Trade Unions in the 1999 Duma Election




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Trade Unions in the 1999 Duma Election


Simon Clarke and Others1

Soviet trade unions, as the ‘transmission belts’ between the Party and the masses were deeply embedded in the structures of the Party-state. The organisational structure of the trade unions mirrored that of the Party-state, the majority of their functions were Party-state functions and their authority derived from the Party-state. The collapse of the soviet system and the disintegration of the Party-state threatened the very existence of the trade unions.

Although the ‘administrative-command’ system was rapidly displaced by a market economy, so that enterprises and organisations had, at least in principle, to confine their costs within the limits of their revenues rather than delivering planned output targets at any price, the internal structure of the post-soviet enterprise changed slowly and little, so that within the enterprise the trade union remained, as it always had been, primarily the social and welfare department of an authoritarian-paternalist enterprise administration, distributing the constantly shrinking supply of social and welfare benefits among the workers. The primary organisations of the trade unions expressed the dependence of the employees on their employers and so were in no position to articulate the conflict that could be expected to arise as employers chose or were forced by market pressures to cut costs by intensifying labour, cutting wages and reducing employment.2

In the absence of pressure for a ‘renewal from below’, the process of change in the Russian trade union movement was orchestrated primarily from above. The priority of the trade union apparatus, which had been completely dominant over elected trade union bodies in the soviet period, was to preserve the trade unions as institutions by preserving, as far as possible, their existing functions. However, in order to preserve their existing functions, despite the collapse of the Party-state, the trade unions had to establish themselves in a mediating role between workers, employers and the state. This aspiration was expressed in the trade unions’ commitment to the principles of social partnership, which they saw as providing the institutional framework that would underpin their new role. It has been this commitment that has dominated the political activity of the trade unions in transition.


Trade unions and politics in transition


Social partnership provided a framework within which the trade unions hoped that they would be able to resume their traditional role of negotiating with state bodies on behalf of their members, and then of monitoring and administering the implementation of the agreements which had been reached. However, the development of such a system depended on the ability of the trade unions to find social partners willing to participate and on the establishment of a legal framework defining the rights and responsibilities of the parties to agreements. The attempt to develop a system of social partnership has been the driving force of the unions’ involvement in politics since 1991.

The commitment to social partnership as the framework for the activity of the Russian trade unions was established at their inception. The 1990 Founding Congress of FNPR adopted a resolution defining the basic tactics of the trade unions as involving the negotiation of general, tariff and collective agreements, to be backed up by demonstrations, meetings, strikes, May Day celebrations and spring and autumn days of united action in support of the unions’ demands in negotiations and to enforce the subsequent fulfilment of the agreements. With a changing balance between confrontation and collaboration, this has been the basis of trade union tactics ever since the signing of the first agreement with the Russian government in February 1991 and the first trade union ‘day of unity’ in March 1991.

Following Yeltsin’s counter-coup in August 1991, he committed the government to social partnership, issuing the decree ‘On Social Partnership and the Resolution of Labour Disputes (Conflicts)’ on November 15th, which provided the basis for the establishment of a Russian Tripartite Commission for the Regulation of Social and Labour Relations (RTK) to negotiate an annual tripartite general agreement, as well as allowing for the negotiation of tripartite branch tariff agreements and regional and local agreements. However, the satisfaction that FNPR might have derived from Yeltsin’s commitment to social partnership was undermined by a conflict over union representation on the RTK as the government insisted on giving disproportionate representation to the alternative trade unions to ensure that FNPR would not have the veto power of a two-thirds majority on the trade union side.

The official trade unions were in a very vulnerable position. Lacking the confidence and support of their membership, they had always depended on the power of the Party-state for their authority and for their prosperity. The unions enjoyed considerable legal rights and protection against both the enterprise administration and their own members. Moreover, the unions had been enormously wealthy bodies. In addition to the one per cent of the wage bill checked off by every employer as membership dues, the unions owned large and prestigious office buildings in the centre of every city, they owned the bulk of the tourist and holiday facilities throughout the country, in addition to managing the sanitoria, sporting and cultural facilities which had been assigned to them. Over the years of perestroika some trade union organisations had also become involved in ‘commercial activity’, nominally to provide food and consumer goods for their members, but also augmenting the wealth of the unions and the fortunes of their leaders. Finally, the unions administered the bulk of social insurance payments, the funds for which had simply been assigned to the unions by the government without any effective monitoring or accounting, and could be used by the unions at their discretion.

The leaders of the FNPR and of the official branch unions were only too aware of their vulnerability, as the new ‘alternative’ independent unions, with Sotsprof most vocal and with good connections in government, insistently demanded the re-registration of trade union membership and the redistribution or nationalisation of trade union property. At the same time the unions were beginning to face cash-flow difficulties as primary groups reduced their affiliation fees to the centre and as, in some cases, their assets were ‘privatised’ and their resources were siphoned off by their commercial ‘partners’. However, the Yeltsin government was also aware of the danger that the official unions could present if they were to provide the focus of an effective campaign of mass opposition to the ‘reform’ programme. The result was a tacit compromise between the government and the official unions, in which the unions confined themselves to rhetorical attacks on the government, and the government confined itself to rhetorical attacks on the unions, with the two sides signing annual, and equally rhetorical, General Agreements which were mostly declarations of good intentions, without any firm commitments on either side.3

Tripartism was not entirely appropriate in a situation in which the government employed the vast majority of the labour force, and the employers’ side of the RTK was at first dominated by representatives of ministries and quasi-ministerial bodies. The most powerful independent organisation on the employers’ side was the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, headed by Arkady Volskii. This was an organisation which had emerged out of the apparatus of the Central Committee of the CPSU to represent the interests of the ‘industrial nomenklatura’, particularly in the military-industrial sector, when Gorbachev stripped the Party of its economic functions. Although Volskii’s organisation was nominally an employers’ body, it mobilised former party apparatchiks and trade union leaders as well as enterprise directors and in practice the leaders of FNPR and VKP played a dominant role both nationally and at regional level: FNPR and VKP officials filled one-fifth of the seats at the November 1993 plenum of the organisation.

As representative of the workers in the transition to a capitalist economy, FNPR could expect to find itself in opposition to both employers and government, but to secure a place for itself within a framework of social partnership, FNPR had to have close relations with a sympathetic government and conciliatory employers’ organisations. Volskii’s Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs provided the latter and there appeared some possibility that Volskii’s party, ‘Civic Union’, could also provide the former, as it became the focus of the centrist opposition to Yeltsin’s first government, pressing for industrial regeneration through the provision of state credits and a state investment programme. FNPR increasingly identified itself with Volskii’s platform, which promised to protect the jobs and wages of workers in the industrial core of the economy. Although FNPR could not formally join ‘Civic Union’, because of its insistence that it was ‘apolitical’, it sealed its collaboration with Volskii by jointly forming an ‘Assembly of Social Partnership’ in July 1992, and jointly publishing a newspaper.

Volskii appeared to be in the ascendant through 1992 as the government gave way to demands to relieve the crisis through the expansion of credit, appointing Viktor Gerashchenko as chairman of the Central Bank in July and replacing Gaidar as Prime Minister by Chernomyrdin, identified with the industrial lobby, in December. However, the space for centrism was being eroded as the government’s concessions did nothing to ease the polarisation between executive and legislature that dominated the political scene until the final confrontation in October 1993.

FNPR at first trod a cautious path in the struggle for power in 1993, standing aside in the confrontation between Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet in March. Through the summer FNPR repeatedly warned the government of the unavoidable consequences and inevitable mass unrest if it persisted with its policies and announced an autumn campaign of meetings and warning strikes, building up through September to a general strike at the beginning of October. This never got off the ground, and then was cut short by Yeltsin’s suspension of parliament on September 21st, Yeltsin’s warnings to FNPR to stay out of politics and the bombardment of the White House.

FNPR leader Klochkov supported the ‘defenders of the White House’ with a call for a series of protests and a general strike, none of which met with a rank-and-file response, so Klochkov backed off in the face of Yeltsin’s warnings. After the fall of the White House, the FNPR Executive denounced extremist violence and called for calm, order and legality to allow for the people to express their will in free elections. The meeting decided to call the IInd (extraordinary) FNPR Congress for October 28th at which the opposition within FNPR unseated Klochkov and replaced him with the leader of the Moscow Federation of trade unions, Mikhail Shmakov.

Shmakov’s ousting of Klochkov represented a move away from the legacy of authoritarianism towards a greater sensitivity to the divergence of interests among the branch and regional union organisations. It also represented a move away from the confrontational politics that had ended with the storming of the White House towards an emphasis on the ‘social partnership’ that had been developed by Shmakov with the Moscow City government, a turn which was reinforced by the results of the December 1993 Duma election, which threw into question the issue of the political affiliation of FNPR. While the centrist Civic Union had been thrashed, the Communist Party and the Agrarians, with whom the private sympathies of many trade union leaders lay, had put up a strong showing.4 There was a fear within the presidential apparatus that FNPR would use its considerable funds and organisational resources to support the resurgent Communists, and the presidential apparatus let it be known in February 1994 that a decree appropriating the unions’ assets had been drawn up and only awaited Yeltsin’s signature. On March 10 1994 Yeltsin launched his ‘Memorandum of Civic Accord’ at a meeting to which all the significant trade union leaders were invited, calling on all social partners to commit themselves to the peaceful resolution of their differences, the main political purpose of Yeltsin’s initiative being to draw a line between the centre and the left-right extremes. FNPR welcomed the initiative, hoping to be able to extract more than paper concessions from their assent to the memorandum, which they signed on 28 April, although reserving the right to strike in the event of the non-fulfilment of collective agreements as a result of the failings of the authorities. FNPR held a peaceful May Day demonstration in 1994 around the theme of reconstruction and reconciliation as part of the new strategy of ‘passive protest’ which included the symbolic picketing of government buildings by representative delegations, but no longer any attempt to organise mass demonstrations.

Continuing economic decline and the deepening fiscal and financial crisis were expressed in growing discontent that focused on the non-payment of wages and social benefits. The passivity of the leadership met with some opposition within FNPR and a meeting of leaders of its affiliated organisations at the beginning of September 1994 called for mass demonstrations on 27 October which were somewhat better attended than those called two years before, although not by anything like the eight million claimed by FNPR. Although FNPR continued to pursue a conciliatory position with the government, its demonstrations began to mobilise growing numbers, and were increasingly accompanied by demands for the resignation of the government and the president. However, the leadership of FNPR was much more concerned with its parliamentary lobbying and with the manoeuvring in the run-up to the December 1995 Duma election. The demonstrations allowed the critics of the government to let off steam, and to demonstrate to the government that FNPR was a significant force for social peace in being able to channel such criticism into harmless protest, but they were never part of a concerted FNPR campaign of opposition. On 1 June Shmakov had declared to the General Council, ‘Today it is clear that a decisive, open confrontation with the regime would throw our trade unions into the backwaters of public life, would deprive them of all of the constitutional means of defending the interests of the toilers, and would be a real threat to the existence of the Federation and of FNPR unions as a whole’ (quoted in Mandel, 1995).


Trade unions in the 1995 duma election


The question of political affiliation of the trade unions came to the fore again in the run-up to the 1995 duma elections. The central issue was whether the trade unions should put forward their own candidates, in order to secure the foundations of a trade union block in the duma, or whether they should seek to have a more direct political influence by participating in a wider electoral block. In fact FNPR did not resolve this issue, but took a pragmatic approach. In December 1994 the Executive recommended member organisations to start work selecting candidates and organising election campaigns in single-mandate constituencies and in February 1995 set up the organisation Profsoyuzy Rossii - na vybory! (Trade Unions of Russia - to the elections!) to provide a framework for its political activity. In the middle of March Shmakov appealed to various left and centre parties and movements to start discussions about collaboration to form a centre-left block in the elections, but the appeal met with no response. In May FNPR announced the formation of an electoral block with the Russian United Industrial Party (ROPP, a new Volskii organisation) and the Union of Realists, but the announcement was somewhat premature. FNPR held a trade union conference on 1 June to discuss trade union participation in the elections at which it adopted its basic election platform. There was lively debate about which electoral block FNPR should support, with particular branch and regional union organisations having their own allegiances to consider. The compromise decision was to go into the elections with an independent list while continuing discussions to try to form a centre-left block, but also to free the hands of local organisations to allow them to form a block with ‘those political forces supported by the workers in their regions’. On 5 September, at the second stage of the conference, FNPR again sealed its alliance with Arkadii Volskii’s Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs by establishing the social-political organisation Profsoyuzy i promyshleniki RossiiSoyuz truda (Trade unions and industrialists of Russia - Union of labour) headed by Shmakov, Volskii and the President of VKP, Vladimir Shcherbakov, which went into the election under the slogan ‘Wages - employment - legality’.

The fragmentation of the unions and the sectional lobbying character of Russian politics (Áóêåòîâ et al., 1996, p. 6) was expressed in the fact that a number of branch and regional unions followed their own independent course in the elections. On the one hand, the metallurgists, who had left FNPR in 1992, formed an alliance with Yabloko through which a number of union officials, headed by the President of the union, Boris Misnik, were assigned positions on the party list.5 On the other hand, the Unions of Trade Workers and Educational Workers aligned themselves with Women of Russia and the agro-industrial workers and a number of others with the Agrarians, while several individual trade union candidates were backed by the Communists and three branch unions set up their own political organisations to endorse and campaign for any candidates who would declare themselves in support of the union’s programme. The motor industry trade union was a co-founder of the Russian Motorists’ Party, the transport workers formed the All-Russian transport workers’ social-political movement and the coalminers’ union, Rosugleprof, established the social-political association Miners of Russia. The former two organisations included both trade unions and employers’ organisations. Miners of Russia was initially established by the trade union on its own, but later tried unsuccessfully to secure campaign finance by including the quasi-ministerial management body, Rosugol’, and the coal associations as collective members. The union encouraged regional committees of Miners of Russia to put forward candidates in the coal-mining regions and to endorse all candidates who declared their support for the miners’ minimal programme. In the event Rostov was the only region that was sufficiently active to put forward its own candidate, Vladimir Katal’nikov being elected for the Shakhti single-mandate constituency, and nothing was done to seek endorsement of the Miners of Russia programme by other candidates.

Overall, the results of the 1995 duma election were a disappointment for the trade unions. Soyuz truda secured only 1.59% of the party list vote, well below the threshold required to secure duma representation (less than was polled by Viktor Anpilov’s Komunisty - Trudovaya Rossiya - za Sovetskii Soyuz). Only nine trade unionists were elected to the duma, including Katal’nikov, Misnik and two other metallurgists on the Yabloko list, four on the Communist Party list and one endorsed by Soyuz truda from a Krasnodar constituency. Soyuz truda was effectively dissolved. Shmakov drew five lessons from the election campaign: 1) there had been insufficient solidarity between the unions; 2) many people on elected trade union bodies could not manage an election campaign properly; 3) bad information provision; 4) a lack of a political strategy; 5) financial difficulties.

However, underlying the lack of commitment of trade union organisations to FNPR’s electoral strategy lay the fact that the ‘industrial lobby’ had lost any coherence that it might once have had. Privatisation had intensified the fragmentation of interests so that in place of a single industrial lobby, enterprise directors looked to their own efforts or to more narrowly branch- or regionally based organisations in lobbying for their own interests. Trade unions at enterprise, regional and branch levels were integrated into these structures as ‘social partners’, promising social peace and supporting the employers and regional authorities in their lobbying for privileges and resources in exchange for at least paper commitments to pay acceptable wages, maintain social and welfare provision and preserve jobs.6 Thus, although social partnership had made little progress at the federal level, with successive governments showing little sympathy for the trade unions and the annual General Agreement offering little more than vague promises and empty declarations of intent, at branch, regional and enterprise level the institutions of social partnership had put down much more solid roots and the trade unions had established their own allegiances, which did not necessarily coincide with those of the FNPR leadership. The result was that branch and regional trade union organisations followed their own independent electoral strategies and there was no concerted trade union campaign.


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