Peter Petroff November 1937

The Metamorphosis of Soviet Trade Unionism

Source: Labour, November 1937, p. 68-69;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Before the Revolution of 1905, Trade Unions could not exist in Tsarist Russia. In 1906, the first attempts to organise Trade Unions were made. The new Unions led a precarious half legal existence, always liable to persecution and direct police interference. Nevertheless, they developed.

The February Revolution of 1917 gave a tremendous impulse to Russian Trade Unionism. Trade Unions popped up like mushrooms. Every worker and employee desired to join a Union; people stood for hours and days in queues to join up.

At the Trade Union Conference, held in July, 1917, 1,475,000 members were represented. In January, 1918, the first Trades Union Congress was attended by 416 delegates representing a membership of 2,639,000.

When the Soviet System had become firmly established, membership of the Trade Unions was made compulsory. All employed persons – workers, employees, technicians, managers, directors were automatically enrolled indiscriminately in one of the huge industrial Unions, their contributions being simply deducted from their wages. Trade Unions had become “an objective combination, not a subjective one.”

The number of people with previous experience in Trade Union management was very small. Now huge bureaucratic machines were built up – the roofs were soon ready but the foundations had as yet to be laid. With a few exceptions – as, for instance, in the Metal Workers’ Union – the unions were built on feet of clay. After some opposition and arrests of Menshiviks and Social Revolutionaries the Communist Party brought the Unions under its hegemony.

In Winter, 1920/21, towards the end of the Civil War, when Labour unrest was rife in the industrial centres, a great discussion developed as to the aims and objects of Trade Unionism in the “transition period.” All the leaders of the Soviet State desired to maintain the Unions as appendages of the Communist Party. Differences prevailed only as to their functions in the State.

Shliapnikoff and his “workers’ opposition” group desired “to trade-unionise the State,” to hand over the management of industry to the Unions whose fictitious character they failed to see.

Trotsky regarded the State already as a “Workers’ State” whence he concluded that the Trade Unions “should grow together with the corresponding organs of the Workers’ State.” In the bourgeois State, he maintained, “the functions of the Trade Unions consisted in using pressure on the capitalists ... and on the State in order to obtain out of the total wealth produced a larger share for the particular group or for the whole of the working class.” In the workers’ State, he asserted, “this pressure is not required.... The road to protection of the interests of the workers leads through increasing productivity of labour and technical improvements.”

Lenin, seconded by Zinoviev, steered a peculiar middle course. “Our State is actually not a workers’ State, it is a workers’ and peasants’ State,” he said, “and from this much is to be deducted.... Our present State is of such a nature that the completely organised proletariat must protect itself. We must utilise the workers’ organisations for the protection of the workers against their State and for the protection of our State by the workers.” Lenin regarded the Trade Unions as an important connecting link between the Communist Party – the actual pillar of the dictatorship of the proletariat – and the masses of the people.

Under the “New Economic Policy,” inaugurated in 1921, the Trade Unions returned to the principle of voluntary membership. More stress was laid on their functions of protection of the workers interests.

When the Stalin regime had consolidated itself a radical change was introduced in the Trade Unions. About 1930, many of the best known Trade Union leaders, including Tomski, were summarily dismissed, some of them deported. The objects and methods of the Unions were transformed.

Protection of labour, enforcement of social legislation were superseded by their new object of increasing the productivity of labour and the intensity of exploitation.

“The opportunists of the right,” said Shervnik, the new President of the V.C.S.P.S. (central council of Trade-Unions), in his report of June 29, 1933, “have been emphasising the so-called protective functions of Trade Unionism as against the productive tasks. They attempt to put the Trade Union Movement on an opposite plane to the Party, to oppose the sectional interests of the various groups of workers to the general interests of the working-class.”

The new gospel of intensified exploitation of labour power gave birth to the institution of “socialist competition” between workers, groups of workers, whole factories and districts. The “udarnik” (the indusrial shock brigader) made his appearance followed by the “Otlichnik” (the excellent worker) and then by the Stakhanovite. The first pledged himself to work more, the second better, the third more efficiently and to attain higher norms of output than fellow-workers.

A system of piecework by result and progressive bonus was introduced and enforced by the Trade Unions under the slogan “no equalisation.” In 1936 over 70 per cent of the workers in big industry were paid under a system of piecework.

When the Trade Unions took over functions of the People’s Commissariat of Labour, and thus became responsible for the administration of the labour laws and social insurance, privileges for the shock brigaders were introduced. Shvernik declared:

“We must abolish equalisation in social insurance. We must revise the entire social insurance from the point of view of preferential treatment of the shock brigadiers.” We have to establish the preferential acceptance of children first of all of such from all such members of the Unions who really are shock brigaders into creches, playgrounds, ‘pioneer’ camps in order to establish real privileges as against such members who are not shock brigadiers” (Report to the meeting of the V.C.S.P.S.

In 1934 the then existing 47 big industry Unions were broken up into 163 smaller Unions. This was carried through by officials from above without reference to the members. The old executives were divided up and their members allotted to the various new Unions to form executives by co-optation.

“The Conferences of the Unions where the Central Committees have been elected took place in 1931,” confessed Shvernik in his report to the Seventh Plenum, in April, l937. In 1934, the Unions were broken up. It is known that the leading organs of the Unions have been formed without conferences of the new Unions by way of distribution of the members of the presidiums of the broken up Unions among the Central Committees of the newly formed Unions. Up till the present no conferences of the Unions have been called. In the majority of areas and districts there are organisation bureaus appointed by the Executives of the Unions taking the place of area committees. The practice of appointments from above and co-optation lead to a state of affairs where the principle of election of leading organs in many cases has been superseded by a peculiar personnel rule. .... The presidium of the V.C.S.P.S. has been no exception ... during a period of more than two years the presidium of the V.C.S.P.S. has not called the plenum of the V.C.S.P.S.

This Confession of Shvernik was the first move in a new policy prescribed by Stalin and his lieutenants Kaganovitch and Andreiev to the Trade Unions. At the plenary meeting of the V.C.S.P.S. on April 29, 1937, a resolution was adopted:

To carry through elections to Trade Union organs on the basis of the Stalin Constitution which grants an unlimited right to put forward candidates for Trade Union organs or to reject such.

During the last three months a large number of local conferences, followed by congresses of the various Unions, took Place. The unfortunate presidents of the Unions had to give lengthy reports “confessing” their own responsibility for all that was done or left undone. It was a repetition of the wave of confessions following upon the notorious forcible collectivisation of peasant farms in 1929-30 which ruined Russian agriculture.

The conferences and congresses caused tremendous interest among the workers. The meetings called to hear the delegates reports were attended by eighty to ninety per cent of the members. At the congresses more than half of the delegates participated in the discussions, which lasted several days. Under cover of attacking “wreckers” and “enemies of the people” the delegates ventilated their grievances. During the last eight years there was no such opportunity offered for public criticism. Very little of the criticism uttered was allowed to appear in the Press, but even the meagre reports hidden under a flood of words permit some insight into the life of the Russian workers and the peculiar conditions; prevailing in the Russian Trade Unions.

Most of the complaints concern low wages inaccurately paid; indifference of the Unions and of the management regarding prevention of accidents; bad housing conditions; victimisation; inactivity and inefficiency of the Unions:

“The Executive of the Union did not bother about arrears in wages and other breaches of the labour laws.” (Congress of Building Workers.)

“The Executive took no interest in questions of wages. In many mines the workers were cheated in the calculation of wages. In the wage bureau baptists and ex-kulaks were employed and the workers were offered seven to eight roubles per day. No wonder that people left the mine.” (Congress of workers of the iron ore industries of the East.)

“Accidents increased in 1937. No measures were taken for the protection of the workers. In the mill under the pretext that there were no funds available they are systematically sabotaging protective appliances at the driving belts (Congress of workers of the salt industry.)#

“The Executive of the Union has no exact data about accidents. In our works they have at theory that coal dust is not harmful to health. So there is no need to hurry with protective measures.” (Congress of workers of the coke chemical industry.)

“When I tried to use pressure on a head of a department at the ‘Electrostal’ works who criminally neglected the safety of the workers, I was censured,” declared a factory inspector, delegate at the congress of the union of Iron and Steel Workers of Central Russia

“There were many bitter complaints about illegal raising of rents, in one case by 100 per cent., while the Unions remained inactive.

“At the Red October Works and elsewhere not a single house has been built this last season. Houses, the building of which was begun last year, have not been finished though means had been specifically assigned.” (Iron and Steel Workers.)

These few instances may serve as an indication of the nature of the complaints brought forward at the congresses.

By the end of September the powers that be apparently got alarmed at the rapid development of “protective Trade Unionism” as revealed by the congresses.

In Pravda of September 30, P. Moskatov, the Secretary of the V.C.S.PS. gives the signal to retreat: “At some of congresses ... the bolshevist criticism and self-criticism has been supplanted by wholesale condemnation of the entire work of the Unions. Such a mistaken line of policy was followed also by the journal Trud (official daily organ of the V.C.S.P.S.) .... But such all-round condemnation of the work of the Unions, the blow is diverted from the actual evil-doers, and this retards the exposure of the remainders of ‘Trade Unionism’ the eradication of bureaucracy and of the bureaucrats from the Trade Union machinery.” At the first thirty-three congresses of the Unions the composition of their committees was renewed by 90 per cent., of their presidiums by 92 per cent., their presidents were replaced by 55 per cent., their secretaries by 85 per cent. It is as yet premature to judge whether this purge has replaced inefficient bureaucrats by trusted representatives, or whether the remainders of Trade Unionism” have been turned out to make way for docile Stakanovites.