Strikes Cue Wage Woes in Russia NO PAYDAY

Article excerpt

As more than 10,000 energy workers in Russia's Far East went on strike this week to demand long-overdue paychecks, the country's top trade union leader threatened to lead 66.5 million workers out in Russia's first-ever nationwide general strike to protest unpaid wages.

A crisis that has been bubbling for nearly two years is now in danger of boiling over. Small wildcat strikes have broken out with increasing frequency in recent months, but with little effect.

Workers are owed more than $7.5 billion in back wages, and union officials say the mood among members is growing ugly. The problem of back wages lacks a clear solution because businesses and workers both look to the government to find the money to pay the missing wages. But the government has made it clear that it will not provide such funding, for fear of reigniting inflation by pumping too much money into the economy. Equally hard to understand is why millions of Russians have put up with not being paid for so long without going on strike. One of the most remarkable aspects of the painful economic reforms under way in Russia since the collapse of communism is how little social unrest the harsh belt-tightening has provoked. A large part of the explanation for employees' extraordinary acceptance of endemic delays in getting paid appears to lie with trade unions, which are still a long way from shaking off their Soviet heritage and standing up boldly for their members' rights. "The effectiveness of our trade union movement is not so high at the moment," admits Mikhail Shmakov, president of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), by far the largest labor confederation in Russia. Largest property owner The only significant change that the FNPR has undergone since Soviet times is its name. The institution once known as "the conveyor belt of Communism" evaded the fate of the other two pillars of the Soviet system - the Communist Party had all its property confiscated and the state was dissolved - to emerge as the largest property owner in the new Russia. The FNPR also controls the largest single nongovernmental sum of money in the form of the national social security fund. Traditional union bosses, complains Edward Vokhmin, an official in the Moscow branch of the AFL-CIO's Free Trade Union Institute, are still stuck in Soviet thought patterns. Instead of siding with workers against management, they side with management in demanding money from the government. "The division is not between employees and employers, but between an industry and the government officials distributing budget money," Mr. Vokhmin explains. "So workers don't figure out their position vis-a-vis their boss. They take a corporatist attitude." That attitude was evident last February during a nationwide strike by coal miners, the most militant work force in the country. …