Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russia's Bold New Proletariat ; Independent Labor Unions Are Springing Up, but a Kremlin-Backed Bill Could Nip Them in the Bud

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russia's Bold New Proletariat ; Independent Labor Unions Are Springing Up, but a Kremlin-Backed Bill Could Nip Them in the Bud

Article excerpt

The workers at Ivanovo Mashzavod had quietly endured almost 10 years of enforced idleness and irregular salaries as their machine- building factory struggled to survive the tough post-Soviet economic winter.

But when fresh orders started flowing in last year, and a new manager decided to launch an "American-style" efficiency campaign with layoffs, wage cuts and cancelled benefits, they rebelled.

Experts say that, throughout Russia, workers are beginning to demand their share from the country's two-year spurt of economic growth. Flexing muscle against management is a dramatic departure from the days of the Soviet "workers' paradise," in which labor protests were not tolerated.

"We went on strike," says Anna Smirnova, the engineer who led the 230 workers of the Ivanovo plant, some 200 miles northeast of Moscow, in a week-long walkout that ended when management agreed to negotiate new terms last month. "We were loyal to our factory all through the bad times, and then when things start to get a bit better, the managers wanted to cut us out. We felt there was no alternative but to show them some strength."

Although the Mashzavod workers have always theoretically belonged to a big and powerful national trade union, they had to learn the rudiments of self-organization. The local leadership of the Machine Builders Union advised against taking labor action, and then suggested that union leaders would try to work things out on a personal level with plant management. The chairman of the Ivanovo regional trade union committee, Vyacheslav Stepashkin, admits that approach was a mistake. "The workers took matters into their own hands and won the respect of management," he says. "They showed us that our old style of trade-union work, which was to act as partners of management and enforcers of social peace, is simply not suitable in the new market economy."

As workers get bolder, they find themselves up against not just the tactics of management, but resistance from their own union leadership. Russia's Soviet-era Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR) looks formidable on paper - about 40 million members - but in practice, it is a vast bureaucracy that seems more concerned with staying in the Kremlin's good graces and preserving properties it inherited from the USSR than in defending the rights of rank- and-file workers.

"The FNPR was schooled for decades in making deals at the top and doling out social benefits in a paternalistic way to its members," says Yevgenia Gvozdova, director of the independent Agency of Social and Labor Information, Russia's only non-governmental group monitoring the labor movement. "There is a big debate over whether the FNPR can be reformed at all."

Although there are no reliable statistics on labor actions in Russia, experts say the grassroots picture has changed radically over recent years. …

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