We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

What About The Workers?


new internationalist
issue 190 - December 1988

[image, unknown]
What about the workers?

The Soviet system has long claimed to be run for if not by the workers.
But on a recent visit home Alex Amerisov found growing impatience among
working people. He rings the alarm bells for Mikhail Gorbachev.

After 13 years of exile I was finally allowed to return to the Soviet Union, for a four-month visit with my mother. Permission came a few days before Mikhail Gorbachev's arrival in the US for his summit meeting with Ronald Reagan in December, 1987.

The joy of being home with my mother was overwhelming. So it is not surprising that I was more enthusiastic about Gorbachev's reforms than almost anyone I met in the Soviet Union. On several occasions I was even accused of being naive about Gorbachev - that shocked me.

A real eye opener took place in Moscow in the apartment of a friend. I was talking to his wife while waiting for him to return, He came home tired and drunk. It was payday. 'They should all be shot with their perestroika,' he shouted out.

'What happened?' asked his wife. He opened a fist. In it there were 21 roubles - the remains of his miserable wage of 32 roubles for two weeks' work. He had spent 10 roubles on a pint of vodka. Even by Soviet standards, it was very little.

'Gorbachev's new system of self-cost accounting,' he explained. 'During Brezhnev's "stagnation" period' - he was full of sarcasm - 'I never brought home less than 120 roubles every two weeks. Now your Gorbachev,' (he was talking to me), 'cuts it to a third.'

Despite his outburst, my friend's attitude toward Gorbachev's reforms is not so clear-cut. In addition to his regular job he is an artist. He used to be forbidden to sell his paintings because he was not a member of the Artists Union - to which only the politically reliable are admitted. Now he can and does sell through an artists' co-operative. But most of his living comes from his job as a warehouse worker. It is here that his family's standard of living has taken a severe beating due to Gorbachev's reforms.

And it's not just him. For millions of other Soviet workers some of the most important aspects of life have worsened in the last few years. For many, perestroika has meant wage cuts, price hikes, worsened food shortages and unemployment. In particular the dramatic rise in joblessness is inflicting misery and hardship that is hard for Westerners to imagine.

Unemployment is nothing new in the Soviet Union. Much of what was formerly common knowledge to most Soviet people is now being published in statistical form: one million unemployed, mostly rural, residents of the Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan cannot find a job,1 making for an almost 15 per cent unemployment rate in that Soviet republic; 200,000 unemployed in the smaller neighboring Soviet republic of Tadzhikistan;2 250,000 unemployed in Azerbaijan, making a 10 per cent unemployment rate in that republic.3

In Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, 12 per cent of the adult population is out of work. Unemployed villagers come to the city in search of jobs. Unable to get permanent employment or residency permits to live in the city, they have built a shanty town on the outskirts of Baku. More than 200,000 people - a quarter of the city's population - now live there in unauthorized structures that went up overnight and are unfit for human habitation, according to the Soviet paper Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya. Embarrassed city authorities have put up a high wall to hide it.

Unemployment for more than six months is a criminal offence in the Soviet Union. To keep things in order in this shanty town, an average of three people are prosecuted every day for being unemployed. Almost one third of those charged with committing a crime in Baku are jobless.

Another legacy of the Brezhnev era is unemployment among educated professionals. In Baku, Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya found that more than 8,000 qualified teachers couldn't find any job at all. Some 1,500 specialists in humanities and social work are unemployed, as are hundreds of doctors and physicians. As in the West real unemployment figures are probably even higher.

Pre-Gorbachev unemployment was an unintended by-product of a stagnant economy. But the new wave of unemployment is the intentional result of a policy to increase the efficiency of the economy.

Gorbachev started his cuts with employees at the various government agencies that supervise Soviet agriculture 3,000 of them lost their jobs in early 1986. Breaking with the established practice of providing laid-off workers with similarly-paid jobs at other institutions and state-owned companies, Gorbachev ordered that they should be dismissed with three months' full pay.

Judging from accounts in the Soviet press, most of those fired did find new jobs - although many at drastically-reduced salaries. At the same time, the press reported that 13 to 19 million more people would have to be 'freed' from their jobs in the course of perestroika. Never ashamed to blame 'lazy' workers for the country's economic problems, the papers published scores of letters calling for more layoffs.

By the summer of 1986, the Soviet press was reporting massive lay-offs taking place in the railroad industry. During the first four months of that year, 5,370 railroad workers were laid off in the Black Sea port of Odessa. At least eight other railroad systems followed suit, bringing the total of railroad workers fired to more than 200,000 in 1986 alone. In November 1987, the Communist Party paper announced another round of 60,000 layoffs of government employees in Moscow in 1988 and 1989. The paper reported many of those affected tearfully appealing against their dismissal notices. Layoffs in cultural, educational, and other areas are expected to increase this figure by several hundred thousand.

Soviet cop checks a passport: one way to keep workers in place.

In the Soviet Union, being laid off does not only mean a temporary loss of income with no unemployment benefits. It also means the devastating loss of your place on the waiting list for many of the vital necessities that are distributed through the workplace. Housing is one of these.

An old friend of mine, Vanya, is a blue-collar worker who is over 50. He lives with his wife and four children in a one-room apartment without running water, toilet, or shower. He took his present job as a production worker because it offered him the opportunity to get a better apartment. That was eight years ago. Now he is faced with the possibility of a lay-off, a new job, and a move back to the bottom of the housing list - another eight years to wait.

The wife of another friend took a low-paid job as a technician in order to get their daughter placed in a kindergarten associated with her new company. That was a year ago. Now she is laid off and looking for another job. Her husbands asks: 'Will we have to wait another year to get our daughter into kindergarten? She will be ready to go to a regular school by then.

The new economic reforms are violating the basic social contract of Soviet society: the state pays people very little for their work, but takes upon itself the obligation to provide them with some vital services. Gorbachev wants the state to do less, but he gives people no more money to do it for themselves; a babysitter would cost my friend almost as much as his wife earns.

In addition to such 'economic' measures there is a continuation of the 'administrative' measures from the days when Yuri Andropov was in power. In Western capitalist countries employees can be reprimanded, denied a bonus, even fired, but under no circumstances can an employee's defective work mean a fine or a jail sentence. The criminalization of work rules before the Revolution was condemned by Lenin as one of the most retrograde aspects of Tsarist labor laws. But in recent years, the maximum fine has been tripled to the entire monthly wage. The Procurator General of the USSR, Aleksandr Rekunov, revealed in a recent Pravda interview that in early 1986 more than 80 railroad workers faced criminal prosecution for 'non - economical use of materials'.

One of the most important ways of controlling workers in the Soviet Union is the internal passport system. A police authorization for residence, called 'propiska', is stamped in each passport. Without such a permit it is impossible to legally move from one part of the country to the other. The police decision as to whether or not to grant a residence permit is not subject to appeal. Recently this system of internal passports has come in for increased criticism in the more daring Soviet publications - Moscow News and Ogonyok.

Through this system, prisoners released from labour camps, are commonly denied residence in their former cities and villages. It has also created millions of Soviet 'guest workers' in the major Soviet cities. These workers have only temporary permission to live in a given city while they are employed at a particular job there. It is estimated that in Moscow, for example, up to 40 per cent of all industrial jobs are done by such nonMuscovites, pejoratively referred to as limitchiks or 'quota' people.

In early August 1988, Moscow Communist Party boss Lev Zaikov visited ZIL, the largest auto works in Moscow, and openly incited Muscovites against limitchiks, using their presence to explain away Moscow's chronic housing shortage. Zaikov knew full well that most of the limitchiks live crowded together in workers' dormitories, earn much less than other Muscovites, and aren't allowed to bring their families to live with them. Such workers can be thrown out of the city at the first complaint from management. Like a Turkish worker in Dusseldorf or an Algerian in Lyons, the limitchiks are easy scapegoats for deteriorating social conditions.

Such treatment of Soviet workers will remain possible as long as the Communist Party retains a dictatorial control that denies rights that workers won long ago in most capitalist countries - the right to choose their job and place of residence, the right to organize their own trade unions and political parties, and the right to vote for the leaders of their choice.

The lack of elemental workers' rights poses a real danger for Gorbachev and his reform program. Their vulnerable position means that Soviet workers are finding it difficult to adapt. Their confusion and resistance could make them easy prey for Gorbachev's conservative critics to rally against him and his economic reforms. For this reason a growing number of grassroots activists feel Gorbachev should stop his economic diddling and concentrate on democratizing the Soviet state. The Soviet people could then decide themselves on the kinds of economic changes they would like to see.

There are clear signs of a growing discontent among Soviet working people. Official statistics reveal that 26 million workdays were lost due to lateness in 1987. That is four million more than in 1986. This trend seems to have continued into 1988. Several groups have emerged who see their primary task as the defense of workers' rights. A year ago there was only one such organization. The present generation of reformers would do well to remember that the step which follows muted grumbling is often open revolt.

Alexander Amerisov is a democratic socialist exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974. He is editor of the Chicago-based Soviet-American REVIEW on the movement for democracy in the USSR.

1 Selzkaya Zhizn, March 24 1987.
2 Communist Tadzhikistana, Jan. 20, 1987.
Sotialisticheskaya Industriya, Mar. 25-29 1987.

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page

New Internationalist issue 190 magazine cover This article is from the December 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop