Already in Hell: Labor After Communism

— George Windau

Labour After Communism
Autoworkers and Their Unions in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus
by David Mandel
Montreal, New York & London: Black Rose Press, 2004. (www.web.net/blackrosebooks)
$28.99 paper.

FACTORY WORKERS IN the former Soviet Union have a saying: “Things can’t get any worse, we are already in hell.” David Mandel’s book Labour After Communism documents the realities of working-class life in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus: factories with no central heating, where workers to maintain body heat build fires in metal drums or large metal toolboxes, the smoke of these fires rising up through holes in the roof.

In many factories, the main trade union issue revolves around unpaid wages, or “wage arrears.” Trade union leaders debate whether management should have to begin paying wages arrears after three months or after six. Still, workers who aren’t paid, except for a single meal provided in the factory cafeteria, come to work.

Labor activists, who seek to replace the corrupt and indolent union leaders, raise slogans such as “We are not slaves.” But in reality, the post-communist workers are slaves, in a crucial sense of the term: Having no power they have internalized a passive slave-like mentality.

There are uprisings: Mandel shows instances where thousands of workers participate in blocking highways or the takeover of factories. But these instances of direct action have not produced sustained struggle or tangible victories.

Focused on post-soviet auto and machine workers, Mandel’s book describes the privatization process (or “shock therapy”) that turned workers into a mass with little will to resist, who obey management and their corrupt, gangster governments or succumb to alcoholism and suicide.

The so-called auto and machinery unions, ASMB (Belarus), ASMR (Russia) and ASMU (Ukraine), are nothing more than an extension of management power, with management personnel often running and winning union office.  The logic of electing a boss to be a union official is predicated on the idea that as a union leader the manager can have “influence” based upon his career as a boss.

There is a debate over whether union activists should focus on a political struggle against the brazenly corrupt governments that support management, or to organize against management, focusing on basic working conditions such as health and safety or the payment of wages.

In this environment, the small layer of sincere and dedicated union activists can find themselves outmaneuvered and fired by management. Some have been victimized or permanently fired.  While courts occasionally give moral victories to the aggrieved union activist, there is no legal machinery to enforce court judgments.

Comparing Experiences

Earlier this year one of my coworkers, with more than 20 years seniority and facing possible dismissal, came to work with a 20-gauge double-barrel shotgun under his coat. He shot and killed his immediate supervisor, injured two others and took his own life.

While I don’t claim to know everything about the incident, it’s clear that “management by stress” played a role. Clearly these acts of violence at work are not “senseless” at all, but acts that erupt out of the cauldron of workplace battles.

As a Marxist American autoworker, I cannot avoid comparing and contrasting the conditions and experiences described in Mandel’s book with my own experiences. As a young union activist I was led to believe that the crisis of capitalism would produce a decline in the living standards of the American worker, and this reality would inspire resistance and struggle.

Instead, as the years unfolded, I see that a negative change in the objective conditions does not automatically produce a fightback, but more often produces passivity. Mandel sees this reality in the former USSR and tries to find some theoretical constructs to explain the tendency of human beings to become a slavish herd.

The culture and mentality of submission to authority — either management or government — is the immediate local reality. While the American worker is not as degraded and humiliated as his/her post-soviet counterpart, U.S. unions gave up the right to shape conditions at the work place half a century ago.

American workers work long hours through a combination of escapism, backbiting and denial. Management propaganda also urges the American worker to cooperate, to make sacrifices to “stay competitive,” to keep the U.S. economy solvent.

In the post-soviet factories, Mandel describes management propaganda about a so-called “social partnership” between workers and management. [Editor’s Note: For a detailed discussion see David Mandel’s essay “The Defeat of Post-USSR Labor” in our May-June 2005 issue, ATC 116.]

There is no nationalist jingoism — or competitive illusions, because post-soviet factories are in no way “competitive” in terms of technology or market share. This “social partnership” propaganda, used in all three former soviet republics, is in and of itself meaningless. Yet post-soviet workers accept such hollow propaganda much as American workers buy into “national competitiveness” while their jobs are shipped overseas and “American” companies are bought by German, British, French and Chinese capitalists.

Mandel attempts to explain the subjective mentality of the post-soviet worker: When the enterprise is barely solvent, or appears to be barely solvent, workers feel that they have little bargaining power. Workers believe that if there is no business there can be no labor.

It’s clear that the brutality of struggle between capital and labor that David Mandel chronicles recalls Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ descriptions of that same struggle between capital and labor in Britain 150 years ago. But unfortunately rebellion is not the only response to injustice.

In fact, when the odds seem to favor the boss, workers can turn the violent response they feel upon themselves. This reality begs certain philosophical questions about the ability of human beings to accept slavery.

I do indeed recommend Labour After Communism, but it seems to me to be a book without hope, about real, living people who are suffering beyond belief. While still producing wealth, they seem to have no way out. The post-soviet worker seems “already in hell” and if trends continue the American worker will be “arriving soon.”

ATC 118, September-October 2005