MOSCOW -- Russia's half-million mine workers went back to work last week for a fraction of the several months' back pay they were owed.
On strike for eight days, they could have stayed out and brought provision of this country's main fuel supply to a standstill as the winter cold sets in.
But getting paid anything at all is a minor victory in Russia's troubled economy, where workers are owed a total of $8 billion in back pay.
So much for the once-powerful Russian labor movement, which has been credited with bringing down a czar in 1917 and helping to push Boris N. Yeltsin to power in 1991.
Like so many social institutions in the bumpy transition from service to the Communist state to operation in a democratic free market, the trade union movement hasn't made the leap from bureaucratic social services provider to crusader for worker rights.
"In the old days, unions were in charge of covering part of sick pay, organizing sporting events, summer camp and vacations," explains Yevgeny Belyakov, Moscow representative of the American Federation of Teachers.
"Grievances for more money never happened. The union was on the side of administrators or the government to control the workplace."
With a free market forming here and inefficient state-run industries being forced to retool or die, trade unions have begun to change, but they have still not succeeded in taking on the single purpose of representing workers, he says.
While a majority of the nation's 65 million workers are union members, surveys show that many think unions died with the Soviet Union.
Neither do they know what a modern trade union is supposed to do for them.
A part of management
Labor experts here explain that union leadership largely continues to see itself as part of the management structure.
For example, if a plant manager says he can't pay wages because he has no orders for the goods produced by his plant, union leaders will commonly side with him before demanding new investment or restructuring that might make a more profitable business.
An example of the vague line between management and union was the school district superintendent who ran for the presidency of the Leningrad State teachers union, says Rudy Porter, an American labor expert who worked in Moscow for two years.
"In front of several hundred delegates, he was running, and no one raised the issue [of management vs. labor].
"In fact, he almost won," recalls Porter.
As a consolation, the superintendent was offered a union staff job, which Porter believes he probably considered a promotion.
Independent trade unions, started by workers dissatisfied with old unions at the end of the Soviet era, have outlawed management in their membership.
But these independent unions represent only 20 percent of workers nationwide, and they have no base of financial support because the 1 percent union dues are not paid when salaries aren't paid.
Most workers are represented by the old, traditional unions that continued after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Though these unions now allow democratic selection of leadership, they are still largely controlled by old leaders closely connected to management and the government.
These traditional unions inherited huge real estate assets when state enterprises were dissolved and Communist Party property was seized.
Consequently they are asset-rich, if cash-poor, and so they do not suffer if union dues cannot be collected in times of nonpayment.
They can also dole out perks.
In the far-north coal-mining city of Vorkuta, workers didn't receive any wages last summer.
But many of them did get free vacations in Turkey, the Czech Republic or at a Crimean resort, compliments of their union, recalls Mary-Louise Vitelli, an American labor attorney advising the Russian government.
This kind of perk is possible because, for example, a coal union may be able to send its workers by rail for free to its union resort in Crimea if the railroad system owes the coal industry for heating fuel.
If anything, this is what Russians expect of a union, not pursuing grievances of individual problems, says Vitelli.
Settling for perks
"Workers have no faith that they'll be paid; they often will settle just as well for vacations and other benefits," she says.
"The unions and management have resources and value, so they might pay in vouchers for furniture, food or vacation holidays.
"Unions never have grievances at a local level. You may see grievance procedures, but it's nothing like the U.S.; there's no legal infrastructure [to base a case on or to enforce a ruling]," she says.
"These are not real fighting trade unions," says Ivan Smirnov, president of Search for Agreement, a democratic think tank for labor issues.
The evidence of this, he says, is in the way strikes are used as a sort of stopgap measure to squeeze small amounts of money out of management and the government.
But there are no broader union efforts to help make the sort of changes in industry that would help the market economy move ahead.
The way this month's coal strike developed, explains Vitelli, would be "odd" to Americans familiar with collective bargaining.
"The law here is not set up to accommodate the reality of the economy -- there's no sophistication, no unfair-labor-practices law where there would be negotiations and hearings before a strike.
"Instead they just call for a strike every moment."
Indeed, strikes have become a daily event all over Russia -- teachers one day, nuclear workers the next, nurses another.
Yet back wages remain unpaid.
Porter sees Russian strikes as a display of political force, not as an attempt to break the other side economically.
"Union leaders were very concerned about causing a massive convulsion in society. They took this seriously, and in some cases they were too cautious," Porter says of his experiences here with unions.
While a U.S. strike is called only over a contract or only when the last offer is not agreed to, workers here would never get to that point because "they fear damaging the enterprises they work for," says Porter, who worked for the Federation of Maryland Teachers from 1988 to 1993.
Analysts here marvel at the chronic nonpayment situation and its failure to arouse any social upheaval.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the sporadic payout of wages has left many people with the equivalent of years of unpaid wages.
Most explain the situation here by the fact that most Russians have subsistence garden plots that keep them fed; they are practiced in hoarding and experienced with hardship.
But Vitelli, who travels widely in Russia, says that the number of strikes is escalating and that "it could be a sign of crisis to come."
Pub Date: 12/15/96