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February 12, 1998


Russia: What's Up, What's Down, What's Left

At the height of Cold War xenophobia in America there came the occasional heretical suggestion that were we really interested in knowing what the Russian people were like, we should simply make an excursion to our own Midwest. If anything, the comparison understated the abidingly conservative values of family, custom and sodality cherished by the Russian populace. Historically their strain of forbearance has been singularly resolute, as we should at least have been reminded by the example of their experience in WWII.

Such heroic patience is the only way to explain the fact that Russian wage workers have not as yet attempted to seize the country. More than 20 million people, one Russian worker in four, are not paid regularly. Another five percent, approaching four million people, are owed between six and twelve months' pay. Only one-quarter of Russian workers are paid in full and on time. Forty percent of workers in a survey last year (and 54 percent of unskilled workers) said they had not received salaries for the previous month. As of October 1 nearly 55.3 trillion rubles ($9.4 billion) in unpaid wages were owed by the state and private enterprises. Almost half of the country's 22,000 companies are in violation of Russian Federation legislation on wage payment.

This compilation of State Statistics Committee figures and independent research data are furnished by the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM), which is leading the campaign against non-payment of wages in conjunction with the FNPR, the Russian Independent Federation of Trade Unions, and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). The 20-million member ICEM, which successfully pioneered the use of the Internet against Bridgestone/Firestone in organized labor's first cyber-campaign in 1996 (Flier, 7/25/96), launched an electronic campaign against wage arrears in Russia in November. As with the Bridgestone strike, the ICEM web site (http://www.icem.org/) provides links for sending protests to the World Bank and other international institutions, the Russian government, regional administrations and employers, and multinational banks and corporations.

During the first six months of 1997 the number of strikes in Russia increased five-fold from the previous year, averaging 5,000 stoppages per month from January to March. It will probably surprise no one that the U.S.media --- including our "paper of record" --- reported almost nothing of this, with the exception of the massive general strikes in the fall of 1996 and in March of 1997. In the energy sector, where the thrust of worker anger will likely force a showdown, a pair of mine explosions in December and January which claimed 94 lives received scant coverage (500 Russian miners have died on the job in the past two years), as did two serious protests in late January by workers enraged by the failure of the government to keep the promise it made in July to pay off all wage arrears by the end of 1997. In the Far Eastern Maritime District 2,500 miners and defense industry workers blocked the Trans-Siberian railway in two places for two hours, the largest to date in a continuing series of demonstrations against the railway. The miners had not been paid for 7 months, the defense workers for 19 months. In Siberia, more than 50 miners in Polusayevo who had not been paid for two years stormed management offices and took the mine's director and 20 executives hostage. Detailed English-language accounts of these incidents could be found only through the BBC and Reuters.

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Production has fallen off 50 percent since 1991. As the Russian oligarchy squirrels capital abroad to the tune of some $2 billion each month, direct foreign investment in tandem with IMF/World Bank lending have stepped forward to exacerbate the misery. The comparatively meager level of foreign investment --- $2 billion in the first half of 1997 --- has largely been in natural resources --- oil, coal, gas and timber. Removing the systemic inter-enterprise debt and wage obligations of these essential state industries by allowing them to collapse has been the IMF's ongoing demand, and an $800 million loan to the Russian coal industry from the World Bank in December was made conditional on the government's carrying out a coal privatization program. It is expected that the proportion of coal produced by privately-owned mines will rise to 50 percent by year's end, from a current level of 8.5 percent.

Concurrent with the approval of the loan was an announcement by the government of its "restructuring" of the industry and its plans this year to shut down at least 87 of the 200 mines presently in operation. Coal sector employment has fallen 18 percent in the past two years to 359,000, and the new closures will shrink it by another 100,000 workers. In one major Siberian coal district, only 7 percent of the 17,000 people put out of work by the shutdown of 17 pits since 1994 have found new work, and government social welfare guarantees to the displaced miners have not been met.

For the motley synod of free-market converts now administrating Russia into chaos, this inevitable squaring-off with the best organized and most assertive of Russia's workers appears to be the litmus test of its "reform" policies. It coupled the mining decree with the revelation that by the year 2000 it will have reduced the number of defense sector enterprises by two-thirds --- from 1,700 to 670. Then, on January 6, it capped off its vision of the future with an all-encompassing diktat, outlining the drafting of a new labor code which will curtail the influence of trade unions in worker-management relations.

The response of the miners was their January direct actions --- and, in effect, the addition of a political component to their economic resistance. One needn't have looked too far to see prior glimmerings. On December 17 Segodnya  reported that the Maritime District miners "consider that the coal sector in Russia should be state-owned." On January 15 an estimated 200,000 miners in the Kuzbass, Siberia's leading coal region, demanded a halt to mine closures and called on the government to fund a plan for the revival of production in the region. Last summer, as destitution and despair grew, the Kuzbass workers set up soviet-style "committees of salvation," elected at shop floor level, coordinated with town councils and integrated with the unions. These committees have spread to other regions as well.

The Kremlin's fear of the miners' clout with other workers and unionists has also spread fear among the leadership of the Communist Party as it acquiesces in the chilling march of Yeltsin's market restorationism. In deciding to jettison those former-apparatchik--led institutions the miners are now left --- and not happily --- with the trade unions as the sole leadership vehicle for themselves and an increasingly militant and growing cross-section of workers. Recent statements from the hierarchy of the FNPR --- heir to the old state unions --- reveals it to be as alarmed as the government at the rising vehemence of worker activism. Its refusal to initiate a comprehensive strategy to combat the crisis has further alienated workers.

The legendary self-restraint typical of the toilers of the Russian heartland is fading, as indicated by the Kuzbass miners' threat of a regional general strike if their demands are not met. In the absence of a viable organ of national leadership, such isolated actions remain a far cry from the working class moving as a single entity, though as symbolic displays they  are crucial to what will surely develop eventually. A small upturn in the economy, and corresponding rising expectations among workers --- or, obversely, another plunge in globalism's fortunes, and an accompanying Hobbesian nightmare --- might well be the fuel which ignites an all-out Russian class struggle.

For the international labor bureaucracy, the Western unions like ICEM which are properly battling with their Russian affiliates in the good fight for back wages, the crux of the notion of internationalism is yet at issue. Should Russian workers determine that neoliberal corruption and avarice are intent upon obliterating all traces of Russian sovereignty, they will award international labor's social democratic concept of "social partnership" with capital a class-collaborationist tag. Will Western unionists somehow attempt to hold the workers in check? Re-direct what will essentially be a syndicalist  revolt for social ownership of industry toward some kind of reconstituted --- but still complaisant --- FNPR?  And what of the CP and its careful maneuvering with the military (long overdue for a coup attempt) --- is there in the Western labor secretariat's prospectus a selling point for worker allegiance to a Zyuganov-Lebed Bonapartist nationalism?

Objective conditions (as they say) being what they are, the deepest wellsprings of denial aren't much of a barrier against this powder keg's detonation, and it's a given that Michael Specter of The New York Times, should he finally bother to try, would be hard-pressed to explain it for you. This newest extension of the dialectic will again be, as Rosa Luxemburg understood it, a matter of spontaneous self-education.

   --- Copyright John Hutchison 1998

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