Issue 195 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
Sectional explosions started to roll last year in the Kuzbass, the biggest of the Russian coal basins, over the ever increasing delays in wage payments. Often just one shift of miners would turn up to find that no wages had arrived on the due date for payment, and they'd say, 'Right, we're not going down. We've had enough,' or they'd go down and when they came up, they'd sit down at the pithead and try and bring out the next shift.
This started to happen across the coalfield. Up until the late summer none of those strikes spread beyond individual mines. They tended to be short and were characterised by an incredible level of bitterness and anger. One of the longest of these strikes was in the Nagornaya mine. The miners came out from their shift in their heavy workclothes. They sat in the blazing sun, temperatures in the 80s, and simply refused to go to work. By the end of the day the whole mine was out, and a strike committee had been elected, consisting almost entirely of ordinary underground miners.
They took complete control of the mine, they organised maintenance shifts to ensure safety and they stayed out for nine days. The problem was that it did not spread to other mines and therefore the coal association was able to sit it out.
One of the reasons why it didn't spread was the contradictory impact of the restructuring. The reason the wage delays are happening (apart from the general crisis) is that the Russian equivalent of what was our Coal Board has a selective strategy in terms of subsidising what it sees as the most productive mines. The ones it punishes financially are where the wage delays are most severe. So not all miners are being hit to the same extent, and where there's a spontaneous strike, it's not automatic that other miners will identify with it.
After nine days, a meeting was held which decided to go back, because it was felt they couldn't influence the subsidies paid out by Moscow. Every time a representative of the coal association, or the mine management, tried to speak they could hardly make themselves heard. The bitterness and the anger were intense.
The picture started to change in the late summer. The headlines started to talk of a rerun of the 1989 strikes, of a social explosion, of a rolling strike wave that would spread across the whole of Russia's coal regions. When a strike started over wage delays at a mine in Mezhdurechensk--of symbolic importance because it's where the strikes in 1989 began--for the first time other mines in the town started to support them. A town strike committee was formed which decided to call a protest towards the end of September. At the same time, coal union representatives from the whole of the Kuzbass coal basin decided to call a one day miners' strike.
The prospect started to open up of a generalisation of the strikes. The strikes in Mezhdurechensk also coincided with a teachers' strike. It was very easy for workers to make connections, because the teachers' main grievance was also delays in wage payments.
There was a town wide meeting. The square was packed with miners, teachers, health workers, transport workers and metal workers. The call for the one day regional strike raised the prospect of generalisation, spontaneous or otherwise. But this didn't happen because of the contradictory legacy of 1989. The massive strike wave then was a crucial element in the upheavals which brought down the Soviet Union. At the same time there were very deep illusions placed in the reformists led by Yeltsin. You talk to any worker in the Kuzbass, miners in particular, and people will say it was the miners who put Yeltsin in power.
There's an incredible political vacuum that has extremely serious consequences in terms of how the struggles then develop. This really lies at the heart of why the Communist Party got double the vote in the Kuzbass than it did nationally. Huge support for Yeltsin then has swung to now the biggest level of support of any other single region for Zhuganov and the Stalinists of the KPRF.
The situation with the miners today is quite complicated. Many of us had the impression that the unions which inherited the old state structures could be no more than the old state trade unions in another form. At best these unions were providers of services such as holidays, housing or kindergartens in the enterprise they organised. Essentially they were little more than a personnel department. At worst they were enforcers of productivity targets and labour discipline. They were tied to enterprise management and to the Communist Party structures.
Now the union bureaucracy is no longer appointed by the Communist Party, by the state or by management, and their role is ambivalent. In one sense they are incredibly bureaucratic. I interviewed the chair of the trade union committee at the Ussinskaya mine, where the most important spontaneous strike took place last summer. He is elected by the trade union committee for a term of five years. He gets paid 80 percent of the mine director's salary and was vehemently antagonistic towards the spontaneous strike and clearly oriented himself on management.
But that's not the whole story. While he was sitting in his office, a worker barged through the door, complaining of the fact that he had been moved arbitrarily to another shift, making it difficult for him to get the bus back home. He shouted at the trade union boss, saying he's got no right to do this, was not having it--asking what was he going to do about it? This would have been inconceivable before 1989, it just could not have happened, yet clearly the bloke was uncomfortable. It says something about his role, the fact that he's under pressure from workers to represent their interests in however distorted a form.
In one sense it is an inherited membership. If you're taken on at a mine, you're automatically a member of the union, the NPRUP. Your subscriptions are automatically deducted--there's a 1 percent deduction from your wages. If you want to leave or join another union, you have to formally put it in writing that you're leaving.
But you can't explain that level of membership simply on the basis of inertia. You can't explain it either on the basis that workers perceive the unions as being the fighters and defenders of their interests. Workers are very cynical about the unions, but they think that the union should be defending their interests, that they need a structure that defends their interests against management and the state. They see no alternative to the old union structures.
There are two main unions. NPRUP (or Rosugolprof)--the Independent Union of Workers in the Coal Industry was formed in 1991 and inherited the finances, structures and membership of the old state 'unions'. It is a vertical union that includes all workers in the coal industry including managers.
However, there has been a dramatic turnover of officials within the union. Many of the new officials and representatives, who are elected, were activists in the 1989 strike. In the Kuzbass it represents from 70 to 90 percent of miners.
NPG--the Independent Union of Miners--is the other main union and was formed from the workers' committees that arose out of the 1989 strike. It includes only underground miners and has been fatally damaged by its support for Yeltsin and free market reform. It has opposed spontanious strikes and has virtually collapsed in the Kuzbass.
The strikes have thrown up a layer of activists within the trade union structure, in the mines and in education. Then what happens to these activists? They seek positions within the trade union structure itself. The whole thing is compounded by a political vacuum. In the West this would mean looking to social democracy. In its absence, you have the reactionary politics of the Communist Party which, although calling for improvements in workers' conditions, also links itself to the most right wing and backward looking nationalism, plus individual political figures, often opportunists creating an independent political base for themselves.
The damage done by the illusion in the market is deep. So recovery in consciousness and confidence is painful and slow. There is a sense of impotence, of defensiveness. This lays people open to the politics of reaction in the form of the CP or the open fascist Zhirinovsky.
The CP is not going to turn the situation back. When its members talk to workers, they are anti-market; but in a public forum they talk of a sensible pace of market reform--they won't dismantle the market. Their base is among lower layers of state and party officials and middle management who've gained nothing from restructuring. They are deeply antagonistic to workers and to struggle. They hate strikes. They go on about how they had order before.
But the anger can lead in a different direction: there are struggles, unpredictable struggles, and the conditions are there for the possibility of generalisation, which is why the ruling class is still so worried over the Kuzbass strikes.
A miner on events in France:
Placard at strikers' rally
A face worker on unity between miners of the two rival coal unions
Chair of regional miners' trade union committee
Miner speaking at strikers' rally in the town square of Mezhdurechensk, where the 1989 strikes began
Deputy chair of the Mezhdurechensk town strike committee
A striking miner speaking at a strikers' rally
June to September 1995: