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Unions, Lenin, and the American Way (Part I)

Upon Stalin's death in 1953 the terror still lingered for several years. But the reforms of the 1960s already brought a new labor code that gave workers more rights than they could remember. And since the unions were now part of the totalitarian state, union membership was automatic and compulsory, with dues automatically deducted from the salary.

Despite the new labor code, the unions never regained independence. Their functions were limited to family care, recreation, and boosting workers' morale. Union functionaries busied themselves sorting out family quarrels, or putting the fear of the party into philandering husbands and alcoholics who were absent from work for several days but couldn't be fired because unemployment wasn't supposed to exist.

Unemployment benefits didn't exist either. If you didn't have a job the state would find one for you, whether you liked it or not -- including sweeping the streets. Since the government owned all industries and services, it could create any number of additional jobs, regardless of economic necessity. Resisting employment by the state was a criminal offense. A brief period without a job was tolerated, but deliberate prolonged unemployment could get one arrested, labeled a "social parasite," and sent off to a labor camp for reeducation. The usual suspects were dissidents, vagrants, and dysfunctional alcoholics.

While union representatives were prone to unleash "collective indignation" on "unconscientious" workers, few took their moralizing seriously. In the absence of Stalinist terror as an absolute motivator, the "toiling masses" viewed their relationship with the state as a big joke: "they pretend they're paying us, we pretend we're working." The economy was faltering, causing an even greater scarcity of goods, irregular food supplies, and rising prices.

The only known independent workers' strike in Soviet history happened in 1962 in the Russian city of Novocherkassk. Not surprisingly, the unions played no part. It was an unplanned, impulsive outburst caused by the announcement that the government had increased prices on basic food products. Workers at the Electric Locomotive Construction Works were the first to walk out on the job. Most of them were promptly arrested and locked up at the local police station. The next morning, thousands of men, women, and children marched in a column towards the government building to express their demands and to free the arrested workers.

Khrushchev's relatively liberal reforms hadn't made speaking against the government any less dangerous, but the workers had become too desperate to care. The procession towards the downtown area was mostly peaceful, but random participants reportedly assaulted the party and KGB representatives who had been trying to stop them, threatening people with retribution. At the same time the demonstrators freely fraternized with the locally stationed soldiers, posted to deny them passage across the bridge.

The frightened officials dispatched ethnically non-Russian special forces who were less likely to mix with the locals, and reinforced them with ten tanks and several armored personnel carriers. In the clash that followed, the soldiers shot at the demonstrators from automatic rifles, killing about 70 people and leaving hundreds wounded. How many were imprisoned remains unknown because the incident was hushed from the outset, and the convictions were likely to be veiled as theft, hooliganism, or banditry.

There were no strikes after that for a very long time, non-union or otherwise. Due to the government's total control of the media, no information about the strike and its suppression spilled over the city limits, let alone into the Western press. The media first reported it during the period of Glasnost in 1989 -- twenty-seven years later.

Around the same time, as the hold of the party was already waning, Soviet coal miners went on a nationwide strike, the first since the revolution, against the corrupt communist rule -- a strike that was not suppressed by the government and was widely reported in the Soviet and world media. Again, unions played no part in it. But they picked up the initiative as soon as they realized the potential power they could wield as strike organizers. As if recovering from a decades-old amnesia, Soviet labor leaders gradually regained the skill of exploiting the workers' anger for political purposes.

Already after the party had been disbanded in 1991 and the USSR was no more, unions continued with a series of strikes, this time directed against economic policies of new, barely hatched independent democracies. Under the guise of caring about the workers, the hard-line communist leadership of the unions did everything in their power to add to the existing havoc, destabilize the new governments, and make the workers plead for the return of the old system.

Read all about it in the next chapter.

Coming soon: "How Unions Bring Forced Inequality and Economic Injustice."