Trade unions and the Soviet state

Submitted by Matthew on 2 May, 2012 - 4:31

Under the new Soviet state, unions were the site of fractious battles between the Bolsheviks and other political forces.

The main railway workers’ union Vikzhel, led by Mensheviks, launched the first general political crisis of the regime over the establishment of a coalition socialist government. At the end of December 1917, the minority Bolshevik fraction walked out of the union’s congress and set up a new organisation (Aves 1989).

The trade unions were strengthened by the incorporation of the factory committees at the beginning of 1918.

As early as January 1918 the First Trade-Union Congress rejected Menshevik demands that the unions remain “independent”, contending that in a workers’ state their chief function was to “organise production and restore the battered productive forces of the country” (Smith 2002). Some Bolsheviks saw trade unions as vestiges of capitalist society while others like the former anarchist Bill Shatov, regarded them “living corpses” (Smith 1983).

The growing disenchantment of Petrograd workers with Bolshevik-led Soviet power in the spring of 1918 was reflected in the formation of the Extraordinary Assembly of Delegates from Petrograd Factories and Plants (EAD). For Rabinowitch, the emergence of the EAD “was also stimulated by the widespread view that trade unions, factory committees and soviets, perhaps especially district soviets, were no longer representative, democratically-run working class institutions; instead they had been transformed into arbitrary, bureaucratic government agencies”.

Bolshevik leaders in the Petrograd Soviet elected in June 1918 suppressed the EAD and headed off its general strike set for 2 July (2007).

But trade union independence was not completely curtailed during the civil war. The Communist Party’s Eighth Congress in March 1919 proposed a large self-managing role for the trade unions (Farber 1990). In June 1920, Sovnarkom issued a decree on the payment of bonuses in kind that gave the All-Russian Trade-Union Council (VTsSPS) control of the bonus system.

Unions resisted attempts by the lesser state bodies to interfere with the setting of money wages. At the Moscow metalworkers’ conference in February 1921, one Bolshevik trade union leader said the unions were fighting the most decisive battle, going to court against administrators who ignored pay rates set by the trade unions (Pirani 2003).

The role of the trade unions in a workers’ state was the subject of intense debate within the Communist Party towards the end of the civil war. According to Tsuji more than 100 papers were submitted to a debate on “militarisation” of the unions. On 19 January 1921, 3,500 Communist sailors of the Baltic Fleet gathered in the Theatre of the Revolution and heard Zinoviev and Trotsky debate the issues (1989). Whatever the merits or faults of Trotsky’s position, it was comprehensively defeated at the Communist Party’s 10th congress in March 1921 in favour of a position recognising the need for unions to defend workers even against the workers’ state.

That congress in March 1921 made the unions responsible for mobilising workers for production tasks; in practice this was meant campaigning for labour discipline. According to Pirani, the unions’ political dependence on the party manifested itself into two linked respects: “firstly, they helped to discipline workers who went outside the proscribed negotiating procedure and used the strike weapon to bargain; secondly, their apparatus became organisationally and financially more closely integrated with the state’s. In industrial disputes, the unions almost always acted as, and were perceived by workers as, industrial managers’ allies” (2009).

However, the role of the unions was tightly proscribed after the end of the civil war. According to Pirani, just as the soviets’ function was redefined in 1921-22 as an organ of municipal administration, so the unions were allocated a new, subordinate role, implementing policies elaborated and supervised by party bodies.

After 1917 “trade union apparatuses had been established, financed from government funds. Although everyone in the Bolshevik party agreed that this was an undesirable state of affairs, and that the unions should be financed and run independently, they never were”. In 1922 a campaign to get workers contribute their subscriptions to shop-floor activists, instead of having them deducted in advance from their wages, failed. “The unions grew as an apparatus, closely linked to the state apparatus” (Pirani 2006).

Pirani (2010) argues that by 1922, “bureaucratised unions routinely opposed strikes; had more unelected officials than elected ones; worked together with party and government to discipline and punish strike organisers; and became, despite some Bolsheviks’ efforts to avoid it, heavily reliant on state funding.. unions had become dependent on the state and factory committees were getting integrated into management, in the context of the ‘social contract’”.

As the economy revived, “factory committees usually became better organised and better placed to negotiate with management. But politically the unions never returned to the vitality of 1917-18. The idea that factory-level organisations would participate in political decisions about the republic’s future, or even strategic management decisions, was abandoned. On industrial issues, while workers could indeed use official procedures to change some things at factory level, they were largely deprived of the crucial weapons of striking, solidarity action and independent union organisation”.

Other recent research has not been so categorical. Diane Koenker found that even after the civil war, “Soviet printers often exercised their right (though their union) to approve the appointment of managerial personnel, and they could act energetically to remove or discipline managers and foremen who violated workers’ sense of appropriate relations. Workers and their representatives likewise shared the disciplinary functions of management... Soviet printers, through the opportunity to participate in factory committees, production councils, and shop floor meetings at all levels, acquired formal and informal power to intervene in the work process in ways that could protect their own interests and preferences” (2005).

Murphy (2007) has argued that “for much of the NEP, political considerations — a pro working class policy in industry — took precedence over economic expediency”. He also quotes figures on strike resolution from the OGPU summaries from 1922 to 1928, which mention only six incidents in which the authorities arrested striking workers, and only five other strikes in which they used or threatened to use force (Murphy 2009).

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