The State of the Unions

. 7 min read

Jennifer Widner. Originally published in the HIR September 1980 Issue.

The Soviet press greeted the recent strikes in Poland and the decision to concede Polish workers the right to form independent trade unions first with silence, then with sharply worded disapproval. For the first time in
nine years, the USSR jammed Western radio transmissions, apparently trying to keep its own workers in the dark about events in the satellite country.

Taking Moscow's behavior as an indicator of similar troubles brewing in the Soviet Union itself, The Economist speculated late last month that, "Economic crisis is stalking not just Poland but the whole communist world." "There must be an increasing hope that the Soviet system will not outlast this century," the British weekly stated.

Several American scholars take issue with this prognosis, however, and point to the Soviet trade union system as one of the primary ingredients of continuing stability.

Worker's Paradise?

A rise in meat prices without accompanying wage increases set discontent among Poland's Uprising at Maharat workers ablaze. In terms of material satisfaction, Soviet workers have far greater cause for complaint. The standard of living in the USSR is lower than it is in any Eastern bloc country, with the exception of Bulgaria.

Soviet workers receive salaries calculated according to a base rate with provisions for the level of an individual's qualifications and the type of employment. Social wage payments (such as maternity allowances), annual bonuses, and premiums stemming from socialist competition (competition between plants) supplement this basic wage. These added benefits are the Soviet Union's way of carrying out Marx's dictum, "to each according to his needs."

Hidden inflation and friction within the system have thwarted optimum performance. American scholar Michael Sacks estimated that the average monthly wage is less than two-thirds of what is required to support a family of four at the officially recognized level of material well-being. During the late 1960s, thirty-five to forty percent of the Soviet population earned incomes below the official poverty level. (Almost twenty percent of American citizens fall below the official U.S. poverty level.) Low pay makes a second breadwinner almost imperative in a household. Not surprisingly, almost all women work.

Differences in wage rates between the USSR and Eastern European countries are sufficiently large to deter the Kremlin from encouraging labor migration between communist countries as a partial solution to its increasingly serious labor shortage. Enticing Eastern Europeans to central Russia requires creation of a dual wage system; that is, immigrants would receive higher salaries than native workers - a clear recipe for dissent. As a result, the Soviet government has restricted employment of foreign workers to 50,000 East Germans with special skills needed in industry and in the Siberian oil-fields, where all workers receive almost double the pay they would earn in temperate climates.

The basis for discontent extends to the scarcity of consumer goods as well. One Soviet scholar has lamented the demise of the Russian verb "to buy," which has largely been replaced by the verb "to get." "Getting" implies something more than buying: it expresses an element of achievement as well. The implication is clear in the light of Soviet studies reporting that the amount of time an individual spends waiting in line each day is eight times greater in the USSR than in the United States.

In the late 1970s, the Soviet citizen consumed 77 percent fewer eggs, 38 percent as much fruit, and 50 percent as much meat as his American counterpart. He spent 14 to 15 percent of his income on clothing, compared to 9 percent spent by the average American. He devoted eight times as many hours to arranging for heating and water, over twice as much time to gardening and tending animals, and four times as much time to clothes care. He spent a considerably smaller portion of his days on recreational activities; one-tenth as much time in restaurants, less than a twelfth as much time on "private" activities, and an eighth as many hours on personal travel.

Housing is perhaps the greatest source of dissatisfaction. Although the government seeks to provide each person with nine square feet of floor space, many Soviet citizens live in flats with less than five square feet per family member. The wait for new apartments is at least one year and often as long as ten years. A recurrent theme in the cartoons of the humor magazine Krokodil is the presence of workmen installing plumbing in apartments long after the occupants have settle in.

An almost thirty percent decrease in annual state investment in housing since the late 1960s seems to indicate that relieving the housing shortage is relatively low on the Kremlin's list of priorities.

The Unions

Despite the low standard of living in the USSR, labor unrest is rare. Strikes are not reported in the Soviet press, but estimates from reports leaked to the West place the number at no more than a dozen or so per year. Those that do occur rarely last more than a few hours.

University of Reading lecturer Alex Pravda attributes that infrequency of strike actions to three factors. He points to the strong sense among the Soviet population that strikes are remnants of a pre-socialist past (strikes are not illegal). Second, he cites the speed with which grievances are settled by a government eager to suppress dissent and the uncertainty of a labor force whose lack of independent organization prevents it from articulating its interests to its own members. Finally, Pravda notes that Soviet workers have recourse to a clear grievance procedure in the form of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (AUCCTU).

The Soviet trade union system channels discontent by serving as an advocate and a social service to 120 million Soviet citizens, or roughly 98 percent of the labor force. Workers contribute one percent of their earnings each month and in return receive representation in factory decisions, housing assistance, medical services, welfare and wage benefits unavailable to non-union employees.

In 1970, the USSR enacted the "Fundamental
Principles of Labor," the legislation that currently governs labor relations. The act's tenets include the right to appropriate employment, safe working conditions, and adequate compensation for all Russian workers, as well as the rights to labor union representation.

These rights are protected by an elaborate procedure for resolving conflicts. Disagreements between management and workers must receive two hearings within the factory. The dispute committee formed by the factory management and labor union officials must reach unanimous agreement or the case goes before the entire shop union. Once a shop union has passed judgment on particular case, the workers and managers involved each have the right to appeal, if dissatisfied, to a regional council. Unresolved disputes may land in court.

Union leaders may request dismissal of administrators they believe ineffective. AUCCTU Secretary A.I. Shibaev reported that such requests led to the firing of over 10,000 factory administrators in 1977 alone. While each republic has its own labor code, all make provision for managerial responsibility to workers. The code of the Russian  Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, for example, states that a manager may be liable for up to three months of a worker's back pay if he violates existing statues in dismissing or transferring a worker. In recent years, approximately half of the labor disputes that reach Soviet Courts are decided in favor of the worker.

AUCCTU fulfills a social function as well, making life more pleasant - or the deprivations less noticeable - by bringing members together for non-work activities. In 1972, the thirty industrial unions controlled 94,000 clubs, cultural organizations, and movie houses. Surveys show that Soviet workers spend almost ten times as many minutes at meals with their fellow workers than do Americans. Unions also organize occasional subbotniks, or Saturdays when people are encouraged to do their normal work without pay.

The trade unions diffuse dissatisfaction by channeling  protest into non-violent forms and offering workers a special community centered around the workplace. But the union system further diminishes the likelihood of worker uprisings by extending opportunities for direct participation.

The unions are organized according to the Production Principle – whereby both blue-collar and white-collar workers in a production area are represented in the same union – and by the principle of Democratic Centralism. The latter stipulates that all union officials be elected by union members, that decisions of union organizations receive the approval of a majority of members, and that decisions taken by lower union bodies be subordinate to higher bodies. Thus, the individual worker may feel he has considerable say over the direction of the union representing him.

But Democratic Centralism has cost Soviet unions the independence that makes real advocacy of the workers' cause possible. The "highest body" of the union organization is the Communist Party, itself; and since Stalin's day, the party has contended that under socialism, the workers are the beneficiaries of increased production. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find factory managers and union officials agreeing to rather loose interpretations of labor laws for the purpose of expanding production. In 1978, Vladimir Klebanov led a strike to protest this relationship between party and worker representation, pressing for formation of independent unions. In 1979, Klebanov was confined to Danetsk Psychiatric Hospital.

The Future

In 1921, Lenin wrote that the unions must serve as "the transmission belt from the Communist Party to the masses." AUCCTU has performed this function admirably, co-opting many potential sources of  discontent because of its perceived success in helping the ordinary worker articulate his demands and adjust to factory life. But what of the future?

During the 1980s and '90s, the Soviet Union will face the conjunction of several trends that will place considerable stress on the individual laborers and on the system as a whole. The current energy crunch, combined with an aging industrial sector, make large capital outlays for technology and equipment essential. According to a recent Central Intelligence Agency report, investment in consumer goods industries has already fallen. Tight housing and failure to improve the quality and quantity of consumer goods could intensify dissatisfaction with living conditions. Moreover, as the labor shortage worsens, Soviet workers will be called upon to increase their productivity without substantial improvement in factory equipment or environment.

Labor historian Blair Ruble believes that the Kremlin has three options: liberalize, muddle through, or tighten control. Of these, he argues, Soviet leaders will no doubt choose the second. With union patience and proselytizing on behalf of the state, with the press's silence on labor unrest, and with technology from the West, Russia's workers will greet the next century under Soviet rule.