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
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
That attitude was evident last February during a nationwide
strike by coal miners, the most militant work force in the country. …