Russian labor: On the road to resurgence?

After the dust had settled, important questions came to the fore. What had led to the catastrophic collapse of a power that had once rivalled and even at one point surpassed the economic supremacy of the west? There are many factors, some which may be less obvious than others. Economic stagnation, political fragmentation, the costs of a prolonged arms race and foreign hostility and competition all have their place, but a cause often overlooked lies with the Soviet labour movement. Having formerly suffered under the weight of state appointed management that forbid any form of workers organisation outside of state boundaries, the dream of independent unionism spread like wildfire in the 1980s. As the Soviet Empire became caught in a spiral of economic setbacks and political intrigue, the often stifled and abused work force began to make a stand against the bureaucracy, in the process breaking with the old, state dominated unions and adopting a more radical tradition.

Take the strikes that occurred in Poland in the early 80s for example. Primarily concerning the well known Polish Union, Solidarnosc – an independent union outside the control of the “communist” party – workers and political activists staged a strike in the Lenin shipyards in the town of Gdanks. What started as a small but symbolic act by those attempting to break free of state controlled unionism and thus stand up to a dictatorial government soon escalated into wide scale opposition to the Soviet regime. Despite the fact that Solidarnosc suffered severe repression when martial law was declared in 1981, they had paved the way for a new and viable method of struggle for workers across the Soviet Union.

Such a form of militancy grew directly out of the unique conditions of the Soviet economy. Unlike in the west at the time, whose free market economies often caused trade unions to simply react to purely economic issues, the Soviet worker in his/her attempts to defend or improve their standard of living could not help but come into direct confrontation with the nation’s sole employer: the state. In the persecution of such a struggle, political demands came to the fore as part and parcel of coming into conflict with a political body. In the process of the USSR‘s break up, independent workers action created an intolerable burden on governmental institutions, which not only faced the economic unrest of the populace but the political consciousness that such unrest inevitably entailed.

Modern Times

But what of Russian labour today? Surely it emerged all the stronger in the aftermath of the USSR‘s demise, spurred on by its success and in prime shape for a fight against the rule of profit in the new, free market inspired Russia? Unfortunately this was not to be. Manipulated by liberal politicians who once sided with them against the moribund Soviet bureaucracy, the union movement lost its political coherence and fell back into the straight jacket of governmental jurisdiction. Failing to take advantage of the prevailing political vacuum to distance themselves from the state and push for formally independent workers organisation, the upper echelons of the unions sought stability and compromise with Russia‘s new rulers. Bound hand and foot by the inappropriately named Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, which has roots in the Soviet period as a “keeper of industrial peace”, union leaders proved eager to step back into the role as keeper of social peace as opposed to advocates of working class militancy. 

As the old attitudes of the former regime towards the unions – that they should be more or less subject to state jurisdiction – lingered on in the minds of the next generation of politicians and aspiring oligarchs, it became clear that the trade union rank and file had been betrayed, and continues to be betrayed to this day. Modern day studies of Russian labour affairs have backed this up, showing that in industries where overt industrial action is taking place traditional union bodies have attempted to divert such action, adopting a stance of reconciliation as opposed to endorsing the interests of the membership. Such studies have also revealed that the higher echelons of union organisation are remarkably closed and out of reach, existing purely to inform and advise governmental bodies; just as they did in the Soviet era. Industrial action at the ground level is often spontaneous, taking place outside of official union structures and therefore risking condemnation from trade union leaders.

Renewing Solidarity

But not all is lost for independent organisation. The recent struggles at the GM-AVTOVAZ car assembly plant in the city of Tolyatti, on the Volga, bears important lessons for Russian labour. The workers at this plant have never had any form of representation in workplace affairs. Getting by on the miserable equivalent of one US dollar twenty five cents per day, an overt conflict between management and workers was just waiting to happen. When a handful of employees took tentative steps towards organising an independent trade union free of red tape and petty officials, the plant management’s response was swift. Detaining several organisers with the use of hired guards, and then subjecting them to searches each day as they tried to enter the workplace, the management sought to use every means at its disposal to crush the fledging union. This campaign of harassment became all the more intense when the phone and e-mail access of the union’s president was suddenly cut off, thus hampering the unions ability to organise. However, where as before such measures may have been enough to convince a largely apathetic workforce to give up on independent unionism and accept the flimsy platitudes of state endorsed labour spokesmen, this time the more militant elements of the workforce refused to budge. Despite constant threats of disciplinary action and dismissal, the new union still has not been crushed, and in fact continues to grow.

What really makes this case interesting is that the memberships are not turning away from political issues as the official “collaborationist” unions would have them do. In fact their union president, Andrei Liapin, understands only too well the importance of solidarity with other workers and the need to transcend mere economic demands into a general political struggle. Citing the need for continued action and the importance of understanding the global nature of capitalism, Andrei commented that “In a world where globalisation is fact of life and companies are moving jobs to low wage countries in a matter of months or weeks job security is not guaranteed to any worker even in "civilized" countries. We are one family of labour and should be united, bosses never question their unity, why should we?"

These actions have been mirrored further across the country; with industrial struggles extending and deepening as many employees break away from the Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions in disgust. From the car workers of Tolyatti to the oil workers at Surgut, workers are once again becoming accustomed to the old language of strike action and solidarity. As it to be expected, this has in part caused bosses nation wide to panic and issue extensive threats of disciplinary action unless workers leave their independent and often newly formed unions and return to “legal” channels.

Therefore, despite the positive events for organised labour currently taking place nation wide, Russian workers still have a fight on their hands to break out of the straightjacket imposed on them by disillusionment with the “new” Russia and the continuation of old, anti union attitudes among the new generation of state bureaucrats and private employers. The old unions have failed them, and despite the wave of militancy that once shook the foundations of an entire society, the long and difficult climb to truly independent labour politics seems a distant but desirable prospect.