Russia: A Fast Walk to Nowhere

I. Malyarov

THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE by I. Malyarov appeared in the Soviet central trade union daily newspaper Trud on June 11, 1991. It paints a graphic picture of what privatization means in practice in the USSR and of the interests that are really behind this policy. It also speaks loudly of the proclaimed ‘democratization’ of the official trade unions.

Privatization is being sold to the Soviet population as the only way out of the economic crisis. The population itself, however, has never been consulte4 and even before the reform has become official a creeping quiet privatization is well under way.

For the workers who have directly experienced it, privatization is often far from the panacea it is touted to be “Creeping privatization” has become the source of a growing number of conflicts. In December 1990, the Union of Work Collectives was established to attempt to coordinate these struggles and promote workers, self-management.

In an ironic twist, the enterprise discussed here, one of the largest footwear enterprises in the Soviet Union, played an important role in the revolutionary movement in the first two dercades of this century, and was nationalized in 1917 at the initiative of the workers. Its workforce, now as then, is overwhelmingly female. —David Mandel

THE LENINGRAD FOOTWEAR production association “Skorokhod” was one of the first in the city to carry out the so-called economic reform. At meetings held in the departments of “Skorokhod,” managers and economists painted a glowing picture to the assembled workers of the perspectives of labor in the new conditions.

“Voting to transform our association into the ‘Interlenprom’ concern,” declared the speakers, “You are voting for your own bright future.”

As if to justify the enterprise’s former name [“Skomkhod” means “fast walk” —D.M.] management, not without the aid of the party and trade union committees, in a very brief time shifted the collective onto “new economic tracks.” The former constituent departments of the footwear association henceforth bore the name of small enterprises.

[“Small enterprises” are private enterprises, officially permitted in the USSR by a law adopted in 1990. The main consequence of this law was to bring legislation into conformity with practice, since such enterprises had already existed for several years under the purposely misleading name of “cooperatives.”—D.M.]

And what was the result?

Feeling that the restrictive framework had become much freer, and seeing that the leaders of the social organizations which are supposed to defend the interests of the workers were delighted to take up posts in the new managerial structures, the administration adopted a course directed at “squeezing out” profits by all available means.

Thus, the small enterprise responsible for the supply of raw materials reoriented its activity to give priority to servicing cooperatives, which pay much higher prices for leather. As a result, footwear production in the former association was thrown into chaos, idle time increased and wages fell.

At the former cutting department, today the “Rovikon” small enterprise, management—which now includes the former department’s director of production as well as the party and trade union organizers—decided to “streamline” production in the aim of “tapping” unused reserves for profit-maldng. From the very first days, it announced that of the 550 workers, 350 would be dismissed. The unused equipment would be sold off.

No less effective were the actions of the “Tsentrakom” small enterprise (formerly the department that managed the workers’ dormitories). It began by hiking rent from four rubles to 108 rubles per month—while the average wage of workers is 250 rubles! Then the managers decided to “increase the density” of the tenants in order to evacuate a building situated on the Obvodnyi Canal and turn it into a hard currency hotel.

Workers Fight Back

Seeing that the trade union leaders were at one with the privatizers and not interested in defending them, the cutters elected their own council. The council turned to the work collective with the call to “defend our jobs.” And so they did.

The women workers sent off a letter to the district procurator. They recently received a reply; “Your claims concerning the illegality of the creation of the small enterprise ‘Rovikon’ have been verified. It has been established that the requirements of par. 4 of resolution no. 7980 of the USSR Council of Ministers of August 8, 1990 were violated. In particular, the initiative in the creation of the enterprise ‘Rovikon’ did not come from the collective of the cutting department…”

As we have already seen, the initiative emanated from those who had already made sure they would have cushy positions waiting for them in the new managerial apparatus. What is most worrying is that these included so-called trade union leaders, “defenders” of the toilers’ interests.

We have recounted here only one case. But such processes are occurring today in other places too. Under the guise of destatization and privatization, the theft and selling off of public property is occurring on a large scale. Meanwhile, the slogan “the working person should be the master of production” has been quickly forgotten.

The trade unions bear a definite share of the blame. Social defense cannot be reduced to obtaining higher unemployment benefits. It is no less important to make sure that in the division of public property, in the process of destatization, social justice is observed. This can happen only if trade union leaders at all levels are deprived of the ridiculous possibility of signing themselves up in the first ranks of the latter-day bosses of the factories.

Translated by David Mandel

November-December 1991, ATC 35

For the workers who have directly experienced it, privatization is often far from the panacea it is touted to be “Creeping privatization” has become the source of a growing number of conflicts. In December 1990, the Union of Work Collectives was established to attempt to coordinate these struggles and promote workers, self-management.

In an ironic twist, the enterprise discussed here, one of the largest footwear enterprises in the Soviet Union, played an important role in the revolutionary movement in the first two dercades of this century, and was nationalized in 1917 at the initiative of the workers. Its workforce, now as then, is overwhelmingly female. —David Mandel

THE LENINGRAD FOOTWEAR production association “Skorokhod” was one of the first in the city to carry out the so-called economic reform. At meetings held in the departments of “Skorokhod,” managers and economists painted a glowing picture to the assembled workers of the perspectives of labor in the new conditions.

“Voting to transform our association into the ‘Interlenprom’ concern,” declared the speakers, “You are voting for your own bright future.”

As if to justify the enterprise’s former name [“Skomkhod” means “fast walk” —D.M.] management, not without the aid of the party and trade union committees, in a very brief time shifted the collective onto “new economic tracks.” The former constituent departments of the footwear association henceforth bore the name of small enterprises.

[“Small enterprises” are private enterprises, officially permitted in the USSR by a law adopted in 1990. The main consequence of this law was to bring legislation into conformity with practice, since such enterprises had already existed for several years under the purposely misleading name of “cooperatives.”—D.M.]

And what was the result?

Feeling that the restrictive framework had become much freer, and seeing that the leaders of the social organizations which are supposed to defend the interests of the workers were delighted to take up posts in the new managerial structures, the administration adopted a course directed at “squeezing out” profits by all available means.

Thus, the small enterprise responsible for the supply of raw materials reoriented its activity to give priority to servicing cooperatives, which pay much higher prices for leather. As a result, footwear production in the former association was thrown into chaos, idle time increased and wages fell.

At the former cutting department, today the “Rovikon” small enterprise, management—which now includes the former department’s director of production as well as the party and trade union organizers—decided to “streamline” production in the aim of “tapping” unused reserves for profit-maldng. From the very first days, it announced that of the 550 workers, 350 would be dismissed. The unused equipment would be sold off.

No less effective were the actions of the “Tsentrakom” small enterprise (formerly the department that managed the workers’ dormitories). It began by hiking rent from four rubles to 108 rubles per month—while the average wage of workers is 250 rubles! Then the managers decided to “increase the density” of the tenants in order to evacuate a building situated on the Obvodnyi Canal and turn it into a hard currency hotel.

Workers Fight Back

Seeing that the trade union leaders were at one with the privatizers and not interested in defending them, the cutters elected their own council. The council turned to the work collective with the call to “defend our jobs.” And so they did.

The women workers sent off a letter to the district procurator. They recently received a reply; “Your claims concerning the illegality of the creation of the small enterprise ‘Rovikon’ have been verified. It has been established that the requirements of par. 4 of resolution no. 7980 of the USSR Council of Ministers of August 8, 1990 were violated. In particular, the initiative in the creation of the enterprise ‘Rovikon’ did not come from the collective of the cutting department…”

As we have already seen, the initiative emanated from those who had already made sure they would have cushy positions waiting for them in the new managerial apparatus. What is most worrying is that these included so-called trade union leaders, “defenders” of the toilers’ interests.

We have recounted here only one case. But such processes are occurring today in other places too. Under the guise of destatization and privatization, the theft and selling off of public property is occurring on a large scale. Meanwhile, the slogan “the working person should be the master of production” has been quickly forgotten.

The trade unions bear a definite share of the blame. Social defense cannot be reduced to obtaining higher unemployment benefits. It is no less important to make sure that in the division of public property, in the process of destatization, social justice is observed. This can happen only if trade union leaders at all levels are deprived of the ridiculous possibility of signing themselves up in the first ranks of the latter-day bosses of the factories.

Translated by David Mandel

November-December 1991, ATC 35