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Striking Soviet Miners’ Demands Are Just

<i> Leonid Korenev is an economic correspondent for the Novosti Press Agency, which supplied this commentary</i>

When coal miners went on strike in many cities of the Soviet Union, I paid primary attention to Makeyevka--not only because the Donets Basin, where the city is situated, is a major industrial region of the country but also because I was born there and my relatives were certain to be among the strikers.

I’m confident that the strikes as such were no surprise for the people familiar with the difficult situation in the mining industry. They had every reason to expect labor unrest sooner or later. In early June a prominent Soviet economist, Nikolai Shmelev, told the Congress of the People’s Deputies: “Out of our GNP (gross national product) we spend about 37%-38% on wages, whereas in the industrial world this figure stands at 70% and more. Our working class has a moral right to enhance its share in the GNP, and is doing everything to this end. This fact should be taken into account with an eye to the future, for this process cannot be stopped.”

As we now see, this future was not long in coming. It is necessary to realize that such a powerful strike involving hundreds of thousands of workers (as was the case in the mining regions) was the first of its kind, but by no means the last. In other words, it was not an episode but a phenomenon with which we shall have to live. Indicatively, those who ought to have been the most prepared for such a strike proved to be the least ready. I mean people who are supposed to be involved in such labor disputes--those in the upper echelons of the official trade unions (the grass-roots trade unions took part in the maintenance of order, the provision of strikers with food and so on).

Apparently, the authority and functions of these “official trade unions” will soon be revised by Soviet workers themselves, all the more so since strike committees have promoted genuine leaders who know what they want and how they should get it. Sometimes their actions are likened to those of the Solidarity trade unions in Poland. Such a parallel can be drawn, at least regarding the “prohibition” imposed on these strike committees and their involvement in the maintenance of public order. Also, as in the case of Solidarity, the committees gave quite reasonable explanations in response to official calculations of the economic effect of the strikes. Indeed, how can one claim that the strike in theKuznets Basin had resulted in 2 million tons in lost productivity when 10 million tons sit in local storehouses, not taken by customers? Similar incongruities were typical for other coal fields, even the Donets Basin where, because of its location in the industrial zone of the European part of the Soviet Union, coal is supposed to be put to use right away.

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One of the main demands of the strikers was to accelerate a radical reform in the economy, converting from a “cost-is-no-problem” mechanism to a streamlined system working to full effect for the country and the people engaged in arduous labor in the coal industry. It is noaccident that the strikers managed to establish dialogue (and not confrontation, which some people evidently expected) almost immediately with the political leaders of the country. Hardly anyone can call into question the fact that the demands of the strikers were just, and that the need was ripe for meeting them as soon as possible.

Finally, the fact that the attempts to resolve the conflict were made in the framework of dialogue, rather than power pressure, also points to the ongoing democratization of our society. We should bear in mind that for the time being, the Soviet Union still has not developed a legislative foundation that would underlie the right of the working people to go on strike. For all this, the strike has done real damage to our unhinged economy. It means that the sources for funding the social programs, which we should all strive to develop by joint effort, are being reduced.

The strike committees should be given credit--they understand this better than probably many representatives of the command-and-administrative system. And they have proved this by deeds. But to all intents and purposes they are also right in saying that they simply did not have any other way of drawing the attention of the country to the urgent need to speed up changes in the economy. Every working day of the old, Stalinist-type mechanism meant a waste of millions of rubles, as well as social losses.

A strike is an extreme measure that results in different mishaps in the entire economic life, and which fuels tensions. It would be good if strikes were no longer used in a country that is carrying out perestroika.

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