The Russian government breathed a sigh of relief on March 27 when, instead of the 20 million demonstrators predicted by the trade unions, fewer than two million workers took to the streets to protest wage and pensions arrears. And, instead of the 7 million strikers the unions had promised, only about 310,000 Russian workers downed their tools. Moreover, an estimated 83 percent of the strikers were school-teachers. Of the 1,800 workplaces closed by strikes on March 27, 1,500 were schools. (Itar-Tass, Interfax, March 29) Teachers, along with doctors, nurses, and miners, have been hardest hit by the crisis of payments to state employees.
The failure of Russia’s workers to take to the streets does not mean that the population does not care about wage arrears. In a recent poll of 1,600 Russian citizens, 66 percent of respondents identified wage and pensions arrears as the country’s number 1 problem, with crime and unemployment trailing far behind. (Izvestiya, March 27) The reason for the low turn-out in last week’s protests seems to have been that workers did not think that strikes and demonstrations would do any good, and also that they do not believe the trade unions represent their true interests. Several commentators have accused the unions of colluding with the authorities, just as they did in the Soviet period. Prior to last week’s protests, the opposition implicitly accused the unions of selling the workers short when Communist leaders called on the unions to add political demands for the ouster of the Yeltsin government to their economic demands for wage payments. The unions refused and, in a commentary on March 28, the newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta accused the unions of dampening down their demands in an effort to curry favor with the central government.
There are also allegations that, at the local level, the unions are colluding with regional governments to put pressure on the central government. The Monitor’s correspondent in the Volga region reports that union leaders in Saratov oblast agreed with the oblast government prior to the March 27 demonstration that they would not criticize the regional administration. Instead, Saratov union leaders and local government officials concentrated their fire at the federal authorities in the hope of wringing concessions for the region from the center. The same tactic was seen in neighboring Tatarstan. The Monitor’s correspondent there reports that the microphones were turned off when a group of demonstrators in the town of Nizhnekamsk tried to shift the focus of speeches from criticism of the federal government to protests — including a demand to be paid in cash instead of in surrogate money — aimed at the local authorities.
Eduard Pustelga, deputy chairman of the Saratov Oblast Trade Union Federation, has also claimed that workers were intimidated. He says pressure was put on doctors and nurses in hospitals in Saratov oblast, "on instructions from Saratov’s public health minister Vladimir Maron," to sign an undertaking not to strike on March 27. Medical staff were warned that they would be fired if they refused to sign. "Who’s going to protest if it will cost them their job?" Pustelga demanded. (Obshchaya gazeta, March 27-April 2)
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