The Lessons of Defeat: The New Russian Labour Code

On February 1, Putin's government introduced new labour laws which curtail workers' rights. The laws were introduced in part by pressure from the IMF although Russia's bourgeoisie is not in the habit of respecting any laws, preferring to settle disputes with workers with the fists of their security guards.

(Translator's note: the names and abbreviations of trade unions in this article have simply been transliterated. Sotspfor is an abbreviation of sotsialisticheskii profsoyuz, the socialist trade union. FNPR stands for federatsia nezavisimikh profsoyuzov Rossii, which means the federation of independent trade unions in Russia. Zashchita means "Defence" and NPG is the independent trade union of miners, which split off from what was the FNPR and became well known in the west for being active against Gorbachov and picketing the White House in Moscow in 1998.)

Today, February 1, the new labour code comes into effect. The main changes mean that discriminating against workers in small enterprises is now legal (although de-facto they had no rights before), that dismissing teachers and university lecturers has been made easier, that the position of pregnant women and women with young children has been made a bit worse, and that the ability of employees to participate in the management of their enterprises has been limited (as if anyone doubted this anyway). There is though now a link between the minimum level of wages and a living minimum (bearing in mind that the minimum level of wages is currently a miserly 83 roubles!) But all this only marginally interested the trade union leaders - for them the only burning issue is their own future.

In fact the code could well turn out to be much worse since in reality labour legislation is defined by the class balance of forces and the situation facing the workers on the labour market. And this very situation, with the ebb in the labour movement, in conditions of a long drawn out economic crisis, does not need further description. The code could also turn out to be a fraction better, or change nothing at all, since a large part of the national bourgeoisie still don't understand what actual use it is to them because they are accustomed by habit to relying on tyranny and the fists of their security men in setting wages. Strictly speaking the whole "legal process" was initiated from the beginning by the order of the IMF and delayed many times simply because neither President or the deputies in the Duma wanted to risk their support over such an insignificant cause. This is why the struggle surrounding the passing of the new labour code acquired a purely tactical, hidden character. Obviously defeat in such a "battle" cannot demoralise the class but this does not apply to thousands of workers and left activists, hundreds of whom were drawn into the movement by the long campaign against the labour code. A thorough analysis of events and the reasons for defeat is the best antidote here.

The general reason for defeat is clear: the split in the workers' movement. In itself the very fact that different trade unions adopted antagonistic positions at the time of the deciding votes in the Duma says a lot. How could this happen? The answer lies in the nature of these trade unions.

As is well known, historically the first form of trade unions were craft unions, expressing the interests of the layer of workers' aristocracy, which came out of the various craft industries. Their defining feature was that they were not a union of all the workers in a particular enterprise but only combined a given profile of specialists. For example, engineers and their co-workers, metal workers and conductors became members of different trade unions. Sotsprof is exactly such a union, although there is no obvious reason for this. Perhaps it is due to the influence of the American AFT, which was built according to such a pattern, or maybe it is due to the psychological negation of the industrially organised FNPR, which represents the bastions of the industrial working class. One way or another the most active, militant workers at the start of the 1990s ended up tied to the trade union swamp of Khramov.

Objectively the FNPR and Sotsprof are rivals. (The FNPR is the continuation of the former Soviet trade unions, which played a large role in society, organising holidays and recreation. Since its property, which consisted of hotels, cinemas, health and leisure resorts and sports facilities did not count as state property it was not privatised, providing the resources for a powerful apparatus - translator's note.) With strong sector trade unions affiliated to the FNPR, Sotsprof suffered from continual difficulties in negotiating labour agreements and in collecting union levies. As a result it always welcomed projects of "liberal reforms". Their attack was carried to the weak spots of the FNPR: its property and the social insurance fund under its control. Khramov logically thought that the FNPR would simply disintegrate with the erosion of its financial basis. Putin's original project on labour reform was in essence Khramov's. It provided for the elimination of FNPR committees from the board rooms that had been open to them as a more powerful union, the reduction in its apparatus, and the undermining of its financial base, which, along with the reform of the tax system, were all intended to destroy the branches of the FNPR and in this way create the conditions for the growth of Sotsprof. The plan, which was complicated by the emergence of Zashchita, did not come off though.

Originally the trade union Zashchita was created as a "revolutionary syndicalist" one in distinction to Sotsprof, and set itself the aim of bringing workers into the political struggle through the economic struggle. As a result of this the political authority of the conscious workers in Zashchita was out of proportion to their size. The first steps of Zashchita stirred the imagination. At the beginning of the 1990s, when the wave of workers activism was already dying away, its branch organisations established control over big enterprises, forcing out and seizing the place of the traditional trade union organisations. Unfortunately the defeat of 1993 and the subsequent ebb in the movement stopped this process in its tracks at a stage when Zashchita still had not acquired a critical mass, and it remained in many areas a "proto-trade union" with a low level of membership. This situation, which was shared by Sotsprof and suited its "workers' aristocracy", was a curse for the authentically proletarian Zashchita. It was necessary for them to wait patiently for the next upswing, living together in the meantime with the old trade union bureaucracy.

However, at a certain time the view emerged among the leadership of Zashchita that they had a common interest with Sotsprof in their struggle against the FNPR - that when the strong President put pressure on the Duma again it would be advantageous to be with Khramov, which is to say with Putin. They were mistaken. Everything changes, including the workers' mass organisations. The FNPR was able to bring out onto the streets a sufficiently large number of people to worry the President. And when the situation became heated, with the rank and file becoming active, the CPRF for the first time in many years began to actively work with the mass trade union movement of the FNPR at a local level. The possibility arose in which the CPRF could have gained control over the trade union movement. In such an event Putin would have been compelled to retreat. Yet this was inhibited by the divisions between the trade unions, which were predicated upon the whole logic of their previous rivalry. The FNPR put forward its own labour code, directed totally against trade unions with a low level of membership such as Sotsprof and also Zashchita.

The leaders of the FNPR, having sensed danger, went further. In concluding an obscene agreement with the government they sacrificed the interests of the workers, including their own local activists, in exchange for legal retribution against minority trade unions. This is an unconditional crime before the working class in Russia. But how should we describe the position of people who preferred a coalition with the reactionary Khramov to working in mass trade unions? This applies to the many industry affiliations that left the FNPR over the past period, including the NPG. The question arises as to why it was only trade unions with a low level of membership in the workplaces that actively campaigned against the compromise project - is it not because such unions placed their own interests before the wider interests of the class that had been divided by them?

The creation of the Partiya Truda, or Labour Party, between Zashchita and Khramov was the logical extension of this process. According to historical tradition, which emerged from Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, the so-called workers' party demonstratively turns its back on the revolutionary struggle, from fundamentally changing the social regime. The Russian Labourites are no exception, but what was forgivable 100 years ago is today simply a capitulation in the face of the class enemy. It is an attempt to merge with the bourgeois establishment, where there is even space for the leaders of the organised working class, on the condition that they do not intend to overthrow the capitalist system.

We call upon all honest activists from the trade union Zashchita, which can be proud of its past militancy, to adopt a principled position on the question of the unity of the workers' movement and the importance of the political struggle of the proletariat. Stand for the Leninist position, set out in the book What is to be done? and restore the Bolshevik leadership of your trade union!

February 2001

This article has been translated from the Russian Marxist Paper Workers' Democracy