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Chapter 6

The Russian Trade Unions:
From Chaos to a New Paradigm

Kirill Buketov 

In 1995 the trade union movement in Russia celebrated its ninetieth anniversary. During the numerous conferences dedicated to this occasion, far more was said about the movement's successes and achievements than about its real, often tragic history. In the course of these ninety years, the movement passed through the crucible of the class struggles of the early years of the century, and through the savage repressions of the Tsarist and Stalinist regimes, which fundamentally altered both its form and content. The development of the Russian trade union movement paralleled that of the trade unions in Western countries, but in the highly specific conditions of a totally statized economy; this placed an indelible imprint on the movement's role and functions in society.

During the years since the collapse of the Soviet system, the Russian trade unions have proven unable to overcome a crisis whose essence lies in the need for a fundamental reorganization of the trade union movement on the basis of a new model of social development.

The Soviet trade unions

The restructuring of the trade union movement in the land of the soviets culminated in January 1918 in the creation of a single trade union federation, the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions. A peculiarity of the creation of the Soviet trade unions was that the period in which they assumed their organizational shape was not one of industrial growth, but on the contrary, of collapse. As a result of the ruination of the economy and of industry, workers in the post-revolutionary period made up no more than 1.5 per cent of the country's population. The trade unions grew rapidly in the 1930's, when the process of accelerated industrialization saw the "proletarianization" of peasants - in most cases through duress - and the formation of the Soviet working class.

From the very beginning, the functions of the newly- created Soviet trade unions also differed substantially from those of unions in the West. Immediately after the October revolution of 1917 the trade unions were almost the only organs which were capable of taking on the tasks of implementing workers' control and of organizing and directing production. Indeed, they were compelled to assume this role, since in most cases they were controlled by Bolsheviks. The Soviet state apparatus of economic planning and administration had not yet been established, and sabotage by enterprise owners and technical personnel made the question of how to maintain industrial output a pressing one. In the factories, the trade unions came to play the role of the transmission belts for the policies of the Leninist party and the bolshevist state. In November 1919 a special decree creating disciplinary courts in the factories, subject to the trade union committees, gave the unions punitive functions as well; the trade unions were transformed into something resembling workplace police.

Meanwhile, the nationalization of industry saw the beginning of a process through which the trade union and management apparatuses were becoming intermingled. In virtually all enterprises, the "red directors" who had been appointed by the new authorities not long before (very often from among the leaders of the trade unions) found their only allies in the trade union committees.

In 1920, the abandonment of the policies of "war communism" provoked discussion on the role and tasks of the trade unions in the so-called workers' state. The Bolsheviks made up their mind that the need for trade unions did not disappear following a socialist revolution, since for a particular period, until the construction of communism, the division of society into classes would remain. Consequently, the need for the working class to be able to defend its interests would persist as well. The result of this discussion was that the trade unions in practice retained their economic functions; they were allotted responsibility for providing workers with foodstuffs and clothing. In line with Leninist concepts, the trade unions were also assigned the task of conducting political propaganda among non-party workers. The trade unions were to be "educative organizations, concerned with involving and training workers; that is, a school, a school of administration, a school of communism." (1). Over time, the trade unions acquired various functions normally assigned to state organs, including responsibility for the Commissariat of Labour and for pension and social security funds.

The trade unions did not escape the process, that gathered strength following Lenin's death, of Stalinization of the state and party apparatuses. In the late 1920s and during the 1930s repeated purges of the trade unions were carried out with the aim of eliminating "old Bolsheviks" (that is, members of the party who joined before 1917). During this period the repressions claimed Mikhail Tomsky, who had been chairperson of the VTsSPS from 1918 to 1928; ten secretaries and eight departmental heads of the VTsSPS; 34 out of about 50 chairpersons of central committees of branch trade unions; 21 heads of regional councils; and five editors of the central trade union newspaper Trud. Of 150 members of the Central Council, only 18 escaped repression. The majority of the repressed "old trade unionists" were shot, and by the Tenth Congress of Trade Unions in 1949, no-one remained in the trade unions who could have handed on to the new generation the traditions of the genuine movement. This was the culmination of the process through which the trade unions were transformed into the "transmission belt" of the Stalinist party.

From that time, membership of a trade union took on a purely formal character, and became one of various conditions for the functioning of individuals in the social system which if not obligatory, were nevertheless highly desirable. Having a union ticket could be compared with having a credit card -- that is, a piece of paper or plastic opening the way to many of the pleasures of life. In the USSR these pleasures included 1000 sanatoriums, 19,000 libraries, 900 tourism organizations, 25,000 sports complexes and 100,000 children's summer camps. Also available to union members were full or partial (depending on the length of trade union membership) payment for time lost due to illness; various material benefits; subsidies for the cost of stays in sanatoriums and holiday resorts; and a great deal more. The entire state system of social welfare was under the full control of the trade unions. From the immediate postwar years the vTsSPS thus represented a part of the state bureaucratic apparatus, one of the nomenklaturas alongside those of the Communist Party and the Komsomol.

The situation of the trade unions was conditioned by a whole range of circumstances spawned by the system of state socialism. The marketization of the economy that began during the perestroika period caught the trade unions unprepared. The old model no longer met the political and economic needs of the time and of the market-based society that was rapidly coming into being. But the work of setting a new model in place proceeded very slowly.

Trade Unions in the transition

Changes began occurring in the trade unions simultaneously with perestroika, but like perestroika itself, they were not particularly radical. The main strategic task - that of destatization - was at first not acknowledged at all. Addressing the Eighteenth Congress of Trade Unions of the USSR in February 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev declared: "The trade unions are obliged to mount an active struggle at the general state level in order to prevent divisions arising in the fulfilment of productive tasks and the development of the social sphere." What was thus being urged was the retention of the system under which the trade unions concerned themselves with distributing material benefits and with ensuring that production went ahead.

In 1989 powerful all-union miners' strikes awoke the country from its lethargic slumber. For the first time in many years hundreds of thousands of workers gave notice of their dissatisfaction with their wretched position and of their unwil1ingness to remain mute slaves in the state system of "victorious socialism". From this moment, perestroika began in the trade unions as well. The bloated trade union apparatus was trimmed, and the cumbersome union structures began to be reorganized.

Even these changes, however, were initiated from above; at the local level the trade union committees remained passive, and when labour conflicts arose in the enterprises, almost always sided with the management. Contributing to this situation was the mentality of the trade union apparatus, which was both unwilling and unable to give up its nomenklatura role and privileges. The authority of the trade unions fell. The inertness of the functionaries of the local trade union committees, and their anti-labour stances, forced workers to take action "from below" in order to establish new trade unions, genuinely independent of the state and the Communist Party. The creation of these new trade unions, described as "free", was a necessary response to the challenges of the period.

These new bodies might also have been described as "market" trade unions. Conforming to a model typical of trade unions in a market capitalist economy, they took a purely "market" approach to the practical organizing of trade union work. They posed their main task as "ensuring the sale of collective labour power on the most advantageous terms possible." Society, however, was not yet ready for the appearance of trade unions of this type; the overwhelming majority of enterprises were still state property.

The beginning of privatization did not change this situation substantially. Directors who managed to turn enterprises into their private property did not alter their paternalist habits. A paradoxical situation arose, with the free trade unions arguing that their tactical goals should include expediting accelerated privatization and aiding the formation of a layer of private property-owners to whom demands could be directed. In a state-run economy, making claims on the management of an enterprise was pointless, since all significant questions affecting the functioning of the enterprise were decided by ministerial organs. The free trade unions failed to notice the trap into which they fell when they agreed to collaborate in the restructuring of industry; many of their leaders and of the activists of the 1989 strike soon finished up working within the governmental, presidential and ministerial structures. From this point of view, it could be said that a second statization of the trade unions had taken place. This time, it was the "free" trade unions that were statized.

The 1989 strike provided the impulse not only for the forming of the "free" trade unions, but also for the reforming of the old unions which had their roots in Soviet society and were thus described as "traditional". In workplaces where the trade union committees were ripe for change, these committees quickly finished up in the hands of workers' leaders. A significant factor encouraging the reform of the old trade unions was the existence of alternatives to them in the shape of the new union bodies. Even though the membership of the new trade unions remained tiny compared to that of the old unions, real competition and a struggle for members began between the two wings of the labour movement.

The present situation in the Russian trade union movement is thus characterized by the coexistence of extremely diverse organizational forms and ideological models. The movement contains phenomena typical of the system of state socialism, and others characteristic of capitalism both i96n its period of primitive accumulation and in its developed stage. All the bodies concerned are in a state of profound crisis, as is shown by the decline in their membership and influence. The unions suffering from the worst crisis are those with features characteristic of developed capitalism, since it is these organizations that are obliged to answer most directly for the realities of the present period.

The main reasons for this situation include the mixed nature of the economy and of the property forms of enterprises; the diverse levels of development of various regions of Russia; the absence of legislation corresponding to the current state of affairs in the economy; and a mass of other problems characteristic of a barbaric transition period. So far there is not even a consensus on the direction in which the development (or degradation) of Russia is heading. Liberals speak of paths into the community of developed capitalist countries, and patriots of an independent road for Russia as a great power. The mass of the population senses that the country is falling headlong into a Latin America-style abyss.


The realities of the present day in Russia include a deep crisis of all social movements, including the movements for human rights and against militarism and organizations concerned with the defence of the environment and of workers. Activists in civic organizations are not only forced to withstand constantly increasing pressures from the authorities, but are confronted with the deep passivity of a population disappointed with the results of the "democratic revolution".

The crisis in the trade unions is also conditioned by rapid deindustrialization and by the shrinking of the trade unions' social base. The environmental movement has been severely affected by declining public interest in ecological problems. Strange as it might seem, the Chernobyl disaster has played a substantial role here. The state-controlled press succeeded in concealing the long-term effects of the catastrophe from the population. As a result, people felt reassured; if even a major nuclear accident did not cause noticeable harm to most of the population, then minor disasters were still less a cause for concern.

The environmental and trade union movements, despite their decline, remain the most viable of the civic initiatives in today's Russia. They still have durable organizational structures and an activist base.

Both for environmentalists and for the trade unions, the way out of the crisis lies in devising a new paradigm for social movements. The trade unions need to develop and adopt a fundamentally new conception of labour movement activity, whose basis lies not simply in expressing the narrow professional and economic interests of workers, but in pursuing a broad spectrum of humanitarian initiatives. The basis exists for such a paradigm. It should be recalled that the first illegal trade unions in the USSR in the late 1970s and early 1980s had the character of human rights defence organizations. During the perestroika period the free trade unions were part of a general democratic movement that saw collaboration between movements for reform in the army, for the emancipation of women, for the abolition of the death penalty, for the protection of the environment, for alternative pedagogy, a new culture, political freedoms and so forth. Such collaboration also defines the contours of a new model for social movements, acting on the principles of self-organization and self-management. The basic components of this model are interests affecting everyone - the environment, and labour.

Trade unions and the environment: tactics

The first experience along these lines dates from 1989. Environmentalists who had mounted numerous local actions in regions that had suffered particular damage from human industrial activity set up a camp protesting against the beginning of operations at a chemical plant that had been built, in flagrant violation of environmental principles, in the city of Chapayevsk. The arrival of the "greens" in the city had the effect of a bombshell. Numerous environmental strike committees were set up in Chapayevsk enterprises; these committees declared their readiness to launch a strike around environmental demands if the chemical plant were put into operation. Worker activists, often delegates from factory brigades, were constantly in the protest camp. The protest action attracted several thousand participants, and the camp came in practice to function as an alternative centre of authority in the city.

This experience was later repeated in the city of Cherepovets in Vologda Province in northern Russia. The Cherepovets action saw the most extensive collaboration so far between environmentalists and trade unions. The major difference with the Chapayevsk action lay in the fact that this time, the object of the environmentalists' protest was not an industrial plant still under construction, but one which had already been functioning for several decades - the Cherepovets Metallurgical Combine.

In 1993 Cherepovets was invaded by a group of radical environmentalists from various regions who set up a camp alongside one of the roads leading from the city to the plant. Recognizing that the combine was the economic cornerstone of the city and the district, providing work to a substantial section of the population and supporting the local infrastructure, the greens immediately declared that their goal was environmentally clean production with the retention of jobs. The camp became a testing-ground for the proposition that the organizing of workers on their jobsites can serve as the basis for a broad social movement.

Before launching their environmental campaigns, the greens sought to enlist the support of activists of the new trade unions that had emerged in Cherepovets since 1991 and that had managed to hold several successful strikes for pay increases. "We saw our task as being to support trade unions that allowed intellectual freedom and an unrestricted flow of information, and to aid their development in any way possible," one of the organizers of this action states. "This support included disseminating information about their work, providing advice on economic matters, supplying literature, and helping them to establish contacts with workers' organizations in other cities." (2). It was only after this that greens and the free trade unions began joint work on environmental questions.

The greens must be given credit for assigning priority to trade union matters that were unfamiliar to them, and for patiently bringing worker activists to an understanding of the need to be involved in campaigning around the issue of environmental protection. At first it was possible to talk of this involvement only on the plant level, or on that of particular workshops. Independent experts performed a study of dust levels, of the environmental safety of jobs, and of the causes of a rise in work-related illnesses. Only after this was it possible to talk of the defence of the surrounding environment, of the land and rivers near the factory.

Results were not long in coming. At the next stage the trade unions were already helping the greens in their work of environmental protection, providing help in the areas of finance, organization and information. It should be noted that all this occurred against a background of ferocious pressures from the enterprise management and the city authorities. On several occasions green activists were arrested, and workers readily joined in protest pickets outside militia stations. This had a huge psychological effect; greens who had come from other cities as "outsiders" could not win the sympathies of the local population until they won the support of workers at the plant.

Environmental camps have been held annually at Cherepovets, and have become a sort of school for green activists, who after participating in these actions have set out the following year for other Rusian cities. For the greens, the main lesson from Cherepovets has been a realization of the need to reject the logic of "ecofundamentalism", understood as an attempt to treat environmental questions as unrelated to economic issues or to the manner in which enterprise administration is organized.

Trade unions and environmentalists: strategy

If the need for tactical collaboration is beyond dispute, the question of whether strategic cooperation between the labour and environmental movements is possible has been placed in doubt during the recent period by a whole series of publications in the Russian press. Some of the most single-minded of the greens are calling for industrial civilization to be superseded, for a rejection of increases in industrial output and for the restructuring of life on the principle of equilibrium between humanity and nature. However, the working class in the form in which it exists in Russia is an integral element of industrial civilization. For the labour movement, it is natural to fight for the redistribution of wealth within the framework of industrial civilization, whether this struggle is conducted directly (by economic methods) or through participation in the organs of power (by political methods).

This situation can change only through a process of transition to a post-industrial society based on developed technologies. As its inheritance from the Soviet system Russia received an economy based on inefficient and unprofitable large industrial enterprises oriented toward defence output (more than 70 per cent of industrial production in the USSR occurred in response to so-called "defence orders"), using high levels of manual labour. The introduction of new technologies is proceeding extremely slowly, and the relationship between manual and mental labour remains virtually unchanged.

This situation will last for a good while to come, and it is giving rise to a natural contradiction between environmentalists and workers in Russia. A polluting factory whose closure is demanded by environmentalists will often be the only large-scale employer in a particular city, providing jobs for the bulk of the local workforce. The trade union in such an enterprise is restricted by economic demands for wage increases and improvements in working conditions, and will try to protect the enterprise from outside criticism if there is even the slightest danger that this criticism will lead to production cuts or to the closure of the plant. This question of how to preserve jobs will always be a priority for a trade union organization.

For environmentalists, however, the need to reject relations of the industrial type is a question long since settled. The real prospect of a total catastrophe, created knowingly by industrialism and making human life on earth impossible, is looming ever nearer. The process is said to have gone so far that a high price must now be paid in order to escape from the dead-end of industrialism. This price is seen as representing the costs which are invariably associated with a social transformation. The greens, it is argued, should not limit themselves to environmental questions as strictly defined, but should propose an alternative embodying new values and a new lifestyle on the basis of which humanity can hope to survive. Greens, it is maintained, should also try to instill these new values and the new lifestyle in various social groups including those on which industrial production is based.

In the lawless conditions of modern-day Russia the environmental movement is doomed to have to collaborate with organizations rooted in the productive process. Solving environmental problems is now impossible unless the directors of the industrial monsters are subjected to intense pressure "from within", and such pressure can be exerted only by the trade unions. That is not to speak of the fact that fully overcoming the negative environmental consequences of enterprise activity will only be possible if the enterprises are handed over to collective self-management by their workers. For environmentalists and workers, therefore, the only option is to join forces, not only in proposing new social alternatives, but in beginning immediately to implement concrete projects.

Working class interests, meanwhile, have a range and complexity that extends far beyond the simple growth of material well-being. A worker is not simply a producer, but in the first instance, an induvidual human being. The logic of class relations is to reduce the worker to the level of an appendage to a machine. The task of the movement for workers' rights is to end this one-dimensional condition, freeing the worker's individuality. In other words, the goal is to make possible the overcoming of alienation, meaning that the labour movement also poses the question of alternative ways of life.

In the final analysis, the main goal with which both environmentalists and trade unionists are faced is that of transforming society, and it is this which provides the basis for unifiying these movements. Industrial workers who stand aside from the struggle for their rights and who take an uncritical attitude totheir situation may react negatively to the raising of environmental questions. Conscious, organized workers, however, are open to the ideas of environmentalism.


V.I Lenin. O professional'nykh soyuzakh, o tekushchem momente i ob oshibkakh tovarishcha Trotskogo. Sochineniya, v. XXVI. Moscow, 1935)

Xirill Priverzentsev. 5°Zelenye' i rabochee dvizhenie: opyt vzaimodeystviya." Al'ternativy no. 3, 1995.

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