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Moscow Times    -   May. 25, 2001

The Continuing Class Struggle

By Boris Kagarlitsky   
It often happens that the most important questions receive the least public
attention. The proposed changes to the Labor Code, I think, are a perfect
example of this. 

The present Labor Code, adopted in Soviet times, is hopelessly outdated.
From the perspective of employers, it simply gives too many rights to
workers while labor advocates think that it gives too little or that its
high-sounding promises are simply unenforceable. Everyone, then, agrees
that a new code is needed: The only question is what it will contain.

For more than a year, the government has been trying to get a draft labor
code through the State Duma that really deserves to be consigned to the
trash-heap of history. This draft not only sharply restricts the rights of
trade unions and encourages employers to spy on their employees and keep
track of their political views and personal habits - it also opens the door
to the widespread use of child labor and the gradual transition from an
8-hour to a 12-hour workday. 

Of course, the government won't force employers to do these things. It is
simply allowing them to institute "flexible" working arrangements to
introduce - with the "agreement" of workers - 12-hour workdays and child
labor. History shows that workers, threatened with dismissal or pay cuts,
will "voluntarily" agree to anything, especially if their rights to
unionize have been restricted.

Sweatshops exist in many countries and it must be acknowledged that Russia
is far from the worst place on earth for workers. However, we may be on the
way to becoming the first country in the world to legally defend sweatshops
by rolling back modern norms of labor relations.

And how about our unions? How are they resisting this government
initiative? The Federation of Independent Labor Unions, the largest such
organization in Russia, responded by introducing its own draft, which it
bills as a compromise between the Soviet code and the government proposal. 

For nearly a year, the federation has pushed this proposal while many
unions - adopting a more radical position - have threatened strikes and put
forward their own versions. The result is that the state draft, which was
expected to be made law more than a year ago, remains a bill.

Then, suddenly, the federation reversed itself and rejected its own draft.
Now it is calling for a joint commission to "correct" the Kremlin's
proposal. What is going on?

The answer is banal. As the heir to Soviet labor unions, the federation
received control over considerable property, which has been being slowly
privatized by its leadership although it continues to support an enormous
bureaucracy. The federation, after all, lives primarily off the revenues it
generates rather than from the paltry dues of union members. Real estate
speculation is more profitable than the class struggle.

The time when labor could have stood on principles is past. Soon a "second
wave" of shock therapy will begin, and it will sharply change the rules of
the game. Igor Klochkov, the former head of the federation, lost his job
for resisting the Kremlin and the current leadership has internalized this

The proposed joint commission was supposed to buy time. If the federation
could put off the code until after its fall congress, its leaders would
have saved their jobs. But the Kremlin is insisting on pushing it through
in June, and the federation is caving in. But not its member organizations. 

Many have already announced their willingness to hold an independent
congress. Even with the federation in its pocket, the Kremlin faces serious
opposition with this bill. 

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.