A weeklong strike by Soviet coal miners demanding better supplies of food, safer working conditions, more housing and an environmental cleanup around their mines in western Siberia grew to about 100,000 workers on Sunday and threatened to turn into a general strike there.
Almost all of the mines in the Kuznetsky Basin, the Soviet Union's second-largest coal producing region, are now closed, officials said, and the strike has spread quickly from Mezhdurechensk to nine other towns in the region, becoming a major political and economic challenge to the country's leadership.
Describing the region, known as the Kuzbass, as a "raging basin" with "only a few small islands of tranquillity," the Communist Party newspaper Pravda said that more than 80,000 workers have joined the strike. The trade union newspaper Trud put the number in a later report at 100,000, and Radio Moscow reported an even higher figure.
Although some of the original strikers have resumed work, coal shipments out of the area have been halted and dozens of other enterprises closed by local trade union leaders in an effort to force a showdown with the central government.
Efforts by government and Communist Party officials to calm the situation and restore production have so far failed. Thousands of miners are occupying the central squares in the towns hit by the strike, Soviet newspapers reported Sunday, although order is being maintained by patrols of workers as well as police.
"You can imagine the impact--all the pits and mines are on strike and most of the other major enterprises have joined them," Valery Legachev, a member of the strike committee in Prokopyevsk, one of the striking towns, said Sunday. "The place is shut down."
Mikhail I. Shchadov, the coal minister, spoke to tens of thousands of miners in an evening rally in Prokopyevsk on Saturday, but afterward the strike grew as miners demanded that more senior officials come to negotiate with them.
"The situation is changing from hour to hour, and mines that were peaceful yesterday stopped working unexpectedly today," the newspaper Soviet Russia reported Sunday.
Political, Economic Problem
As it continues to grow, the strike poses both a political and an economic challenge to the government and the Communist Party leadership under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
The demands of the strikers are largely that the leadership honor the promises that Gorbachev has made--promises not only of better living conditions but also of greater democracy and of worker control over the enterprises where they are employed.
At the same time, the work stoppage, one of the largest in the Soviet Union in recent years, threatens to shut down major segments of the country's industry--notably iron smelters, steel mills, thermal power plants and all the factories that depend upon them for materials or energy--by depriving them of fuel.
Already, more than 1 million tons of coal production have been lost, according to Pravda. The monetary value, about $31 million, is of less importance, the paper said, than the effect of the lost production on other industries. The government is battling for economic growth in order to underwrite its reform program, and these losses could have a severe impact.
The central demand of the strikers is for local administration of the mines--with strong worker participation--under new industrial and labor laws adopted in recent years as part of Gorbachev's broader economic reforms, known as perestroika.
This would give miners the right, under government-set guidelines and overall economic plans, to manage the mines, set production goals and use their revenues in accordance with local priorities.
Break With Policy
But it would also be a major break--and in a key industry--from the Soviet Union's centrally planned and managed economy, whose Moscow-based administrators remain firmly entrenched four years into Gorbachev's reforms.
A. Yevsyukov, chairman of the regional miners' strike committee, told Pravda that "the strikers' demands come down essentially to granting miners' collectives the real right to control their enterprises' destiny and to dispose of the coal produced by their hard labor."
Yevsyukov said that the miners want to use the coal they produce above the governmental quotas to conclude barter deals for consumer goods and, if it is exported, to use foreign currency earned for the social needs of the city and region.
In Prokopyevsk, Legachev also said that the key issue is local worker control of the mines. The workers would set their own production schedules to meet government orders but would be free to sell above-plan production and use the money, including highly prized foreign exchange, as they wished.
Other demands include more environmental protection, lower prices at canteens and stores operated by the mines for their workers, better housing and recreational facilities, improved working conditions and higher salaries for medical workers. They also want elections for new local governments.
Among the key environmental issues raised has been a sharp reduction in open-pit mining, which has devasted the local landscape, the faster reclamation of this land and its development for agriculture. The miners are also demanding that the government drop plans to build a slurry line to carry coal from the area, contending that the region is already short of water.
But efforts by a dissident group, the Democratic Union, to give a further political cast to the strike failed, according to Trud, when the group's organizers were shouted down at strike rallies. According to Trud, the miners declared their loyalty to the Communist Party and their support of socialism--as well as their determination to make the system more responsive and effective.
In Kiselevsk, 17 non-mining enterprises struck in support of the miners, according to Legachev, and the strike seems to be spreading to other industries elsewhere.
Newspaper Voices Support
The strike drew unexpected support on this aspect from the conservative newspaper Soviet Russia. "The further the Kuzbass strike goes, the clearer the step forward becomes," the newspaper said Sunday. "Until recently, perestroika has been a 'revolution from above,' but now it is getting strong support from below."
The demand of the miners for economic independence was, in fact, promised to them in Gorbachev's most basic reforms, the newspaper said, asking with a hint of mischief, "Is this not the essence and goal of perestroika ?"
Alexander Melnikov, the first secretary of the Communist Party's regional committee, also described the miners' strike as part of the process of perestroika , involving "the popular masses in the solution of acute problems."
But Melnikov argued that the form of the protests--the work stoppages and the resulting economic losses--will inevitably damage economic expansion and thus mean a setback for perestroika .
In its analysis, Soviet Russia countered that the workers had been raising these problems for years and that the governmental leaders had ignored them.
"Those who did not heed them, who were afraid of or unwilling to start a dialogue with them on equal terms, who were slow in putting into life a program of transformations as outlined by the party or in resolving specific problems and meeting people's demands, are much more to blame for what has happened," the newspaper said.
"These are the forces that drove the Kuzbass workers to a strike and whom we call, and with good reason, the anti- perestroika forces."
Clashes in a Black Sea resort city killed 11 people. Page 6