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John G. Wright

Stalin’s New Labor Laws

Longer Work-Week, Direct Wage Cuts, Chaining the Workers
to the Factories Like Industrial Serfs; But the Younger Generation
Leads a Bitter Resistance to the New Laws

(14 September 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 4 No. 37, 14 September 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On June 27, 1940, simultaneously with the news that Rumania ceded Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union, Stalin tersely informed the world, through his official news agency, the TASS, that new labor laws were in effect in the USSR.

TASS confined itself to the statement that the 7-hour day had been replaced by an 8-hour day, and that industry had shifted from a 6-day week (5 working days, one day off) to a 7-day week (six working days, one day off).

The 7-hour day was one of Stalin’s trump boasts, served up as irrefutable proof of the “victory of socialism in one country” and the “transition to communism.” Stalin himself used to discourse at great length upon it.

As a matter of fact, the 7-hour day did not at all flow from the successes of industrialization. It was originally introduced by Stalin as a political measure, serving as a weapon in the early days of Stalin’s struggle against Trotsky and the Left Opposition.

Now comes official admission by Stalin that another of his world-publicized achievements was nothing but a fraud.

Stalin’s Labor Laws of 1938

But the abolition of the 7-hour day and the 6-hour week is only one item in a new body of anti-labor legislation.

The goal Stalin pursues by his new laws is not a new one. It is identical with the goal envisioned by him in his legislation of December, 1938: turning Russian workers into a species of industrial serfs, binding them to the factories, making it impossible for them to leave their jobs, and in this way extricating his regime from the convulsions of its economic life, the inability to fulfill plans, the chronic shortage of goods etc.

The 1938 laws were the bureaucratic solution to the economic impasse in which Stalin’s regime found itself on the eve of the second world war. These laws depended for their effectiveness on the exercise of the bureaucracy’s economic power, i.e., firing, threat of unemployment. But the opposition of the masses frustrated the bureaucratic calculations. The acute scarcity of labor, the ease with which employment could be obtained, made it actually possible for the mass of workers to utilize Stalin’s own legislation against Stalin’s own aims.

His official press is now compelled to admit that the Soviet workers, prohibited by the 1938 ukase from leaving their jobs voluntarily, engaged in the practice of deliberately violating the 1938 laws and then insisting that the administration enforce these laws, i.e. fire them from the jobs, thereby “freeing" them to seek employment elsewhere, not infrequently in a different department of the very same plant!

Youth Fight Against Stalin

The guarded statistical data of Stalin’s press indicate beyond any doubt that the labor turnover reached its peak precisely in the months following the 1938 decrees; that productive levels have fallen sharply; and that, most important of all, the leading part in this muted struggle against Stalin’s regime is being played by the youngest generation of workers, i.e., those who passed through the Stalinist school, who know nothing of the period of the Civil War and of the October days, and who have just entered industry.

The alarm and fury of the bureaucracy is expressed in brimstone editorials against “a certain section, namely 3-4% of young workers and employes who have recently entered industry; who are seeking to profit from the absence of unemployment which has been destroyed by the Soviet power; who are abusing the patience of the Soviet government by running from factory to factory, undermining discipline, refusing to toil honestly, disrespectfully deporting themselves toward the observation of regulations established by law and approved by the people” (Shvernik’s report to the Ninth Plenum of the Central Council of the Russian Trade Unions).

The June 1940 laws are Stalin’s solution to the economic impasse, further aggravated by the demands of war time economy, the vast losses during the Finnish campaign, not to mention the economic commitments to Hitler. The aggravated situation demands an intensification of bureaucratic pressure, the only remedy the bureaucracy knows or can apply. The need now is for new penalties. For these, Stalin has to dig deep into his police armament.

Savage Penalties in New Laws

The new laws make it a crime against the state for any worker to leave his job, come late to work, skip a single work day, fail to produce his daily quota or “norm”.

Any attempt to leave one’s place of employment, even a mere request to be allowed to seek employment elsewhere, is a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term of 2–4 months.

The penalty for arriving late to work, skipping a work day, or otherwise “dawdling” on the job is equally unprecedented in the history of labor legislation. Any one charged with these “crimes” is subject to a sentence of 6 months penal labor at the place of his or her employment, i.e., the factory, mill, mine or office. In addition, up to 25% of the criminal’s regular wages are withheld. The exact period of time over which these wages are to be withheld is not specified in the ukase. It is to be assumed that these sums will be withheld for at least the duration of the sentence. Thus Stalin has turned every enterprise in the Soviet Union into a forced labor camp, or work-jail. The ukase decreeing all this was published in all the Russian papers on June 26. It went into effect on June 27. Kalinin countersigned it, issuing it in the name of the Executive Committee of the Supreme Council of the Soviet Union.

It was accompanied by a supplementary ukase, in the name of the People’s Commissars and countersigned by Molotov, establishing drastic wage cuts.

As Shvernik explained: “In order to further strengthen the defensive power of their fatherland the working class of the USSR must go forward to necessary sacrifices.”

“The lengthening of the working day is most closely bound up with the question of wages,” continued Shvernik. “An objection may be raised that the proportionate increase of the working day must be accompanied, if you please, by a similar increase in wages. It would be absolutely incorrect to pose the question in this way. Were we to permit an increase of wages proportionate to the increase of the working day, then there could not even be talk of any necessary sacrifices. But we are precisely talking about this, that the working class and the entire intelligentsia must make those sacrifices which are indispensable for the defense of our fatherland.” (Bolshevik, No. 11–12, June 1940)

The section of the ukase pertaining to piecework wages reads:

“That the norms of output be raised and piece-work rates be lowered in proportion to the increased working day.”

It might appear at first glance that this implies only an indirect wage cut, that is, a worker may now work longer hours and be paid less per piece but his wages remain the same as before. Not so. In reality, a direct wage cut is involved.

A 14% Wage Cut!

The “increased working day” includes not only the “extra” hour each day but also an “extra” 8-hour day in the week. A worker now receives the same wages for six days of work and one day off as he did for five days work and one day off. In other words, if the meager wage formerly had to cover six days of existence, it must now be stretched over 7 days. A wage cut of one-seventh.

Workers on monthly or weekly salaries are similarly situated. Let us take a period of 42 days which best illustrates the difference between the two systems. If hitherto there were in this interval 7 weeks and 7 paydays (on a 6-day week basis), now there are only 6 weeks and 6 pay days. But on each pay day the wage received is the same as before, otherwise, according to Shvernik, there would be “no sacrifice”. Therefore each worker must now sacrifice one week’s wages in every seven.

Thus, in one and the same operation, the Russian workers must not only labor 48 hours in place of the previous 35 hours, but they also find their already miserable standard of living sharply lowbred. And this, on Stalin’s “threshold to Communism”!

That Stalin’s own press, under the ten-fold censorship that has prevailed since the signing of the Stalin-Hitler Pact, is forced to speak out so openly is in itself incontestable proof of the unfolding struggle of the Soviet workers against Stalin’s regime.

First Results of New Laws

The first consequence of the new legislation was the cutting down of the labor force in every enterprise in the Soviet Union. With the “increased” productivity per worker, less workers are now required. In the reports published in the Pravda 40 and 50 per cent cuts in the labor force are not uncommon. This is done, in part, in order to overcome the acute shortage of labor from which Soviet industry is chronically suffering; at the same time, the bureaucracy no doubt hopes thereby to accumulate a labor reserve from which to draw in order to replace those workers who are jailed, and as an added pressure on the recalcitrants already employed.

As Trotsky predicted, under the blows of the war crisis, facing its first real test, the bureaucracy is compelled to strip off its veil and reveal its true self to the masses.

How are the Russian workers reacting to the new legislation? Here too the Stalinist press involuntarily supplies us with facts that disclose the deepening crisis.

The ritualistic paeans in the press glorifying the new laws and promising miraculous results (there was even an attempt to raise the slogan “The Third Stalin Five Year Plan in Four Years”) were almost immediately followed by fulminations against “rotten liberals” who hesitate to enforce the new laws and who “patronize floaters and laggards”. This attack is aimed against the public prosecutors and the directors of plants and heads of departments who have teen invested with “undivided authority” and “sole responsibility.” The Pravda for July already carries reports of severe jail sentences meted out to prosecutors and to directors of industry who “failed” to exercise their new authority. The real explanation for this “hesitancy” lies obviously in the pressure from below which is being counteracted from above by increased lashing of the apparatus.

The Komsomol (Russian Y.C.L.), an organization now reportedly comprising 10 million Russian youth, is under fire and is being held responsible for the misbehavior of the young generation of workers. Its apparatus is being purged.

It is the dread of this development that impelled Stalin to hasten at all costs his long planned assassination of Leon Trotsky. The Fourth International, founded and led by Leon Trotsky, alone has the political program for the Russian workers, and their brothers the world over. By assassinating Trotsky, Stalin hopes that he has now decapitated the world movement, and especially the politicalization of the opposition in Russia which has now assumed mass proportions, which is developing a young leading cadre but which is still groping for a political program. Today, however, the waves of the rising deluge are lapping at Stalin’s feet; tomorrow the tide of the resurgent workers of the Soviet Union and the whole world will engulf him..

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