Following the October Revolution in 1917, Russia’s former Allies in World War I — France, Britain, and the U.S. – launched a limited military intervention into Russia, seeking to restore the democratic Provisional Government and defeat the communists who annulled Russia’s foreign debt and confiscated private property held by foreign nationals. But the Allies were defeated — not by the Red Army, but by their own labor unions, who launched a campaign of solidarity with “the first workers’ state,” threatening to paralyze their war-stretched economies. By 1920 the Allies withdrew without much of a fight and the communists won.
But inside the “workers’ state” itself, labor unions were reduced to the position of puppets. Any greater role would have put them in competition with the party that claimed to speak for the “toiling masses.” It stands to reason that a state that runs a command economy would subdue the unions and make them a tool of control over the workers. That was why parading the aforementioned quote from Lenin in union offices didn’t make sense to me.
The squashing of union power was gradual. For a few years after the revolution, unions enjoyed some nominal independence. The 1922 labor code closely resembled those in Western countries, while labor productivity remained only a fraction of Western productivity. Sooner or later this contradiction had to be corrected.
The initial understanding was that, by toiling conscientiously for the common good, the workers would become more productive. That never happened. When all the motivational sloganeering, appeals to the workers’ conscience, and government mandates to improve productivity failed, the Soviet leaders knew they had hit a wall. The only variable in this equation subject to the party control were workers’ rights — and they were slashed one by one without so much as a squeak from the unionists who had brought it on themselves.
By the 1930s, the unions were officially absorbed by the state, having become a subdivision of the Labor Commissariat, but without the commissariat’s authority. Most of the labor code had already been rendered obsolete. A single day’s absence was punishable by dismissal and, later, by imprisonment. The state practiced compulsory assignment of graduates to workplaces. Being late for work or leaving early became an offense against the state.
Things kept getting worse, as repression proved to be the only possible way to propel the inefficient state-run economy, with fear and intimidation its only incentives. By 1940, a worker could no longer resign from a job without the consent of the management, while the state reserved the right to transfer employees at will and without their consent. Local wage increases depended on decisions made in Moscow. The old labor code was removed from usage and no longer published.
A sad joke from that era describes the repressive political climate as follows. Three gulag prisoners are sharing stories of how they got there: “I came to work five minutes late and was accused of sabotage.” “I came to work five minutes early and was accused of spying.” “I came to work on time and was accused of being a Swiss secret agent.” (It was only logical that economic inefficiency would lead to official xenophobia — a paranoid cousin of unionist protectionism.)