 12 laboratories working on improving protection of industrial labour. They are managed by the Department for Protection of Labour of the All-Union Central Council. The central committees of the individual unions, too, have their specialised research institutes and laboratories.

8. Trud, 19 April 1949.

9. VV Kuznetsov also stated that occupational diseases among Soviet workers were in 1948 10 per cent less than in 1947 and definitely below prewar.