Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 16

Who will defend Russia’s workers if they are unable to defend themselves?

By Aleksandr Buzgalin and Andrei Kolganov

Russia’s brief experience of radical economic and social reforms suggests that it is possible to rob the overwhelming majority of workers in our country, deprive them of their savings, drive them to the brink of starvation, withhold their wages (which for most people are now in any case only half what they were a decade ago) and escape unscathed. And this in a country where the majority of workers belong to trade unions. A riddle? No. It is a fact of our recent history.

To understand why this is now the reality for Russia’s hired workers — from lathe operators to university professors, the authors of this article included — we will examine the problem as impartially and analytically as we can.

The Decline in Workers’ Living Standards: Causes and Consequences

Workers’ living standards fell steadily in Russia between 1992 and 1997 (the years of radical market reform). Average real wages in 1996 were only 34 percent of what they had been in 1991. Even if one takes account of undeclared income (which, according to Goskomstat experts, accounts for between a quarter and a third of all income), there has been a sharp decline in real wages.

Those on low and fixed incomes have suffered most of all. The minimum wage turned long ago into a fictitious number, and now amounts to less than 20 percent of the subsistence minimum. While consumer prices went up 2,462.7 times between January 1992 to April 1996, the minimum wage increased over the same period only 221.9 times; in other words, it fell to a tenth of its original value. Contrary to the assertions of government officials that no one in Russia actually lives on the minimum wage, two percent of workers are earning the minimum wage or less. The average worker earns barely twice the subsistence minimum.

Income differentiation among the population is increasing. According to official statistics, the relation between the income of the top 10 percent of the population (as ranked by wage-levels) and that of the bottom 10 percent was 13.6 to 1 in 1996. But if one looks at data from Goskomstat’s household budget survey, these "decile ratios" are much greater. According to Goskomstat’s figures, in 1995 the wages of the top 10 percent of the population were 24 times higher than those of the bottom 10 percent, and in 1996 they were 26 times higher. In other words, social inequality was large and it was growing.

Compared with the developed capitalist countries, Russia’s unemployment situation does not look too serious. Unemployment stood in the first quarter of 1997 at 9.6 percent of the economically active population. It must however be remembered that only a small number of those who have lost their jobs are receiving unemployment benefits, and that only two percent of unemployed people manage to find jobs each month through the state-sponsored employment service. The territorial and professional mobility of the Russian population is, moreover, limited, while Russians are psychologically unprepared to adapt to unemployment after decades of full employment.

Wage arrears are a major problem for Russian workers. While the government makes occasional attempts to pay off its debts to workers in the budget sector, many enterprises are behind with wage payments and the total wage debt continues to grow. By the end of 1996, it was more than 47 trillion rubles. About 70 percent of workers have experienced irregular wage payments and, in about 25 percent of cases, the delay has been longer than a month.

It would seem that, under these conditions, workers ought to respond to the decline in their quality of life with a wave of protest, and that the unions would be at the head of this movement. After all, the unions have nearly 50 million members, thousands of staff, extensive property and seventy years’ experience. But the reality has turned out to be quite different.

Russian unions proved unprepared to put up active resistance to the worsening situation of their members. There are objective reasons for this, including the fact that it is unrealistic to expect any significant improvement in wages in the midst of an economic crisis, and that the unions came under powerful political pressure from the Russian government, including threats to disband the unions and confiscate their property. But there are also other causes for the weakness of the trade-union movement in Russia.

Russia’s Trade Unions

Russia’s largest unions are grouped in the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR). In 1995, the FNPR had 46 million members. Although the membership of these "traditional" trade unions continues to decline, they are still Russia’s biggest. The FNPR unions are the heirs of the Soviet trade-union system, in which unions were not assigned the role of independent working-class organizations. But, though they were only the "transmission belt" of the state, they nonetheless provided their members with certain social guarantees. From this period, the traditional unions inherit their high degree of bureaucratization and their close ties to the state apparatus and enterprise management.

In 1989-1991, several attempts were made to set up new, "alternative" unions to counteract the bureaucracy and passivity of the "traditional" unions. The "alternative" unions found themselves in open opposition to the leadership of the CPSU; they therefore looked for support to opposition politicians and fell, to a considerable extent, under their political and ideological influence. The AFL-CIO also played a significant role in the ideological and organizational formation of the "alternative" unions.

This situation changed at the end of 1991, when the anti-Communist Yeltsin team came to power. At that point, the "alternative" unions suddenly found themselves oriented toward the government, while the "traditional" unions landed up in opposition. Since the economic policy of the Yeltsin government provoked a fall in workers’ living standards, the authority of the alternative unions suffered. The numerous financial scandals and political purges in the leadership of these unions, and the departure of many of their original leaders for jobs in government or business, also lowered them in the workers’ esteem. As a result, membership of the alternative unions remains far lower than that of the traditional unions. Many of their local organizations are tiny.

Russian workers face an unenviable choice. On the one hand are the FNPR unions — large but sluggish in defense of the interests of the workers. On the other hand are the tiny (and therefore weak) pro-Yeltsin "alternative" unions, from whom workers can expect little, even if local organizations make sincere attempts to do something. (While it must be said that in a number of regions and sectors of the economy, the FNPR unions have proved more militant, this does not alter the general picture).

"It Is the Task of the Drowning Man to Save Himself": From Strikes to Hunger Strikes and Suicides

It is reasonable to ask: shouldn’t Russian workers try to defend themselves by other means, with the help of other institutions and forms of struggle? The answer is that they have tried, but were not very successful.

Russian miners have been fighting for their interests openly and independently since 1989, the year of the first miners’ strike. Strikes in other branches of the economy have not however been common. Miners’ strike activity peaked in 1991 and, with the victory of Boris Yeltsin (whom the miners supported at the time), the miners received certain benefits. Since then, however, miners’ strike activity has sharply decreased. In 1992, 1993, and 1994, the number of strikes fell steadily.

Surely it should have been the other way around — growing economic hardship should have roused the workers to greater activity? But many people were crushed by the precipitous decline in their living standards, the cultural shock caused by the collapse of the USSR, and the loss of their old ways of life. To this must be added the important factor of chronic conformism, the absence of any experience in defending their interests, and the habit of accepting the state’s paternalism (belief in a "good Tsar") that typified the Soviet population. During the early reform years, moreover, many people were caught up in "market euphoria." Illusory dreams of becoming millionaires overnight, encouraged by the lure of pyramid financial schemes, undermined the workers’ will to join forces and fight for their interests through strikes and other forms of collective action.

As for the unions, they were ideologically and politically disoriented (due, above all, to the conformism of their leaders). Both the "traditional" and the "alternative" trade unions were inclined toward "social partnership" and negotiations with the government and employers. The FNPR unions were influenced by their traditional ties to the state and enterprise management; while the "alternative" unions were politically dependent on the Yeltsin administration.

Attempts by the "traditional" unions in early 1993 to increase strike activity and demonstrate their ability to act as a political opposition were derailed by the crisis of September-October 1993. Under government pressure, moderate leaders were put in charge of the FNPR. They had to reassess not only the desire, but also the ability of the traditional trade unions to activate a strike movement. Then as now, most strikes were and remain wildcat strikes, receiving little support from the union apparatus.

The "traditional" unions preferred to coordinate their actions with enterprise management and officials in the government ministries responsible for the various sectors of the economy and to join with them to make joint demands of the cabinet; they also tried to fulfill certain of the functions of consumer cooperatives. The "alternative" trade unions were more active in making demands of management, but avoided conflict with the state. The workers tended to take a benign view of the corporate ties of the "traditional" unions, seeing declining living and working conditions as more a consequence of government economic policy than a result of the activities of their own enterprise director (though the latter often had something to do with it as well).

Union attempts to strike a "social partnership" were, for the most part, unsuccessful. The various General Agreements that were signed turned out to be ineffectual since the government systematically violated all the obligations it assumed. Legislation adopted under union pressure, such as the Law on Indexing Wages to the Cost of Living, was not enforced.

On several occasions, the "traditional" unions did try to put pressure on the government by organizing pickets, rallies and demonstrations. But the government stopped paying attention as soon as it realized that the unions could not back these mass actions up with strikes. Only strikes could force the government to make concessions. And both the strikers’ demands and the government’s concessions boiled down to the payment of wage arrears.

Strikes organized by the "alternative" unions were fewer in number and almost entirely unsuccessful. Strikes by the air traffic controllers’ union, the civil aviation pilots’ union, and the railroad crews’ union ended in defeat for the strikers. Strikes by the Independent Miners’ Union (NPG) were more successful, since they were undertaken in conjunction with the "traditional" coal miners’ union (once the NPG’s sworn enemy). But they were not able to save the coal industry, which has fallen apart before our eyes.

Nevertheless, the strike movement has recently become more active. In 1995, it picked up perceptibly over 1994. And strikes continued to increase in 1996. (See Table 1)

 Table 1. The strike movement, 1995-1996 1995 1996 Number of enterprises where strikes lasted longer than a single shift 8856 8278 Number of regions in which strikes were recorded 55 62 Total participants in strikes (thousands of people) 489 663.9 Loss in work time caused by strikes (thousands of man-days) 1400 4009.4 Average length of strike (in days) 2.8 6 Source: A. Katsva, "Strikes and Collective Workers' Actions in Russia in 1996," Alternativy, 1997, No. 2, pp. 36-37 


As well as traditional strikes, extreme forms of protest such as hunger strikes and even suicides by workers have become common (especially among the intelligentsia). Hunger strikers have included members of the Academy of Sciences, and those committing suicide for economic reasons have included miners, army officers and pensioners. It is of course only the most desperate and unfortunate people who resort to this form of protest. But the hopelessness that drives them to suicide is exacerbated by the lack of organization and solidarity in the workers’ movement.

This Situation Cannot Go On for Long: There Is Hope for The Revival of an Independent Workers’ Movement

Russia’s union movement is going through a complex period. Despite resort to the strike weapon, unions have failed to halt the decline in workers’ living standards or to arrest the growth of wage arrears. "Social partnership" has not worked. This is only partly because the trade unions have turned out to be toothless negotiating partners. It is also because the process of social differentiation between workers and employers has still not run its full course in Russia. In the old Soviet enterprises, workers and managers were fused in an improbable yet solid community. The state remains to this day one of Russia’s main employers.

The unions’ failure to fulfill their social-defense function has led to a decrease in membership. We have already mentioned the fact that the membership of the FNPR unions has fallen. Membership of the "alternative" unions, which experienced a period of growth in the early 1990s, has also begun to decline. Membership of the largest and most active "alternative" unions is relatively stable, but that of associations of "alternative" unions such as SOTsPROF, made up for the most part of "dwarf" unions, is declining precipitously.

And yet there is hope that the situation will turn around, and this hope is based on objective grounds.

First, the process of forming a self-conscious working class is drawing to a close. Workers have begun to understand that they cannot wait to be rescued by "good Tsars" and "good bosses" and that they must defend themselves. Moreover, the illusion created by massive pro-capitalist propaganda, that "anyone can become a millionaire tomorrow," is gradually being dispelled.

Second, Russia’s economic situation is stabilizing, and this means that there is now a possibility of fighting to achieve a redistribution in the workers’ favor of the profits of state-owned and private enterprises.

Third, a number of FNPR regional and industrial organizations and "alternative" unions have become more active and militant, and are acquiring strike experience.

All this is cause for cautious optimism that, tomorrow, Russia’s workers will begin a serious, systematic fight for their rights. If this happens, workers’ living standards will improve. And, if workers begin to formulate social and political demands, a real change in the government’s social and economic policy may also come about.

Translated by Mark Eckert

Aleksandr Buzgalin is a Doctor of Economics and a professor at Moscow State University. In the perestroika period, he was a leading member of the reform wing of the CPSU. He is now one of the leaders of the Democratic Socialist Movement in Russia.

Andrei Kolganov is a Doctor of Economics and a Senior Research Fellow at Moscow State University.

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