BY ALEKSANDR YELAGIN
MOSCOW-The fight against the Russian government’s draft labor code is assuming crucial importance today for revolutionary Marxists. This is not a conflict in an individual factory or industry [as many labor struggles have been in recent years in the former Soviet Union]. It involves defense of the general class interests of the proletariat.
The workers can only take up this struggle as an organized political force. The Young Revolutionary Marxists [a socialist group based mainly in Ukraine] believe that whatever form it takes, this struggle must become a school of class solidarity and political consciousness.
In the Feb. 28 issue of a well-known Russian “businessmen’s” magazine, Ekspert, an article on the proposed labor code appeared by the former minister of labor and social policy and the present vice chair of the parliamentary budget committee, O. Dmitrievna.
The article was titled “The Ruinous Labor Code,” and its basic theme was the following: “The draft labor code deliberately puts an unbearable burden of social benefits for workers on employers.”
Dmitrievna asserts that “despite the sharp decline in the productivity of labor over the last 10 years, the draft labor code retains the full gamut of social benefits and workers’ rights from the old Soviet labor code of the 1970s, as well as the additional guarantees for workers that were included in the labor code in the early 1990s.”
Ms. Dmitrievna does not say what these “additional guarantees” were. In fact, the government’s draft labor code represents the opposite of what she says. There is no question of its maintaining the guarantees from the old labor code. To the contrary, it severely restricts the workers’ rights. One area in which it does this is in the rights of employers to hire and fire. In particular, it replaces collective contracts with contracts with individual workers for specific periods.
According to the new labor code, employers can set work rules without the agreement of the unions, as well as the rules for bonuses and other incentives. They alone determine shifts and transfers from one shift to another, the order of vacations, compensation for vacation time worked, cuts in wages, changes in wage scales, work norms, and many other things.
Work-hour limits abolished
A key question in the new labor code is the length of the workweek. Today, it is established at 40 hours. Some countries, such as France and Italy, have begun the tradition to a 35-hour week. But the Russian government’s draft labor code would remove all limits on the length of the workweek.
As Ms. Dmitrievna writes with obvious sympathy, “In any system in which economic incentives operate, some people want to work more hours so that they can get more money. However, the possibility that the draft labor code offers for workers to work longer is meeting with furious opposition from the trade unions.”
Unfortunately, “furious opposition” is something we can only dream of. So far, there have been only some faint protests. It should be pointed out that Ms. Dmitrievna is playing an obvious game here. The old labor code left the way open for workers to work longer hours. But these longer hours were considered overtime. They were regulated by law and compensated accordingly.
The new labor code would leave workers defenseless against their employers, who could arbitrarily lengthen the workweek. On the one hand, workers would no longer be protected by law, and on the other they would be under constant threat of losing their jobs and joining the great army of the unemployed. That is bourgeois justice.
Commenting on the draft labor code, which she calls a trade-union code, Dmitrievna writes, “In my opinion the trade-union code does not safeguard the interests of both sides equally, but tips the balance not even in the direction of the workers but toward the trade unions. There are virtually no provisions safeguarding the interests of the employers. Economically unjustified social benefits and guarantees for the trade unions could lead to bankrupting the companies, the loss of jobs, wages, and status for the trade unions.”
No explanations are necessary here. The bourgeoisie does not want to pay. Dmitrievna echoes this unwillingness. Her article indicates that there will soon be an attempt to get the new labor code through the parliament. It is essential that working-class activists mobilize a campaign against it under the slogan, “Stop the government’s draft.”
Unions organize protests
Already on May 17, there was an all-Russian protest against the government’s plans organized by the trade-union organizations Zashchita Truda [Defense of Labor] and Sotsprof. There were mass meetings, marches, pickets, assemblies, and strikes in more than half of the Russian regions. Overall, about 300,000 people took part in these actions.
In Kursk and Vladivostok, there were mass meetings in the face of bans by the local governments. In one way or another, virtually all the left parties in Russia took part in these protests.
Nonetheless, we cannot say that these actions seriously frightened the rulers. If anyone was frightened, it was the functionaries of the FNPR [the successor of the old state federation of unions], who saw these actions as a threat to their monopoly of “leading the working masses.”
It proved impossible to organize more massive protests first of all because the great majority of workers do not see the proposed labor code as an issue directly threatening them. It is no secret that in most enterprises that are really working, no labor code of any sort has been in effect for a long time. This is especially true of small and middle-sized enterprises. trade, and services.
In Moscow alone, hundreds of thousands of workers (newcomers, as a rule) are working not only without labor books but even without contracts, simply on the basis of oral agreements. And you can add to this the vast unemployment that exists, the thousands of enterprises that are barely subsisting, and the thousands of workers who are ready to work even in prison camp conditions, if they only get paid something.
In these conditions, the bosses consider themselves virtual philanthropists, offering people a chance to make something. So they think they have the right to dictate practically any conditions.
For example, in the largest Moscow meat-packing plant, Mikoms, the eight-hour day was abolished long ago. Workers there have been not working as much as the law says but as much as the bosses need them, often without even any days off. What is more, they are grateful to get even that. There is a long line of workers outside the plant gates ready to take their jobs.
Unfortunately, the new labor code is an issue today only where it has been possible to build a strong independent trade unions. But there are very few such organizations in Russia. So, in Moscow on May 17, among the approximately 500 people at the rally on Auto Plant Square, there were only individual plant workers. Most of those present were the usual participants in opposition demonstrations, predominately retirees.
But despite this, the rally was rather interesting. Because it was organized by unions, the speakers were quite different from those that you usually see at such affairs. There were no official party speakers. Even the insistent Anpilov [the best known left-Stalinist leader] did not get the floor, leading his supporters to raise a commotion at the end.
But there were a lot of workers among the speakers, real trade-union leaders. And they did not talk just about the draft labor code. Repeatedly the idea was raised that the basic aim of the workers’ movement should be the abolition of the rule of capital.
Some speakers pointed to the rise of the revolutionary movement in other countries, including Western Europe and the United States. They talked about the need for solidarity among all the workers of the world and even about world revolution. This is hardly the sort of thing you hear at the rallies of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation or the Russian Communist Union.
To draw a few conclusions from the past actions: It may not be possible to stop the new labor code. After the adoption of this code, trade-union work would become difficult if not pointless. Conflicts in the enterprises would take the form of direct confrontations. Working-class activists would have to forget about the law. It would be possible achieve something only through the determined action of the entire work force.
The tasks of revolutionary Marxists in this increasingly complicated situation will remain the same-organizing political agitation, building the revolutionary workers party.