The Predations of the Red Directors (Part 3)
By Albert Speransky
PART 3: TRADE UNIONS: THE HIRED WORKER IN SEARCH OF A DEFENDER
(This is the last of three articles)
In most countries, trade unions sympathize with left-wing parties and labor movements defend, not the interests of capital, but those of the worker. In a mature free-market economy, where each enterprise has a clearly-defined owner, this makes it possible to achieve a certain balance in society. But our country, over the years of Soviet power, diverged very far from world standards. For Russian free trade unions to find firm ground under their feet, they need to fight for the establishment of true market relations, in which it is clear who the owners are. And that, by most political standards, is already evidence of a tilt to the right.
When the Communist "bogeyman" still existed in the form of totalitarian regimes, which cynically called themselves "workers’ regimes," rulers of Western countries were forced to create better conditions for their workers, and to make legislative concessions to trade unions as a counterweight. So it can be said that our workers, by bearing the brunt of the Communist experiment, also indirectly helped the labor movement in the West. After the dissolution of the USSR and the "socialist camp," political tension in the world decreased. But one need not be surprised if, in this climate of detente, pressure on trade unions increases, and the working class is forced, in some part of the world, to create a new likeness of the Communist USSR, by revolutionary means. In other words, society develops cyclically. This development is propelled by the constant tension between two principles: the conflict between the owners and the workers and the eternal search for social partnership.
The Communist system did not provide the opportunity for such a partnership to develop. Everything was built on the suppression of some by others and this was especially noticeable in the world of labor. It is hard for a person who has been through this "meat-grinder" to have any concept of civilized labor relations. Over the course of several generations, Russian workers have been prevented from receiving any reliable information about labor relations in the civilized world. They were forbidden to unite voluntarily to defend their own interests. A "surrogate," an imitation of a real trade union, was created for them by the state.
Soviet Trade Unions
One of Stalin’s party critics wrote back in 1932: "The trade unions are also experiencing a crisis. This crisis has manifested itself in the following way: once the ‘school of communism,’ they have been turned into a school for deceiving the masses, a school which shamelessly ignores the will and mood of the masses, a mere adjunct of the party economic apparatus. At present, the trade unions not only do not defend the interests of the workers; on the contrary, they are being used as an instrument for depressing workers’ real wages and reducing their standard of living."
Ryutin* was shot for these harsh words, but the Soviet trade unions, which spoke not for, but against, the interests of the workers, have survived, and remain alive in this time of reform and perestroika.
In Soviet times, a worker had to be a member of the trade union, since all sick leave was administered by the trade union; passes to sanatoria and Young Pioneer camps, apartments, and even New Year’s trees were given out through these organizations.
Every Soviet citizen graduated from this "school of communism," with varying degrees of success. The "best students" got to stay in prestigious sanatoria and got the best apartments. The "poor students" were those who didn’t always listen to their Communist teachers, i.e., their bosses. For one of these people to get anything for himself, he had to elbow aside one of his co-workers. Everyone was involved in these dirty intrigues. Bitter feelings of shame were what the Soviet trade unions left us. For a long time, we yearned to wash our hands (and souls) of them. And that is what people are doing now. One by one, and sometimes, in groups, they are abandoning the old trade unions, now renamed the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia [FNPR]. Over the last four years, about 30 million people, or about half their membership, have left these trade unions. This process can be likened to an avalanche. Even if the FNPR had wanted to count its members, it wouldn’t be able to; it is declining too rapidly. To maintain its authority and shore up its image, it has had to resort to exaggerating its membership figures in official documents.
The core of the FNPR unions are those who, by rights, should not be in trade unions at all: representatives of the factory administration and those workers, who, by virtue of their activity on behalf of the director’s policies, betray the interests of their co-workers. In a difficult time, these people are trying to survive by betraying their fellow-workers.
In these trade unions, hired workers have the humiliating role of supporting the trade-union elite, the FNPR structure, with their dues.
Workers are forced to do this because of massive staff reductions. People are trying, any way they can, to hold in their emotions, to avoid confrontations with the union leadership, which helps the director in everything, including picking out those "malcontents" who have to be fired first of all.
What Are the Old Trade Unions Living On?
The FNPR’s financial situation is being very carefully concealed. Due to the decline in production and the delays in the payment of salaries, the inflow of dues has diminished. But in spite of this, the FNPR is still alive, and quite respectably so.
What is this powerful bureaucratic structure living on? Journalists put this question to Vladimir Tolyupa, chairman of the Krasnodar krai council of trade unions. He answered that the krai trade union council is renting out its headquarters building and getting dividends on the stock it owns. Let’s take the trade union council’s headquarters building for example. 117 people used to work there. Recently, they cut back their staff to 17. One hundred jobs were thus "freed." If there were three jobs per room (and it’s very doubtful that they were this crowded), that gives us 33 vacant rooms. If they rented these rooms out, they would make a big profit, for renting office space is now a fantastically lucrative business, especially since trade union buildings are usually located on prime real estate in the center of the city.
That’s how trade union bureaucrats are living off the property which the Soviet government gave them. Sanatoria, hotels, stadiums, sports halls, educational institutions, and a number of office buildings. Even if they lost every last one of their members, these trade union bureaucrats would be guaranteed their bread and butter for the rest of their lives.
The FNPR’s Primary Organizations
One may assess the viability of a trade union by seeing how its structure works, above all, the primary organizations which form its foundation. Earlier, questions of production were decided at meetings, and factory and shop union committees were entrusted with deciding who got goods and services which were in short supply. Now, these production questions have fallen by the wayside, and the trade unions have nothing to distribute.
Once the production and distribution questions, which had once, so to speak, bound the labor collective together into a single whole, disappeared, the old trade unions immediately disintegrated into groups with different interests. The factory trade union committee chairmen have, on the advice of the directors, deliberately refrained from calling any serious trade union meetings and are trying to put off union elections.
Thus, one can hardly say that the old trade union system is alive and ready to defend the hired worker. Indeed, how can you simultaneously defend the interests of the wolf, who wants to eat the sheep, and the lamb, who is waiting to be gobbled up? What "common interests" can there be in this case? But the FNPR is trying its best to prove the opposite. The protest actions it has led are very revealing in this regard.
Here are the words on one of the FNPR’s leaflets from one such protest action:
"With our united action, we will express the trade union’s protest against the continuing deterioration of the standard of living of millions of workers, the decline in production, and the unceasing rise in prices for food and other necessary items.
Working people are very worried about the prospect of unemployment, about the countless able, creative hands which are being squeezed out of the spheres of industry, agriculture, science and culture.
They demand and will persistently fight to ensure that the government take measures to change its economic course."
This text, with minor changes, has gone from one FNPR leaflet to another for several years in a row. Regional trade union councils determine how many protesters there should be from each enterprise. Trade union representatives clear the list of "candidates" with the directors. On the appointed day, the protesters are given "per diem" money, put on buses, and sent off with their placards to the protest site. In other words, it is the directors who are the main organizers of these protest actions. It is very advantageous to them to direct workers’ indignation towards the government, thus deflecting it from themselves, as those chiefly to blame for these economic problems.
There are many things that tie the "red" directors with their old trade unions. This is not surprising, since these trade unions are their last consistent defenders. It couldn’t have been any other way, since to a man, the leaders of the old trade unions were hand-picked by these directors. So there is no point in complaining about how these trade unions are the director’s "pocket" trade unions. With a persistence worthy of a better cause, they protect their bosses from the assaults of all enemies, including from the wrath of their own workers.
Western Trade Unions and Russian Free Trade Unions
Sad as it is, workers have no defenders in this country. In a number of court cases to restore illegally fired workers to their jobs, the lawyers were paid by the Free Trade Union Institute, which was created by the AFL-CIO. And even this little act of charity was seen by our "patriots" as a direct interference by the CIA in our sovereign affairs. Isn’t that blasphemous? Someone’s life is being destroyed, but don’t interfere: he’s one of us.
One must admit that Western trade unions really are showing interest in our labor relations. German and American trade unions already have offices in Russia. They are trying to enlighten our workers a little, to show them another, more civilized, world of labor relations. Let those who wish us ill, including the FNPR, rejoice: our guests are practical people; they see that they will benefit from their work among us. If our workers remain legally illiterate, unable to defend themselves from their employers, and permit themselves to be exploited, to work for nothing, then Russia will be flooded with foreign capital, which will hurry to make a profit from cheap Russian labor. And who would suffer most from this? Western workers and the AFL-CIO! Wages would go down all over the world. Strange as it may seem, American workers, in order to defend themselves, are forced to teach Russian workers to defend themselves as well.
I don’t know anything about the CIA; we know its activity only from detective novels. But many of us have directly experienced the charms of our own security service, the KGB. Soviet workers who tried to protest against their having no labor rights ended up, not at the negotiation table, but in the KGB’s dark cellars. This was done very quickly and efficiently. And even now, this fearsome firm has not lost its control over the workers’ movement. For example, when bus drivers went on strike in Kopeisk, the security service was the first to react, sending its representatives to the labor collective to "set things straight."
The Free Trade Unions
Only the new trade unions are trying to resist the destruction of enterprises, to oppose directors and to save workers from high-handed treatment in the legal system. A noble cause, but no one is hurrying to give them a helping hand. If the government does not understand the defensive role of the trade unions, then it will make false steps and will never gain the confidence of the workers. Real trade unions are the foundation on which democracy will be built in the country. Democracy begins, not with meetings in public squares, but from winning freedoms at the workplace, from the appearance of democratic labor relations.
Our free trade unions will have a difficult road ahead of them. What can a few dozen people do against the well-oiled machine of repression in the structure of the labor collective, and the army of yes-men which surrounds the director. Labor legislation, as I have already said, is virtually non-existent. The directors know this and pay no attention to the new trade unions. For two years, there has been a free union at the Voronezh Aircraft Plant. The workers united to defend their interests and their pay, but have been able to do nothing. They write letters to the director and send him petitions, but he doesn’t answer. The prosecutor is also silent. Who would join such a union, ignored as it is by the government at all levels? As a result, of the 100 men who started the "Ilya Muromets"** free trade union, as the aircraft workers so beautifully named it, there are no more than 50 left after two years. Now, the growth of free trade unions has almost stopped, although their creation is a life and death matter.
This will have a negative effect, not only on labor relations, but also on the restructuring of our society in general.
The free trade unions were created on the crest of the wave of resistance to the totalitarian regime, as a democratic workers’ movement. They composed their demands "vertically"; they spoke out against the Communist party, sparing, for the time being, the directors, their immediate bosses. Such an approach could only be correct four years ago. Now, the situation has fundamentally changed. The time has come to work methodically on a lower level. Closer contacts must be formed with employers. Collective contracts must be prepared, negotiated, and once they are signed, care must be taken to make sure that they are faithfully observed. Commissions and committees must be formed. Close ties with human rights organizations must be established. Free trade unions must learn to participate in the appropriate legal proceedings and learn to work according to plan.
This is a new stage in the formation of real — and not just decorative — trade unions. There is little "revolutionary romance" in this stage, and a lot of routine, bureaucratic work. Many democratic leaders have proven unable to force themselves into such work, and are stuck at the "rally" stage. It is sad when yesterday’s vanguard becomes a hindrance to the further development of the labor movement, and become "transitional figures." As soon as we get used to one set of heroes, the time demands new ones. Where will we find these new heroes? We will have to raise them, to nurture them. Not just the fate of individual enterprises, but the fate of the country as a whole, depends upon them.
* M.N. Ryutin headed a group of rather obscure party figures which wrote and circulated a memorandum in 1932, urging Stalin’s removal as General Secretary.
** Ilya Muromets is the hero of a Russian folk tale.
Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky and Mark Eckert