Stalinism: It's Origin and Future. Andy Blunden 1993

The Class Struggle in Russia

In Volume III of this series, we saw that by the 1980s:

while the Polish workers were rocking Stalinism to its foundations, the Soviet working class remained relatively docile. The Soviet working class was by now totally alienated from the State, but they lacked any leadership capable of organising that hostility. The Soviet trade unions had even reverted to their former role of “encouraging socialist competition” and abandoned even the pretence of defending workers’ interests.

and, in the words of an anonymous Moscow worker:

“The authorities are afraid of everything but to fear a link-up between dissident circles and the working class is as absurd as being afraid of meeting a jaguar in the Moscow Forest. Unfortunately there’s no likelihood of it at present. And the authorities know that as well as we do”.

I: The Soviet Working Class and the Fall of the Workers State

Strikes, go-slows and protests continued at a low level even after the succession of Gorbachev to the leadership. Initially, glasnost was treated as just another round of “criticism and self-criticism”. After a while, the public criticism that Gorbachev and the central leadership was directing at their subordinates had its effect and workers began to voice their criticisms. Gradually, things began to move. The youth particularly became bolder. Having tested the waters in small-scale strikes, workers gradually shed their fear of repression.

At the same time, Gorbachev’s market reforms had cut wages, job security and social services and workers’ grievances mounted sharply. The incremental loss of popular support for the Party and the ‘shake up’ in the administration had undermined the ability of the bureaucracy to co-opt workers and palliate their grievances with small concessions. The arrogant and arbitrary attitude of management and particularly the mining administration was no longer tolerable.

The social position of the industrial workers and the miners in particular meant that although conditions were harsh, their wages were relatively high compared to those of other workers such as those in the health services, shop workers and so on. However, since a decision in 1958 to shift from coal to oil and gas, investment in coal had declined. This was in turn translated into a low level of social spending in the coal regions. Coal miners’ wages rose at only half the national average from 1985 and the industry lost 34,000 workers between 1986 and 1989. The sharp rise in the price of many basic commodities meant that living conditions in the coal mining districts had become intolerable.

In mines such as those on Sakhalin Island there are no elevators, no carts, and the worker got to the coal face by sliding along on his back for an hour each way, loose stone cutting his back, coal inches from his face. The miners were not paid for this time spent sliding to the coal face.

Due to pollution, life expectancy in the coal-mining regions of Siberia was ten years below the national average. The region was awash with industrial waste, its forests destroyed, it rivers and lakes poisonous.

In the first half of 1989, two million working days were lost in strikes. An average of 15,000 workers were on strike each day, according to the official trade union paper, Trud. In the coal industry alone there were twelve strikes in the first half of 1989, which yielded partial concessions and promises of more later.

The courageous demonstration of defiance by the Chinese workers and students in Tien An Min Square in June 1989 showed the Siberian miners that they were not alone.

A Russian Worker Speaks

At the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies in April 1991, Anatoly Malikhin, a 33-year-old tunneller from the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk, with the bald pate of a monk and the nose of a boxer, took the podium. He grabbed the delegates’ attention when he warned that the miners would flood the mines if the government did not address their demands.

He described himself as a “genealogical enemy of the people” - his paternal grandfather was one of thousands of Cossacks shot in 1937 as an “enemy of the people”; his father, suspect as the son of an “enemy of people”, was deported to Siberia; his mother, a Ukrainian, was also a political deportee.

“For years I lived the same unconscious existence as my father had. I never thought of protest, much less mutiny. We were like serfs in a patriarchal system where the lord was the Communist Party and its instruments the schools, the trade unions, the mine directors.

“Our system and propaganda didn’t allow people to grow as individuals, to ask questions. We were raised to be uninterested. We had no idea how the state was run. We went to elections having no idea what they were about. They told us ‘You are a small man, a punk, why should you care? You just do what your boss tells you’.

“The principle was this: ‘I am the boss and you are an idiot’. If you tried to argue, even slightly, you were immediately thrown to work in the worst spots. You were crushed, humiliated. We are still like dogs with three kinds of collars: green, yellow and red. They are the colours of the passes to the mine, and they could be changed or taken away for the slightest violation. Everyone violates the rules sometimes - that is the only way you can work - so if they don’t like you, they seize on that and they tell you you’ll never work again. So people who tried to preserve their dignity were crushed and thrown away.

“This is not a life for human beings. We have no time for leisure. We have no decent clothes. We spend our entire lives making just enough money to feed ourselves and our children. The night shift starts at 6am, so you have to be up at 4:30am. You go to the mine, work eight hours underground, and all your life is work. When you come home you are too exhausted to do anything but collapse. On the weekend there are chores to do at home. About the only leisure we have is a mug or two of beer in the morning after a night shift. That’s it. And then you quit - if you haven’t already been killed in an accident. A few years later, your lungs give out, or your heart goes. Bye-bye. You’re dead”.

“In the first years of perestroika, we began to read in the newspapers and see on television that there was another life possible. We even saw that workers in the West could live decently, even living to old age, a rarity among us. Slowly, there were grievances in the air, complaints about the lack if food and soap, the miserable pay, the feudal system in the workplace.

“Then came July 1989. It was like a long hangover and suddenly the morning comes and you look around you and say ‘My God, where am I?’.

“We want it known that we are interested in a change in the system, and not in the search for a ‘good Czar’. We don’t believe any more in a single personality, a great leader. That is the old psychology and we are sick and tired of that”.

He said that local party officials had tried to stifle the movement any way they could, especially by playing on the weaknesses or vanities of the new worker-politicians. After intimidation failed, mine directors offered strike leaders high positions or cushy jobs above ground; they tried bribes of food, clothes or extra ration cards.

“Some people gave up. But those who stayed are the backbone of the movement. We are trying to help people become human beings again. But in a country where people in many villages are still living in the age of serfs, you have to understand this is a matter of long, cultural development.

“I’d like to see my son a miner, but I’m not sure life will be better for him, or my daughter for that matter. Maybe for my grandchildren. But remember, our fathers and our grandfathers lived like this. We’ll make it. Maybe in 10 years, maybe 15, maybe a lot more. But we shall overcome!”[217]

The Miners’ Strike of 1989[218]

The miners at the Shevyakov mine in Mezhdurechensk[219] brought the issue to a head. At the start of July, they presented the central committee of the coal-miners’ union, the city party committee and the director of the mine with a list of demands. They would strike on July 10 unless their demands were met. Negotiations with management on July 4 led nowhere.

The strike began with the night shift of July 10-11. By midday the four other local mines and other enterprises in the town had joined in.

12,000 miners in their work clothes marched along the main street and sat down in the city square next to the party committee’s offices. A city-wide strike committee was elected and a list of 41 demands were presented. These included political, economic and ecological demands, including an end to work on a hydro-electric scheme which they said would cause pollution.

That day the official Soviet trade union paper, Trud, published an interview with the chair of the All-Union Trade Union Council, Shelayev explaining the miners’ union’s “ultimatum” to the Minister. It included the right of the mine collectives to determine their own work and rest regimes; Sundays off; a 40 per cent penalty rate for evening and night shifts; payment for time spent in travelling to and from the coal-face; priority to social needs in capital investment. To the anger of the miners however, this “ultimatum” did not include all the workers’ demands, and moreover, gave the ministry a year to act!

On July 12, the Minister arrived from Moscow. 5 - 20,000 workers held a continuous meeting in the city square as negotiations inside proceeded through the night. At 3pm next day, the strike committee announced that 36 of the 42 demands had been met and recommended a return to work. The miners rejected this.

That day the city strike committee sent an Open Letter to the Soviet government demanding improvement in the food supply to Siberia and the Far East, an end to official privileges and an immediate opening of a public discussion for a new draft constitution. The letter also called for a general strike in the Kuzbass and demanded that the leaders of the Party and government come to the Kuzbass. Mezhdurechensk returned to work on July 14. However, a single mine south of Novokuznetsk said “No more!” and walked off the job. Within 12 hours, dozens of mines in the Kuzbass shut down and the strikes spread to Vorkuta, the Donbass and Kazakhstan.

Everywhere the picture was the same: miners occupied the central squares in permanent meetings. Worker detachments maintained order, the sale of alcohol was stopped, liquor stores sealed and drug inspection points set up on the main roads. With a few exceptions, the miners continued essential maintenance of the mines and enough coal was mined to maintain blast furnaces.

On July 15, the Palace of Culture in Novokuznetsk was overflowing with miners while the Minister and district First Secretary bargained with the strike committee delegates. But this time they were not dealing with five mines and 12,000 workers, but 158 mines and 177,000 workers. The miners demanded the presence of Gorbachev and Prime Minister Ryzhkov to guarantee that they would not be deceived again.

A full return to work was not achieved until July 21, but in the meantime, on the evening of July 15, miners in Makeyevka, in the Donbass coal-field in the Ukraine, came out on strike. Despite government assurances that the Kuzbass agreement covered the entire industry, the miners insisted that top government officials talk directly to them. On July 18, the strike spread across the whole Donbass coal-field. On July 20, just as the Kuzbass miners were returning to work, the strike spread to the rest the Ukraine, and a regional strike committee was formed in Donetsk. In all, 220 mines struck in the Donbass with up to 90,000 miners out on one day.

The Donbass miners’ demands were:

  1. Wage increases of 20 per cent for evening shifts and 40 per cent for night shifts
  2. Time used for travel to work should be included in fully paid working hours.
  3. Annual leave of 45 days for coal-face workers, 21 days in winter and the rest in summer.
  4. Special allowances for those working below ground with pneumatic drills and heavy machinery, as well as special leave because of the constant vibration.
  5. Family holidays for all workers and engineers.
  6. Recognition of silicosis, anthrax, tuberculosis and rheumatism as work-related diseases.
  7. A monthly payment in compensation of 50 per cent of the average wage to any disabled worker, in addition to his wages an pension.
  8. Recognition of skin cancer and cancer of the thyroid gland, nose, ear and eye, and related conditions, as work-related diseases.
  9. Retirement after 20 years of continuous work below ground, regardless of age.
  10. Resolution by the Council of Ministers of the question of water, gas and electricity supplies to the villages and settlements of Donbass.
  11. All miners to be provided with their own flat within 10 years.
  12. A review of soap quotas by the authorities.
  13. Donbass to be placed on the priority list for food supplies, and workers to be provided with good quality food in accordance with medical regulations.
  14. Reduction of 50 per cent in union staff.
  15. A fixed price per ton of coal and per yard of tunnel at the coal face.
  16. Additional funds for spare parts and installations in accordance with needs.
  17. A single fee of 12.50 ruble for kindergartens.
  18. A review of coal dampness norms, with a view to raising them and avoiding unjustified fines.
  19. A retirement bonus equivalent to an average year’s wage, to be paid in a lump sum.
  20. No loss of pay for workers changing jobs for whatever reason.
  21. The allocation of profits from all-union subotniks (voluntary work for the state on days off) to be decided at workers’ meetings.
  22. A prohibition of the establishment of co-operatives, and disbandment of existing medical and food co-operatives.
  23. Maternity leave for three years at the woman’s full average wage.
  24. Holiday pay and financial aid for medical treatment.
  25. Full pay for workers temporarily laid off through the employer’s fault.
  26. A lump sum payment for the families of dead miners, as well as their own flat within three months.
  27. Removal of upper wage levels, with the retention of pensions.
  28. An increase in kindergarten lunch allowances from 60 kopeks to 1 ruble to match the rise in prices.
  29. Regional economic self-financing for the Donbass.
  30. A wage increase of up to 60 per cent for women working in hazardous coal mining operations, as well as an additional 6 days’ leave.
  31. The miners union is to fund the strike.
  32. No reprisals for the strike.
  33. The strike is to continue until the demands are met. Guarantees to this effect to be published in the national press.
  34. A minimum wage of 350 rubles for the principal trades, and 250 rubles for all others.
  35. No work on Sundays, and reduced hours on holidays.
  36. Exemption from income tax for retired workers, and no tax deductions from the 13th pay packets of all workers.
  37. A ban on punitive transfers of workers to other jobs.

The miners at Chervonohrad added the following demands:

  1. Pre-term elections to the city council.
  2. Dismissal of the First Secretary of the Party Committee in the city, the head of the KGB, the editor of the newspaper Chervonohrad Miner, and three judges for violating the electoral law during the last elections to the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies of the USSR.
  3. The establishment of an independent trade union under the name Solidarity.
  4. The removal of V V Shcherbetsky (First Secretary of the CP in the Ukraine).

The government delegation arrived in Donetsk on July 20, and the accord was signed on July 22, and Gorbachev and Ryzhkov called on the miners to return to work. By the morning of July 24, 73 mines in Donetsk district had ended their strike, but 50 were still out, insisting on legislative guarantees. A delegation of Donetsk strike committee members and People’s Deputies from the Donbass flew out to Moscow and met with Ryzhkov on July 24 in the Kremlin. A concrete programme of action for the whole industry, which the government estimated would cost 2 billion rubles, was outlined. On July 25 it was decided to return to work. A majority of those still out returned, but in Donetsk they held out for two more days. Workers’ Committees were set up to monitor progress in implementation of the promises. The strike in the Ukraine and Southern Russia did not completely end until July 27.

In the Pechora Basin in the far north, the strike began in July 19 and was called off on July 24 only after miners’ demands were formally delivered to the Supreme Soviet. Miners in Vorkuta in the Arctic Circle would not return until the next day when they received a photocopy of the signed accord. The strike in the Karaganda Basin in Kazakhstan, the country's third largest coalfield, began on the night of July 19-20, where the miners were particularly angry that the mass media had not published all of the demands of the Kuzbass miners. There were also local environmental demands such as the construction of a purification plant in Mezhdurechensk, and the stopping of the Krapivinskii hydro-electric project on the Tom River and the ending of atomic testing in Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan. Work resumed with the night shift of July 22-23.

With the end of the strike, the strike committees did not disband but transformed themselves into Workers’ Committees to monitor the execution of the agreements.

The settlement was in two parts: the signed economic accord and the political accord which was not published. The economic agreements in the different regions were similar in their basic elements, but also responded to specific local demands.

The Kuzbass agreement published in Trud had seventeen points. Article 1 granted full economic and juridical autonomy to the mines, in accord with the law on State Enterprises. Article 2 gave enterprises the right to sell production beyond that covered by state contracts at contractual prices at home and abroad. Article 3 called for a rise in the price of coal in accordance with the real costs and taking into account changing natural conditions. Article 4 allows enterprises to set output norms and wage rates independently, the regional norms being only recommendations.

These four articles were the government’s answer to the demands concerning wages and social investment. An increase in these is thus made dependent on increased productivity and effort on the miners’ part. Under the old system, increased productivity tended to lead to a decline in wage rates and an increase in output norms and plan quotas, thus penalising the more efficient enterprises.

Other articles met the wage demands for night and evening work, payment for travel to and from the coal face, Sundays off, pensions and retirement, maternity leave, holidays, work-related diseases and the shedding of excess managerial staff.

The more political elements of the accord were not published in the central press, though it casually mentioned individual elements. These included increased supply of consumer goods and a rise in wages for Siberian workers, a provision for new elections of trade union committees and labour collective councils. In some cases, mine directors were removed immediately after the strike. Among the 48 points of the Donbass accord was the prohibition of medical, food and trade middlemen cooperatives. An earlier decision to postpone local soviet elections was reversed, but no new decisions were made regarding a new draft constitution.

“We are returning to work”, declared the chair of the Pavlograd strike committee, “but we will wait one month. If it turns out that we have been deceived once again, then we will continue the struggle to a victorious conclusion”. [Trud, July 21 1989]

Prior to July 1989, there was no organisation among the Soviet miners even at a local level, far less at a national level. The strikes broke out spontaneously and the strike committees were elected after the strikes had begun.

Le Monde’s Moscow correspondent noted on July 19 that “Moscow’s intellectuals are beginning to discuss vigorously: Should we go there? Should we propose mediation? Should we support it” And in what form?”

In the event, workers like Anatoly Malikhin managed the conduct of the strike. The level of organisation and class consciousness achieved under these adverse conditions is remarkable. The demands reflected the consciousness of the Soviet working class after two generations of lacking any independent voice. They began with the basic bread and butter of their lives but went also to the very basis of the ‘system’. And, when the strike was over these strike committees continued. Pravda on July 25 noted that in the wake of the strike, local authorities, responding to the bitterness of the workers towards them, seemed to have faded away.

“The strike committee, in essence, became the authority in the towns. They were occupied with questions of trade, transport, maintaining order. From morning to night people who for a long time had been unable to get help or support from any other organisation came to the committees. And their members looked into each problem, consulted specialists and helped where they could with medical treatment, repairs, job placement ..” [Trud August 3 1989].

All that stood between the miners’ strike of July 1989 and a political revolution was a national organisation and a national leadership capable of providing an alternative perspective to the Stalinist bureaucracy. This was entirely lacking.

The government also entered into direct negotiations with representatives of the railway workers who were threatening to strike on 1 August. They let them know that they could not expect the same indulgence as the miners. A rail worker from Chernigov district wrote that he and his colleagues had been forced to sign commitments not to strike. This was after a meeting at which a government telegram about raising discipline and stopping strikes was read out. “Only prohibitions and threats demand that we sign. This sort of attitude towards us in the part of the leadership in no way fosters mutual understanding and the desire to work better. It only intensifies the existing confrontation”.[220]

Alexander Laurinenko, leader of the strike committee at the Severovo mine outside Kemerovo in the Kuzbass said: “We are no different than other workers in the Soviet system, it’s just that we may feel the senselessness and the pain of this system more sharply than anyone else”.

The Miners Strike of July 1990

In the first half of 1990 there were 200,000 strikers per working day or two million per month including threatened strikes by 700,000 workers at the Tyuman oil and gas fields on 1 April and by the Magadan gold miners in the Far North on 25 April 1990; the railway workers’ strike in Azerbaijan; the strike at the Yenakievo metallurgical complex in the Donbass; the threatened and actual strikes of taxi and bus drivers in several towns including Kiev; the formation of strike committees by subway workers in Moscow, Kharkov and Minsk; the agitation in large automobile factories including the Kamaz lorry factory at Nabareine Chelne; the strikes of scientists and journalists throughout the Soviet Union, the most widely publicised being the one at Noginsk; the numerous mass actions against abuses by local nomenklatura including in Sverdlovsk, Vladivostok, Yaroslavl, Lvov, Chernigov and Voroshilovgrad; a fine near-general strike of Ukrainian students to protest against the arrest of one of their leaders for ‘organising an illegal demonstration’.[221]

A conference convened in Novokuznetsk between 29 April and 2 May 1990, at which the Kuzbass miners’ strike committees formed the back-bone of the three hundred delegates, was an important step towards building a new labour movement outside of the Stalinist-dominated apparatus. Intellectuals and Moscow social democrats had considerable weight at the conference. A left-wing at the conference supported a proposal that the proposed Confederation should be clearly linked to the defence of workers interests, rather than simply being ‘for democracy’. This left wing included Moscow intellectuals and some miners.[222]

When it became clear that the promises of the government from the 1989 strike would not be fulfilled, agitation started for a second miners’ strike on the anniversary of the 1989 strike, right in the middle of the crucial 28th Congress of the CPSU, in spite of frantic appeals by Congress delegates, including Yeltsin. In the event, the strike of July 1990 was not general but hundreds of thousands of miners took part in it and it received massive following in the Donbass and many pits in the Kuzbass, Karaganda, Vorkuta, the Urals and the Far East.

The demands of the miners’ strike included depoliticisation of the army, KGB and the legal system; a nationalisation of the CPSU’s property; the resignation of the Ryzhkov government and a reconstruction of the trade unions, demands clearly influenced by the Democratic Platform.[223]

The organisation of the strike demonstrated the growing strength of the new Independent Union of Miners (NPG), based on the strike committees set up in July 1989. The NPG leadership was strongly aligned with Boris Yeltsin however. The majority (80%) of Soviet workers, including miners, still remained in their former trade unions.

In 1990, the trade unions in Russia “reformed” themselves into the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR). With more than 50 million members, the FNPR is by far the largest workers’ organisation in Russia. It retained responsibility for many of the services provided formerly, the right to have union dues collected by pay-roll deduction and has inherited the property and many of the officials of the former Soviet trade unions.

The fall of the Communist Party from its role as the ruling party, the appearance of new independent unions offering an alternative vehicle for defence of workers’ interests, the growing demand of workers’ for independent trade unions and their intolerance of arrogant bureaucratism all combined to exert considerable pressure on the FNPR to “reform” itself. The loss of governmental power in 1991 meant that the Stalinist bureaucracy needed a social base, and the trade unions offered a possible avenue, especially in Moscow where Yeltsin had smashed up the hold of the CPSU on the central bureaucracy.

Quite apart from the interests of the union officials in making an effort to exercise their proper functions, a very large proportion of the working class looked to the ‘official’ union movement to start acting as a ‘real’ union. As a result, the FNPR did endeavour to reform itself, trying to develop the functions of trade unions in the West - pursuing workers’ grievances, bargaining with management and organising action in the defence of their members’ rights in the political arena.

The Miners’ Strike of March 1991

On March 1 1991, amid the sharpening constitutional crisis in the USSR, 300,000 coal miners across the USSR again came out on strike to force the government to deliver the promises made in 1989. The main centres of the strike were the Donbass and Kuzbass fields. Strike leaders said many of the remaining 900,000 of Soviet miners support the strike, but continued to work because they did not want to plunge the country into darkness.

Three weeks later, miners in the Donbass region of the Ukraine widened their strike from simple demands for better pay and conditions to call for the resignation of Gorbachev. This escalation took place despite an offer from the government worth hundreds of millions of rubles. “Without resolving these political questions we can’t solve the economic problems” said Mikhail Krylov, spokesperson for strikers in the Donbass, as the strike spread to more and more pits. The political demands raised by the miners varied from region to region, but most called for the resignation of Gorbachev, dissolution of the Congress of People’s Deputies and regional autonomy. At many pits, the local Party representatives were physically ejected from their offices.

The widening of the strike coincided with the referendum called by Gorbachev on maintenance of the USSR as a federation of independent states. One of the essential elements of the economy of the Soviet Union was the supply of cheap energy to enterprises in all parts of the Union. The Russian Federation was the supplier of the great majority of this energy to the other Republics. The coal-fields of Western Ukraine was an exception. Russian nationalists believed that Russia was subsidising the other Republics and that energy should be supplied at world-market prices. Likewise, the miners believed that they were subsidising the rest of Soviet industry through the low price of coal. Many of the demands of the miners were connected with rectifying this position. In general, they supported the de-centralisation of industry and autonomy for the Republics, because they believed that the Republics would de-regulate coal prices, allow them to negotiate prices directly with customers. This would lead to increased prices for coal and therefore reasonable living standards for the miners.

The leadership of the Ukrainian Republic linked the referendum with one of their own for Ukrainian sovereignty, complete with their own army and currency. Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk was formerly the Party leader for the Ukraine. Like the majority of the population in the Eastern region of the Ukraine, he was himself a Russian but had thrown his lot in with Ukrainian nationalism. He was eventually to secure the Presidency of independent Ukraine. The miners of Eastern Ukraine are mostly of Russian extraction. They supported the Ukrainian nationalists, 90 per cent voting in favour of Ukrainian sovereignty, and were the most important force in Leonid Kravchuk’s earlier victory over Sajudis. The miners however went further and put forward the demand for sovereignty for Eastern Ukraine. This is the clearest instance of Soviet workers using the nationalist drive for their own needs which had nothing to do with national sentiment. The sole meaning of “sovereignty for Eastern Ukraine” was to give the miners of the Donbass total control of their mines and the right to sell the output for their own benefit.

The call for the resignation of Gorbachev and the Soviet Congress was both a vote of no confidence in the government of the day and linked to support Yeltsin’s call for the break up of the union, fast becoming an economic fait accompli..

The impact of the miners’ strike and other workers’ action was devastating. In February-March 1991 alone, there was a 10 per cent drop in the USSR’s national income and a 4.5 per cent drop in industrial output, with coal production falling one-third short of requirements. The strike closed more than 80 of 200 pits in the Donbass, 50 of 100 in the Kuzbass, and badly hit the steel and chemical industries, as already chronic shortages of these products were hitting the crisis-ridden and energy-intensive Soviet economy.

In April, Gorbachev offered the miners a 100 per cent wage increase over one year in exchange for a reversal of the fall in coal production. The miners refused to go back to work, and the strike began to spread to other sections supporting the miners’ political demands. Gorbachev and the presidents of nine republics, including Yeltsin, issued a declaration calling for an end to the industrial campaign, and Gorbachev promised to issue a decree establishing ‘an especially strict working regime’ in key sectors of the economy after the May Day holiday. Yeltsin flew to the Kuzbass to persuade the miners to return to work.

The Federation of Independent Russian Trade Unions, now claiming 60 million members, called a one-hour general strike in response, and according to TASS, 50 million workers took part in the action. “This one-hour strike is directed against the poor social conditions and living standards of workers” said Yevgeny Arapov, deputy chairman of the Federation.

In April 1991, there was a wave of spontaneous strikes in Byelorus against price increases. Workers at some of the country’s most critical plants, like the Kirov machine-building plant in Leningrad, staged warning strikes of a few hours or a day. Bus drivers in Chekhov, dockers on the Black Sea, electricians in Samara. The workers handed in economic demands to the government, but refused to listen to activists who urged the workers to adopt political demands. In the course of the action however, workers gradually became more organised, electing strike committees etc., but initially they were entirely spontaneous.

Protests against the effects of Chernobyl began to be included in workers demands. In Minsk, there was a march of 50,000 workers, which was supported by the Popular Front, a Byelorussian nationalist organisation. The city strike committee which emerged was more political and insisted on political demands and the exclusion of Party officials and representatives of the official unions. This led to some splits among the workers, and workers in some of the enterprises began to reduce their support. The government acceded to the economic demands.

At the Uralmash machine factory in Yeltsin’s home town of Sverdlovsk, 87 per cent of workers voted to abolish Party committees in the factory.

In May, Gorbachev agreed to abolish the central coal ministry and conceded that the Republics should have control of coal mines in their territory. Centralised economic planning in the Union would thenceforth be impossible without control of the production and distribution of coal - a crushing concession as the Union came more and more under attack from Yeltsin and the separatist movements. On behalf of the Russian Republic, Yeltsin announced that coal producers would retain 80 per cent of foreign exchange earnings for reinvestment or improvement of living conditions, and negotiated an agreement with the striking miners limiting the powers of the Russian ministry of fuel and energy to taxation and subsidies, until full privatisation was implemented.

Thus the Soviet miners played an instrumental role in the break up of the Soviet Union - the same miners who had formed the bedrock of the USSR in former times.

In June, Gorbachev quietly passed a law through the Supreme Soviet, the Law on Enterprises in the USSR, which drastically reversed provisions for workers’ democratic control of enterprises, passed in 1987 with a view to facilitating decentralisation and eventual privatisation.

The question of forms of property has proved to be the most complex and confusing question for both sides in the class struggle in Russia. For those who wanted to restore capitalism: what form of ownership would facilitate the accumulation of capital and the growth of a class of industrial capitalists, without in the meantime shutting it all down? For the workers: what form of property would allow them to regain control over their enterprises, while they still lacked leadership and organisation at national level?

Gorbachev’s measure drew a line between the Party leadership and the working class. The measure angered workers when they learned of it, such as the workers in the Vaz car plant in Togliatti who learnt that their managers were preparing to transform the plant into a private concern without consulting them. The Union of Works Collective Councils and Workers’ Committees, representing two million workers, held a conference in Togliatti and demanded that workers had the right to determine the form of ownership of their factory.

Likewise, miners in the Kuzbass region had been making plans to take over enterprises and establish their own trading relations on the international market. With this perspective they supported the 500-day plan for privatisation of the Soviet economy drawn up by Gorbachev. The Works Council of the giant Uralmash engineering firm in Sverdlovsk proposed that the entire property of the Soviet Union be valued, and every citizen be given shares to buy property. The Workers Association in Sverdlovsk ridiculed this proposal, which they pointed out would prove to be only a means to take ownership away from the workers and concentrate it in the hands of capitalists. A 21-day strike by workers in the building materials plant of Pollioustrovo called for collective ownership of plants by their workers.

Workers’ struggled to find a solution to the problem of gaining control over their own industries as the Stalinist system ground to a halt.

When Yeltsin called for civil disobedience and a general strike against the conspirators in the Moscow Coup in August 1991, the miners’ response was luke-warm. In general, they supported Yeltsin’s program of decentralisation and privatisation on the basis that there was no other way of democratising industry and defending their own living standards. They were prepared to press this support to the point of using the strike weapon against Gorbachev’s government. In fighting Gorbachev, they found Yeltsin an ally. But when he called upon them to use their industrial and political strength against the state itself, they had held back.

As Anatoly Malikhin had warned them in April 1991:

“We want it known that we are interested in a change in the system, and not in the search for a ‘good Czar’. We don’t believe any more in a single personality, a great leader. That is the old psychology and we are sick and tired of that”.

Some of the workers that came into activity in the strike committees became active in the union structures, but many of the strike committees continued to co-exist with the official union structure and refused to force elections and challenge the officials in whom they have no confidence. Some of the workers brought into activity through the strike committees have become active in politics.

The Russian working class continues to struggle

On 7 June 1993, the declining value of the Ukrainian currency, with the consequent increase in the price of energy bought from Russia, led to the government implementing price rises of up to 600 per cent. The Ukrainian miners again went on strike, for ten days, now demanding credits for the coal industry, personal tax concessions for miners, ceilings on bank interest rates and cuts in the price of staple goods. The miners were the highest paid of industrial workers, but a miner’s wage could now purchase one kilogram of meat or 5 litres of petrol a month, or a little more than a loaf of bread a day.

The strike leaders demanded that the Kravchuk government submit itself to a popular vote of confidence within three months and demanded economic and political autonomy for the Donbass Region. Kravchuk agreed to concede the miners’ economic demands, but this failed to quell the strike, as the miners refused to discuss them until their political demands were met.

The strike closed 90 per cent of the 230 pits in the region, and spread to other industrial workers, closing 100 industrial enterprises. The Ukrainian Trade Union Federation, which claims 20 million members, called rallies demanding wage rises and Kravchuk’s resignation.

Chairman of the Donetsk strike committee said “It may cost the country several billion dollars, but we will have a new president and parliament and we’ll live in a federative Ukraine.” The workers of the industrial, and mostly Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine had supported Ukrainian independence, and had supported Kravchuk, but felt betrayed as Kravchuk adapted to the nationalists, imposed the Ukrainian language, and in their view, allowed the industrial and mining east to be exploited for the benefit of the west.

The September 1993 Miners’ Strike

In June, unrest began to break out among miners in Rostov, on the Don River near the Donbass coal-fields. The promises made after earlier strikes have been only partially fulfilled and miners’ wages were now on average a month in arrears, and up to four months behind in some cases. Investment had fallen to such a low level that safety was being seriously undermined.

In July, the tempo of struggle accelerated and by early September well over a million Russian workers had taken part in strikes or other forms of protest action. FNPR leaders responded by drawing up a “Program of Collective Action” to culminate in October.

Yeltsin’s rapid move to the market economy had meant that rail freight charges had leapt by 120% in August and a further 25% in September. But industrial and domestic coal consumers could not afford to absorb these costs, particularly a some of the largest and lowest cost mines were in remote areas. As a result, many mines now faced the prospect that they could not continue to operate at a profit.

The Independent Union of Coal Industry Employees, the miners’ union affiliated to the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), began planning for a national stoppage against these conditions. By mid-August, miners’ had reached a consensus in favour of a co-ordinated national stoppage to demand that the government meet its pledges. Very soon miners found that many of their back-wages were being paid up. Nevertheless, on 2 September a conference of the regional organisers of the Independent Union of Coal Industry Employees agreed upon a national strike to be held four days later. Union chairperson, Vitaly Budko announced:

‘In essence we are demanding one thing - the funds needed to preserve the Russian coal industry. Above all, funds for the development of new mines and the reconstruction of existing enterprises, for the materials and equipment needed to create safe working conditions and to build housing for miners’.[224]

On 6 September 1993, more than 500,000 coal-miners stopped work in a 24-hour strike which closed more than half the pits in the Russian Federation. Less than 100% support for the call was mainly due to the fact that miners knew that stockpiles were full and strike action would have little actual effect.

However, the Independent Union of Miners (NPG) formed in 1990 on the basis of the strike committees set up during the 1989 strike had not supported the strike. NPG Chairperson, A Sergeyev, had telegrammed local branches on August 19 urging them not to take part in the action, calling for support for the Yeltsin government and talking of a World Bank promise to finance the reform of the Russian coal industry.

It is reported however that many miners who were members of the NPG did join the strike. Even in mines where mining continued on the day, loading was stopped. In Vorkuta, where local leaders had opposed the strike, mining stopped in four pits and loading stopped in a further five pits.

This strike demonstrated the division of the Russian miners between those workers who had chosen to remain in their old unions, and those who had turned their backs on these unions and set up new unions based on the strike committees built in the last days of the Gorbachev regime.

There were also strikes in the Maritime Province in the far east, including a one-day general strike on August 11 1993. One and a half million workers took part in strikes and demonstrations organised by the FNPR across Russia during the summer of 1993, with meetings going as far as calling for the resignation of the government.

The FNPR planned further industrial action, protest meetings and demonstrations in pursuit of the economic demands of their members[225], but a few weeks later the headquarters of the FNPR in Moscow got the same treatment as the Russian Parliament when Yeltsin resolved the constitutional crisis with guns. At an extraordinary congress held in Moscow on 28 October 1993, the FNPR opted to take a more cautious line in the face of threatened banning by Yeltsin, and further protests actions were shelved for the time being.

Even then, struggles continued however. In December 1993, gas workers in Nadym in north west Siberia won a nine-day strike for payment of six months arrears in wages.

The Russian workers and those in many of the former Soviet Republics have demonstrated their ability to establish new national organisations capable of disciplined and co-ordinated action over a vast geographical area, their ability to renovate the bureaucratised organisations left over from the days of Stalinist rule and their ability to take effective industrial action in pursuit of economic and political demands.

The problem of political leadership remains unresolved. Without a developed, national political leadership there can be no solution to the devastating economic problems which are laying waste to Soviet industry, and even then ...

II: The Russian Working Class

Just as in many other countries, in the Soviet Union it was the miners who proved to be the heart and backbone of the working class, closely supported by the workers in the factories, railways and construction sites. The Stalinist regime rested upon these workers and without their support it fell.

In the days of the failed Moscow coup, the miners and the rest of the industrial working class stood on the sidelines and gave significant support to neither the “conspirators” nor Yeltsin. In the days of Yeltsin’s coup they were divided, the FNPR declared itself against Yeltsin, but the mass of workers did not respond to calls to mobilise against Yeltsin.

At a certain point the Soviet workers ‘walked away from’ their state as the social benefits which they derived from it had been reduced to nothing. But it would be wrong to say that the Soviet workers overthrew the Stalinist regime.

With the destruction of the system of centralised bureaucratic planning, the multi-national state and the social benefits of public ownership, they found themselves without any means of defending their own interests. Their trade unions had long since been instruments for the imposition of labour discipline and the distribution of welfare benefits.

The collapse of the economy resulting from the parasitism of the mafia-nomenklatura bourgeoisie combined with the policy which Victor Chernomyrdin later referred to as “market romanticism” plunged the overwhelming majority of Soviet people into desperate poverty as the economy became totally dysfunctional.

Beginning from 1989, the Soviet workers began struggling to build organisations capable of defending their interests. This struggle is still at an early stage though great strides have been made. The main and over-riding problem which confronted the workers in this struggle was the near absence of a socialist intelligentsia willing and able to help the workers deal with the enormous political and ideological problems which have been left to them by three generations of Stalinist hegemony.

Whilst the activity of the miners and the industrial working class occupy centre stage, since the collapse of the bureaucratic system and particularly since the start of Yeltsin’s price-reforms in January 1992, there has been a considerable divergence in wages and living standards among different sections of the working class.

In some enterprises, in particular those in a monopoly position or operating in highly profitable sectors, wages have more or less kept up with inflation. This is true for instance at the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine where workers get on average 8-12,000 rubles a month, way above the average industrial wage of 2-3,000 rubles.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, misery is spreading among low paid, and especially, white-collar workers, health-service employees, pensioners and so on. As a result, the ranks of striking workers have increasingly been joined by public servants, teachers, health workers, taxi and bus drivers.[226] But even the core of the industrial working class is facing hard times.

The “unofficial” unions

The miners were not the only Soviet workers who found the official unions not simply irrelevant to industrial struggle, but an obstruction, and completely by-passed the official unions when they took action. Many of these workers continued to look to these “new” unions to defend their interests.

Vladimir Resnits, a former turner who gave up work to sell workers’ newspapers instead and now a leader of the Rabochii (Worker), a “social and political union” commented in mid-1992:

“Maybe its possible to reform the [official union] structures at the lowest level, for example in some shops or even enterprises. But above these, there are structures which are impossible to reform”.[227]

After attending a number of conferences purporting to set up independent union organisations, which turned out to be run by the same layer of functionaries, eventually they got a number of union groups from the region together, numbering about 200 in all, to form Rabochii. They later declined to just a few dozen activists however.

Given that the official Soviet unions had never acted as instruments for the defence of workers’ conditions of employment, the problem of whether to renovate them or abandon them in favour of new ones proved far from simple. For example, 50% of a worker’s sick pay must be paid by their trade union, which receives funds for this purpose from the government.

As Nikolai Belanovskii, a member of the Union of Auto and Agricultural Machine Workers of Belarus explained in an interview with David Mandel:

“A lot of functions that rightfully belong to the state are still hung around our necks, a lot of cultural activities, libraries, sports, and so on, that are maintained by our union dues. For the transitional period we are demanding that the state assume part of the costs ... the government gives us six per cent of the social insurance fund for maternity and sick leave funerals and recreational activities. But ... we don’t want to administer these things ourselves, but we want to be able to control how the government administers them and to determine policy’.[228]

Consequently, workers were reluctant to leave the official union, and most workers who joined the new miners union, for instance, retained their membership of the official union, in order to continue to have access to the social benefits provided through the official union. The official union is in turn dependent on the government for collecting its funds, and is saddled with tasks which presuppose close co-operation with the government. Workers in the capitalist world long ago fought to have the functions of workers’ “friendly societies” taken on by the state.

There have been several attempts at setting up independent unions outside the framework of the FNPR. By far the most influential of these, due to its membership, militancy and strategic position, is the Independent Union of Miners (NPG). While the leadership of the NPG is pro-Yeltsin, there are also forces within the NPG which stand for a more independent and militant line. [229] For the first two years after the Moscow Coup, the official unions and the new unions in effect “swapped places”, as the new unions looked to the pro-capitalist government as an ally against their rivals in the former official unions.

However, by late 1993, after the bombardment of Parliament, the NPG leaders had been forced to abandon their pro-Yeltsin position. NPG Leaders in Vorkuta went on hunger-strike in November 1993 and organised a strike by all miners in the Region. An All-Russian strike was planned for early December demanding the provision of funds for unpaid wages and the coal industry’s debt. The strike was called off after the demands were met.

Railway workers interviewed for International Viewpoint by Renfrey Clarke in December 1992, gave their views on the merits of trying to “reform” the old unions:

Alexander Safronov: “the position of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) [is to] force the old structures to work. The FNPR united these same state branch unions. I read an argument by its chairman Klochkov where he argues that we don’t need new unions. All we need to do is to change the people in the old ones.

“But we think it isn’t a question of people but of a system that has to be changed so that people can and are obliged to do the work they are supposed to: defend workers’ rights so that they are able to work in a normal way.

Renfrey Clarke: “How did you come to decide to form a new trade union of locomotive brigades?”

Volodya Fedorov: “It began in February 1991 when the locomotive brigades of the Ilyich depot called a conference of representatives of locomotive brigades throughout Moscow. I was sent by the general assembly of our collective with the right to vote in its name. ...

“A Moscow Coordinating Council for the Social Defence of Railway Workers (MCC) was elected from among the delegates who attended.”

Fedorov went to explain how sackings and the disorganisation of the industry meant that they had lost touch with many of the delegates. A local union had been set up from 35 delegates representing 11 depots who attended a founding congress in January 1992. Delegates had been demoted and others had been victimised for their activity. The union was not recognised legally, and they were fighting for this in the civil courts. Despite the denial of legal recognition, they had been able to carry out successful industrial action and protests, because the court system was too slow to be able to impose sanctions, before actions were successfully completed.[230]

Also, workers who chose to organise “new” unions did not necessarily lose influence in the “official” unions. According to Mikhail Malyutin, a member of the preparatory committee for a Socialist Party in 1990, who belonged to the Democratic Platform in the CPSU, the official miners’ union was subject to considerable influence from the strike committees. Other reports indicate however that the reverse is equally true - that activity organised by the official unions always receives support from sections of the “new” unions.

In the interview, Malyutin also pointed out that the independent trade union, Association of Socialist Trade Unions (SOTSPROF), had worker groups adhering to a socialist position. However, the anarchists and socialists who had been responsible for founding SOTSPROF in the perestroika period gradually lost their leadership positions, the word “socialist” was dropped from its name and there were allegations of corruption among its leading officials. During the 1992 strike campaign by health workers, SOTSPROF officials tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade workers to boycott the action.

In the Russian Trilateral Commission on Industrial Relations in 1992, Yeltsin provided SOTSPROF with offices and a role far out of proportion to its membership and influence. SOTPROF gained a reputation as Yeltsin’s “company union”. SOTSPROF also received support from the US ALF-CIO. Even where there has been an exodus from the official trade unions, most workers have not joined SOTSPROF or the smaller “new” trade unions. In fact, many of the workers who came to prominence as leaders of the “new” unions, are today wealthy entrepreneurs or powerful government officials.

There is no doubt that the leadership of many of the new unions have been very much influenced by Yeltsin and right-wing social democratic forces, and those union organisations adhering to left-wing politics remain extremely marginalised. At the same time, the struggle to reorient and integrate newly politicised workers into the official trade unions and clear out the most corrupt bureaucrats is a protracted process. In some plants where the old union structures remain under the control of Stalinists, unionism is for all practical purposes non-existent.

In contrast to the “official” unions in Poland, which were organised along trade lines, the Soviet unions were industrial unions, that is, they covered all grades of worker in a given industry, organised by workplace. Generally speaking, it was the manual workers who took the initiative to create the “new” unions and they excluded both administrative and professional/technical staff when setting up their new unions. This is an understandable reflex from workers who had been excluded from control over their own unions by the “upper stratum” and were coming into independent activity for the first time. This feature of the “new” unions has some positive features, and in a sense was probably inevitable. It has had the effect of excluding important sections of the working class from this movement however.

Also, the “new” unions have come into existence at a time when workers have suffered enormous set-backs, but it has still been exceptionally difficult times to organise industrial action - not only in Russia, but in the major capitalist countries as well.


At a times of economic chaos and plummeting living standards, the social welfare functions of the official trade unions have proved to be an asset that the Russian workers value. Despite the impotence of the official union bodies as instruments of industrial struggle, and their identification as instruments of social control under the Stalinist regime, over eighty per cent of workers remained faithful to their trade unions after Yeltsin came to power.

The All-Union Confederation of Trade Unions was reformed into the General Confederation of Trade Unions, and after the break-up of the USSR, the GCTU was split into national federations, with the FNPR headed by Igor Klochkov in Russia. The FNPR retained its social functions - distribution of scarce consumer goods, arranging holidays for workers children, etc., but began to change. New people began to appear in the organisation, including workers who had been active in the strike committees of 1989 - 90.

As the impact of Yeltsin’s “reforms” began to hit workers, the FNPR began to respond to demands of its members. Although still giving “critical support” to the governments program, the FNPR negotiated a wage-indexation and minimum wage agreement with the government in 1991. The FNPR also opposed the privatisation program as workers witnessed the impact of privatisation on its conditions.

However the government did not observe the wages agreement, in particular depriving the state enterprises of funds to pay workers’ wages, and the FNPR leadership began to radicalise in response to the anger among its members. In 1992 they organised a wide campaign of strikes and demonstrations against the governments policies.

The most radical transformation took place in the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions (MFP)[231]. Mikhail Shmakov was elected chairperson of the MFP and promised to turn the MFP into an independent and influential force, capable of challenging both the government authorities and the FNPR leadership. Shamkov was the first new leader in the FNPR to open up a dialogue with the young, left-wing activists who had been active in the opposition movement during the perestroika period, and succeeded in bringing a large number of them into positions in the MFP. These new leaders have proved effective in introducing concepts and methods of class struggle into the “official” unions.

An example of this group is Andrei Isayev, a leader of the Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists (KAS) and organiser of some of the first opposition meetings in 1987 - 8. Isayev transformed the notoriously dull newspaper of the MFP, Solidarnost, with a circulation of 5,000 in August 1991, into a lively publication with a circulation of 40,000, read not only by workers but by increasing numbers of the intelligentsia looking for an alternative to “liberalism”.

Isayev argued that in order to defend the social gains of the Soviet system the Left had to adopt a position of “left conservatism”. This stance enjoys considerable rapport with the attitude of workers who are witnessing the destruction of their country’s social and productive power by the restorationists. Isayev also argued for a strong state sector in industry and wages and prices control.

The FNPR proved the be effective negotiators on behalf of workers’ interests and negotiated a number of agreements with the government to defend jobs and wages. However, they were much less effective in mobilising their mass membership in defence of the concessions won in negotiations. The government exploited this weakness, and made a practice of ignoring commitments made during talks. The campaign during the summer of 1993 against the reneging of the government on its 1991 agreement on indexation of wages was an attempt to correct this weakness.

In their article in Links, Kagarlitsky and Renfrey Clarke point out that:

“However much the FNPR suffered as a result of ‘trade union bureaucracy’, its most dangerous malady was arguably spontaneism. The demands which the trade unions were putting forward in mid-1993 were ones which had arisen spontaneously from below; the higher echelons of the union leadership simply recorded these demands, summarised them, and presented them to the government. The strength of the collective protests was in large measure the result of this responsiveness to rank and file sentiment. But the failure to develop a consistent analysis and the lack of a coherent political project represented crucial weaknesses. Relying largely on trial and error, the unions consistently lagged behind the development of events. The FNPR let almost a year go by without declaring its opposition to the government’s course. While the MFP immediately found a niche in constructive opposition, the all-Russian union federation tried to maintain a line of critical support for the reforms”.[232]

The decisive capture of state power by the restorationist Boris Yeltsin ended any ambiguity in the relation between the “official” union organisation and the government. In October 1993, the FNPR leaders aligned themselves with the besieged parliamentarians and earnt the enmity of President Yeltsin.

Renfrey Clarke reported on the extraordinary congress of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) on October 28 1993:

‘When Yeltsin threw legality to the winds and abolished the parliament on September 21, FNPR leaders bitterly condemned the move. This was not because the union federation had particular links to powerful figures from the former Soviet apparatus. On the contrary, the old Soviet apparatchiks were now very often facing union leaders across the negotiating table, having transformed themselves into Yeltsin staffers or nomenklatura capitalists’.

‘An expanded plenum of the FNPR on September 28 voted to condemn Yeltsin’s coup, and the same day a presidential decree stripped the unions of their control over funds out of which workers receive disability payments, holiday vouchers and a variety of other welfare benefits. At the same time, the government made clear that unless the unions’ attitude became more accommodating, the automatic deduction of union dues from pay packets would be banned’.[233]

In the wake of Yeltsin’s coup, the FNPR came under severe pressure, with threats that the union would be disbanded. A number of repressive measures were taken against unions in provincial areas. In response to this pressure, strike plans were shelved. Igor Klochkov, FNPR Chairperson, who was closely involved in preparing the “Plan for Collective Action” and had called for mobilisation to defend the Parliament building against Yeltsin’s assault, was forced by more conservative officials to resign. To appease the government, the FNPR dropped plans to participate in the election campaigning as part of a “Russian Union of Labour”. Not a word was said at the Congress about Yeltsin’s coup and no plans were made for continuing strikes and protests - the original purpose for convening the congress.

In the main report to the congress by Mikhail Shmakov, chairperson of the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions, and elected chairperson of the FNPR at the end of the congress, said that methods of “direct pressure on the government” had failed but the labour movement “should not reject all forms of collective action” but at the present stage, it was “probably more effective to concentrate on honest business-like negotiations and on honestly carrying out the agreements reached”.

Above all, the unions had to lead the fight for economic democracy, “that is, for a social order in which workers participate in deciding the conditions of their labour and its payment, in determining the fate of enterprises, in shaping government economic policy and in providing social benefits”.

Shmakov also proposed to decentralise the FNPR and turn it into a body providing services to trade unions and coordinating their activity, rather than directing the action and policies of the branches. Apart from setting membership rights and subscription rates, the central body’s decisions would thenceforth only be recommendations.

During the October 1993 coup by Yeltsin, industrial action virtually ceased. Reflecting the hesitation affecting its membership the FNPR pulled its horns in, and Yeltsin recognised his opportunity. The government confiscated the unions’ social welfare funds and terminated this link which had been instrumental in the survival of the trade unions as mass organisations.

Centralism or federalism?

The new unions built up from the strike committees have retained the local organisations as the decisive level of their organisation. Given their origins that is not surprising. These strike committees have given rise to a new generation of worker-politicians whose politics cover a wide spectrum, and who have had variable success in achieving coordination of action at republican or national level. The members of these new unions are uniformly hostile to centralised leadership, but are facing huge problems in achieving nation-wide co-ordinated action and most are very disorganised. They have also failed to produce a new leadership capable of rivalling either the official unions or challenging the government with a pro-worker political and industrial strategy.

The FNPR has also made a decision to become more federalist. This decision is a response to the demands of its members for more say in directing the affairs of the union and a reflection of the lack of confidence the members have in the leadership. It is also a necessity if the FNPR is to train a new generation of worker-leaders.

The demand of Russian workers for a decentralised union structure is part of move in favour of decentralisation which affects all aspects of their lives.

The pressure of workers in favour of decentralisation of industries and the break-up of the Union is closely tied to the perspective of gaining control over their lives through bottom-up organisation. In the same interview quoted above, when asked by David Mandel: “Did you give any thought to reforming the union’s central committee in Moscow?”, Nikolai Belanovskii explained that:

“In practice that couldn’t be done. At the central level people were in fact appointed. Elections were completely formal”.

and Belanovskii explained how workers approached the questions of government in the same way:

“... people wouldn’t have been moved to fight for sovereignty if Moscow had not exercised such dictatorial powers. All power was concentrated in Moscow. No enterprise director could decide anything of importance without Moscow’s OK. All the major financing came from Moscow. That’s not a normal situation”.

“Our republic had a Federation of Trade Unions that unites all the branch unions. But it too was extremely conservative, and its officials were selected in the same way as Moscow’s. One of the reasons we have so many problems with our unions is that the party apparatus consciously placed its functionaries, who in their majority had no lower level union experience, in the unions’ higher structures”. ...

“In writing the constitution [of our union] we had two basic aims. One was to make the union democratic, to get rid of the pyramidic structure. The plant organisations had to become the foundation of the union, and all other structures should serve their interests ... only 10 per cent of the union dues go to the central council ... 90 per cent remains in the primary organisations”.

Which comes first: party or union?

One of the problems facing Soviet workers is this: they must have a new workers’ political party to resolve the social crisis; but the construction of such a leadership will be a protracted process, and in the meantime workers treat all politicians with the greatest suspicion, not least those who claim to champion the rights of workers.

They also desperately need organisations to defend their immediate interests, take up grievances and facilitate mobilisation against government policies contrary to their interests. This is also a protracted process, but as 1989 proved, even local strike committees organised spontaneously can be very effective. And such ad hoc organisations have the advantage of allowing workers to directly participate in electing the leaders and deciding the actions. And have not the official unions proved themselves to be hostile to the workers?

In the interview quoted earlier, Vladimir Resnits commented:

“Today it would make more sense to form active trade unions, independent of the official structures. This is obviously very difficult, but if we managed to set up such unions, which could concretely defend people and their social rights, then it would unite a broad range of people not around a specific ideological tendency, but around basic demands. On the basis of these unions it could be possible to found real political organisations. The workers could then also have a possibility to control their politicians from below”.

However, the past few years have shown that the spontaneously-formed organisations are prone to reactionary influence and, despite the success of the Independent Union of Miners (NPG), have had considerable difficulty in building national organisations. Most remain little more than a circle of agitators, able to influence and intervene in workers struggles, but unable to offer consistent and co-ordinated programs of action.

The perspective of renovating the official unions is undoubtedly the only viable progressive possibility. However, this perspective inevitably means that those sections of the Communist Party which remain within the workers’ movement will retain considerable influence. In some areas this has led to the new ‘worker-politicians’ being locked out of the union, seeing no alternative but to by-pass the official union. It also means that Stalinism will continue to play a leading role in leadership of the workers’ movement, even though no longer in government.

In 1992-93, the leadership of the FNPR first began to confront the need to actively intervene in the political arena. Igor Klochkov and others initially proposed an alliance with the Civic Union, which represented the interests of enterprise managers. The trade unions shared certain objectives with the Civic Union regarding the need to maintain the economic infrastructure in the face of the destructive effects of Yeltsin and Gaidar’s monetarist policies and the break up of the Union. However, the Civic Union was a representative of employers and the FNPR represented the interests of employees and it soon became clear such an alliance was fundamentally flawed. In October 1992, leaders of the FNPR participated in the moves to found the Party of Labour. During Yeltsin’s election in December 1993, the FNPR decided against fielding candidates of their own.

The fall of Stalinism from governmental power has not eradicated the necessity for workers to transcend and overcome Stalinism as a tendency within the workers movement.

At the same time, it must not be ignored that people educated by Stalinism, having opted to participate in the struggle of the working class under new conditions, can ‘change their spots’.

Many of the debates among the left groupings in Moscow, and in the workers’ districts, hinge around this problem.