The strikes of op­por­tunism and in­de­pen­dence

While de­fend­ing its in­ter­ests, the soviet coal in­dus­try helped the Soviet Union col­lapse

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Maksym Vikhrov

Min­ers' strikes: how the Soviet coal in­dus­try helped the Soviet Union col­lapse

The sum­mer of 1989 saw the most mas­sive strike of coal min­ers in the Soviet Union. Launched on July 10 in Kuzbass – the Kuznetsk Coal Basin — it spread to the Don­bas by July 19. That se­ries of strikes tends to be in­ter­preted as the har­bin­ger of Ukraine’s in­de­pen­dence. It was the pres­sure of the strik­ing coal min­ers that forced the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR to pass a law on the repub­lic’s eco­nomic au­ton­omy. The strikes of the late 1980s made the min­ers’ move­ment look like anti- soviet in­de­pen­den­tists that joined ef­forts with Nar­o­d­nyi Rukh, the Peo­ple’s Move­ment, the key pro-in­de­pen­dence dis­si­dent po­lit­i­cal force in Ukraine, to drive Ukraine to­wards in­de­pen­dence. A closer look at those de­vel­op­ments, how­ever, re­veals that the min­ers – with all due re­spect for their de­ter­mi­na­tion – were push­ing for their own cor­po­rate in­ter­ests first and fore­most, while their co­op­er­a­tion with Ukraine’s national demo­cratic forces was mostly an op­por­tunis­tic union. That episode of Ukraine’s his­tory is both in­ter­est­ing and use­ful to­day. The min­ers’ strikes be­tween the 1980s and 1990s pro­vide a clear ex­am­ple of how a pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tion or an equiv­a­lent com­mer­cial en­tity can be­come a sub­ject of pol­i­tics and af­fect the fu­ture of states.


Who­ever wants to un­der­stand the min­ers’ strikes of the late 1980s should un­der­stand what soviet coal min­ing in­dus­try was like. It had been

in a pretty dire po­si­tion dur­ing Stalin’s in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion. A huge num­ber of mines stood ru­ined af­ter the rev­o­lu­tion­ary tur­moil, while spe­cial­ists were either elim­i­nated or fled the coun­try. A lack of work­force was a uni­ver­sal phe­nom­e­non. To some ex­tent, the Soviet Union com­pen­sated for its tech­no­log­i­cal back­ward­ness with equip­ment and ex­perts im­ported from other coun­tries for the money re­ceived from plun­der­ing the coun­try and its pop­u­la­tion. More gen­er­ally, the work­force was re­cruited through forced la­bor mo­bi­liza­tion or de­liv­ery of la­bor camp pris­on­ers un­der con­voy. The con­di­tions of life and work in the Don­bas could only be at­trac­tive for those who had no choice or other place to go to. There­fore, the Soviet Union’s coal in­dus­try looked very sad right af­ter World War II with slightly over 600,000 min­ers across the en­tire coun­try. Once the post-war re­con­struc­tion was com­pleted, how­ever, their sta­tus be­gan to change rapidly. The coun­try needed more and more coal and ma­te­rial in­cen­tives grad­u­ally re­placed ter­ror­ist-style forced la­bor in mines.

By the 1950s, 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple were work­ing in the coal in­dus­try. The change was not about num­bers alone. Firstly, it was a strate­gic in­dus­try since the soviet in­dus­try and en­ergy sec­tor re­lied heav­ily on coal. Se­condly, the coal cor­po­ra­tion had its pow­er­ful lobby in Moscow that could de­liver ul­ti­ma­tums, threaten and blackmail vir­tu­ally any­one in­clud­ing sec­re­taries gen­eral. Thirdly, the coal in­dus­try con­trolled huge sym­bolic cap­i­tal which mat­tered a lot in the su­peride­o­log­i­cal to­tal­i­tar­ian state: soviet pro­pa­ganda por­trayed min­ers as the salt of the soviet land, the heroes of la­bor and the glo­ri­ous builders of Com­mu­nism. There­fore, any at­tacks against them were sim­ply dan­ger­ous. Fourthly, the coal in­dus­try was a well-spread net­work of com­mu­ni­ties with vir­tu­ally mil­i­tary-style dis­ci­pline and hi­er­ar­chy. The coal com­mu­ni­ties in­cluded mine staff, as well as the whole towns and vil­lages whose life was built and based around the oper­a­tion of mines. As a re­sult, coal min­ers had turned into an equiv­a­lent of aris­toc­racy of the work­ers’ class by the late 1970s. In ad­di­tion to high salaries, they re­ceived sig­nif­i­cant priv­i­leges, in­clud­ing a 30-hour long work­week, ben­e­fits, bonuses and more.

By con­trast to the in­dus­try, the econ­omy was fol­low­ing an op­po­site trend. Ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Coal In­dus­try, 78% of coal en­ter­prises were op­er­at­ing with losses in the Soviet Union by 1958. More than half of them re­ported up to 30% of losses. When the glory and wealth of coal min­ers peaked in 1978, the in­dus­try was no longer mak­ing any prof­its what­so­ever. 1980 fin­ished with the soviet coal in­dus­try’s loss of 1.3bn rubles while 1985 saw a loss of 1.8bn.

This was not un­ex­pected. The first source of the losses was the na­ture: a cen­tury of ac­tive coal min­ing be­gan to ex­haust the de­posits of the Donetsk Basin and the prof­its it could gen­er­ate. For ex­am­ple, over 40% of the Don­bas coal was ex­tracted in the mid-1970s from the lay­ers of up to 1.2 me­ters high – this ruled out ef­fi­cient mech­a­niza­tion of the process and sti­fled the pro­duc­tiv­ity of en­ter­prises. Soviet lead­er­ship con­trib­uted to the de­cline with its chaotic poli­cies of au­tho­riz­ing the con­struc­tion of poorly pro­duc­tive mines and feed­ing them with sub­si­dies. Fi­nally, the en­tire world was switch­ing to the era of oil and gas while the coal in­dus­try was be­com­ing a thing of the past.


The 1989 strike was caused by the de­clin­ing qual­ify of life for the min­ers which they found espe­cially painful. On one hand, they had grown ac­cus­tomed to their well-be­ing. On the other hand, their la­bor was in­deed dif­fi­cult, harm­ful and dan­ger­ous. The ral­lies were not chaotic: the de­ci­sion to strike was taken by the lead­er­ship of mines, the strik­ers were let in the square based on their work num­ber tags, while the fail­ure to at­tend the strike qual­i­fied as a missed day of work. “By con­trast to Lviv where we were sur­rounded by a noisy and un­con­trolled crowd, Donetsk met us with or­ga­nized thou­sand­strong rows of protest­ing min­ers sit­ting at the square in front of the party oblast com­mit­tee and bang­ing their hel­mets against the as­phalt,” wrote Mykola Ho­lushko, a KGB of­fi­cer from Mikhail Gor­bachev’s en­tourage. Gor­bachev had good rea­sons to rush to Donetsk: 500,000 min­ers stopped work­ing in the Don­bas, Lviv and Volyn basins si­mul­ta­ne­ously. The min­ers did not en­cour­age all of the frus­trated pub­lic to protest. Quite on the con­trary, they were deter­mined to stay away from the “civil­ians” since they saw the strike as a per­sonal or cor­po­rate con­flict with those in power from day one.

What the min­ers did lack was po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. The strike that swal­lowed mines from Lviv to Vorkuta did not have a com­mon list of de­mands. As a re­sult, the min­ers cus­tom­ized them to fit their own needs in ev­ery given re­gion. The ma­jor­ity of their de­mands were about bet­ter fund­ing, liv­ing and work­ing con­di­tions, longer va­ca­tions, ear­lier re­tire­ment etc. A min­ers’ strike com­mit­tee of Vorkuta also de­manded abo­li­tion of the pro­vi­sion on the lead­ing and defin­ing role of the Com­mu­nist Party in the soviet Con­sti­tu­tion, elim­i­na­tion of priv­i­leges for the nomen­klatura and real elec­tions of the Soviet Union Supreme Coun­cil leader. The Don­bas did not sup­port the po­lit­i­cal sec­tion of the de­mands. “I don’t see why we should share this po­lit­i­cal ex­trem­ism to­day,” the Re­gional Union of Strike Com­mit­tees claimed.

The strike re­sulted in the Soviet Union Coun­cil of Min­is­ters’ Res­o­lu­tion No608 dated Au­gust 3, 1989, that promised many things for the min­ers, in­clud­ing eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence of mines and a li­cense to ex­port the coal ex­tracted over the norm. The state pledged to make the mines prof­itable and im­prove the en­vi­ron­ment in the min­ing re­gions. In a word, the gov­ern­ment pledged to build com­mu­nism for the work­ers of a given in­dus­try. The eu­pho­ria from this vic­tory did not last: the gov­ern­ment shelved Res­o­lu­tion 608 as soon as the strik­ers calmed down.

When they re­al­ized that Moscow was not go­ing to meet its prom­ises, the min­ers tried to re­new their strug­gle in the sum­mer of 1990. This time, the min­ers’ cor­po­ra­tion de­cided to openly de­clare it­self as a po­lit­i­cal en­tity. “The first con­ven­tion of min­ers un­der­lines full in­de­pen­dence of the work­ers’ or­ga­ni­za­tions in the coal and min­ing in­dus­tries from any po­lit­i­cal en­ti­ties. Our as­pi­ra­tion to­wards in­de­pen­dence de­ter­mines our ap­proach to the Com­mu­nist Party of the Soviet Union,” said the res­o­lu­tion of the

Ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Coal In­dus­try, 78% of coal en­ter­prises were op­er­at­ing with losses in the Soviet Union by 1958. 1980 fin­ished with the soviet coal in­dus­try's loss of 1.3bn rubles while 1985 saw a loss of 1.8bn

First All-Union Min­ers’ Con­ven­tion held in Donetsk on June 11-15, 1990. The con­ven­tion blamed the dire po­si­tion of the min­ers on the Com­mu­nist Party of the Soviet Union, de­mand­ing the with­drawal of party comis­sars from their en­ter­prises and na­tion­al­iza­tion of the party’s prop­erty. Seek­ing to cre­ate a stronger im­pres­sion, the min­ers held a one-day strike on July 11, 1990, where 300,000 min­ers stopped work at 100 mines. They blocked the work of party comis­sars at en­ter­prises and shut down their of­fices. This was clearly a chal­lenge for the Com­mu­nist Party of the Soviet Union which was right in the mid­dle of its 28th con­ven­tion. Moscow ig­nored all this.

In Oc­to­ber 1990, the min­ers gath­ered for the Sec­ond Con­ven­tion where they were go­ing to of­fi­cially break off from the of­fi­cial trade unions con­trolled by the state. But thenCoal Min­is­ter Mykhailo Shchadov (the min­ers had held a no-con­fi­dence vote on him back in 1989) man­aged to spark a clash be­tween the Don­bas and Kuzbass con­ven­tion mem­bers. This in­ter­nal con­flict was used to re­ject their de­mands. Re­gard­less, it was al­ready too late to speak to Moscow: the USSR was on its last legs.


Once Ukrainian min­ers re­al­ized that ne­go­ti­a­tions with Moscow made no sense in the given po­lit­i­cal cir­cum­stances, they launched talks with Kyiv. In March 1991, Donetsk hosted the first min­ers’ rally where tra­di­tional so­cio-eco­nomic de­mands were sup­ple­mented with re­quire­ments to make the Dec­la­ra­tion of State In­de­pen­dence for Ukraine a con­sti­tu­tional doc­u­ment, to dis­miss the Com­mu­nist Party of Ukraine and the Com­mu­nist Party of the Soviet Union, to hold re-elec­tion of the Ukrainian SSR’s Verkhovna Rada, etc. The Ukrainian SSR’s lead­er­ship knew how frag­ile it was and pledged to some un­re­al­is­tic com­mit­ments, in­clud­ing dou­bling salaries for all work­ers of the coal in­dus­try. The min­ers liked Kyiv’s will­ing­ness to make con­ces­sions, as well as the prospect of putting a state border be­tween them­selves and the cheap Kuzbas coal and Rus­sian gas, thereby turn­ing them­selves into monopoly en­ergy providers of Ukraine. This sparked Stakhanov-like en­thu­si­asm for un­der­min­ing the soviet or­der and pushed the min­ers to es­tab­lish con­tacts with Ukraine’s national demo­cratic forces. Va­syl Kuibida, the Peo­ple’s Move­ment leader, re­called later that it was the Don­bas min­ers from the Dim­itrov Mine that nom­i­nated Vi­ach­eslav Chornovil to be­come pres­i­dent of Ukraine.

This union was su­per­fi­cial: the min­ers sup­ported national democrats but pre­served their cor­po­rate au­ton­omy. “We will be work­ing with the new demo­cratic par­ties and help you take power from the Com­mu­nist Party of the Soviet Union. But we are not join­ing you un­der your flags,” was the po­si­tion of the All-Ukrainian Union of Strike Com­mit­tees that joined the In­de­pen­dent Demo­cratic Ukraine coali­tion es­tab­lished to co­or­di­nate re­sist-

ance to GKChP, the State Com­mit­tee on the State of Emer­gency. The Don­bas unan­i­mously sup­ported Ukraine’s in­de­pen­dence at the 1991 ref­er­en­dum. But the min­ers con­tin­ued to stand for their cor­po­rate in­ter­ests. On June 7, 1993, the most mas­sive strike in the his­tory of Ukraine started: more than 200 out of 250 mines across the coun­try stopped work­ing. The rea­son was a hike in food prices, so the min­ers de­manded an in­crease in wages but added po­lit­i­cal claims to that. In 1993, they de­manded a ref­er­en­dum of no-con­fi­dence for the pres­i­dent and the Verkhovna Rada, as well as eco­nomic au­ton­omy for the Don­bas. This was hardly a chaotic strike of aver­age work­ers given its scale and the fact that it started from Zasi­adko Mine which had not joined any strike since 1989.

In a strange co­in­ci­dence, four days af­ter the strike be­gan, Yukhym Zvi­ahilsky, the former di­rec­tor of the mine who had moved to the of­fice of Donetsk mayor and then be­came First Vice Premier of Ukraine shortly be­fore the strike – head­ing the ne­go­ti­a­tions with the gov­ern­ment of Leonid Kuchma – got con­ces­sions in the in­ter­est of direc­tors of these mines. The de­mands of aver­age min­ers were largely ig­nored. A week later the strike ended thanks to the ef­forts of mine direc­tors. As to the po­lit­i­cal de­mands, they were cun­ningly sold down the river. On June 17, the Verkhovna Rada sched­uled a con­sul­ta­tion ref­er­en­dum on no-con­fi­dence for the pres­i­dent and par­lia­ment. Then, both ref­er­enda were can­celled – al­legedly, for the lack of re­sources. The dif­fer­ences be­tween the in­dus­try lead­ers and aver­age min­ers had long been brew­ing and man­i­fested them­selves back in the 1980s. In June 1993, they led to the fi­nal split and con­flict whereby mine direc­tors ul­ti­mately sub­or­di­nated the masses of min­ers and con­verted the protest into their po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal. When the col­lapse of their life qual­ity mod­er­ated the am­bi­tions of the min­ers while Berkut’s ba­tons and un­re­strained free­dom of ac­tion for mine direc­tors made them obe­di­ent, the min­ers’ move­ment was ul­ti­mately intstru­men­tal­ized by the former bosses of the coal cor­po­ra­tion that rapidly turned into the own­ers of en­ter­prises and oli­garchs.


To­day, min­ers are no longer seen as a huge ex­plo­sive force. The le­gends of 30 years back faded in the spring of 2014 when the Don­bas min­ers who largely did not sup­port sep­a­ratism, did noth­ing to dis­rupt the ri­ots in the Don­bas and pre­vent the ag­gra­va­tion of their own po­si­tions. Af­ter most of the coal-rich parts of the Don­bas ended up on the ter­ri­tory not con­trolled by Kyiv, the so­cial weight of min­ers shrank to a min­i­mum. How­ever, it’s not the num­ber that mat­ters but the per­sis­tent trend to­wards mo­nop­o­liza­tion of the coal in­dus­try. Ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­a­tion for the Pro­tec­tion of En­ergy Con­sumers’ Rights led by An­driy Herus, Ri­nat Akhme­tov’s DTEK ex­tracts 85% of coal in Ukraine and con­trols 60% of coal im­ports. It owns 80% of ther­mal power plants in Ukraine (other in­di­ca­tors for this com­pany are no less threat­en­ing). This al­lows DTEK’s Akhme­tov to wage wars against the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment by lob­by­ing his own busi­ness in­ter­ests, not even the in­ter­ests of the in­dus­try. This cam­paign could be led be­hind closed doors of the top cab­i­nets. In­stead, min­ers are tra­di­tion­ally used as its main tool.

The most re­cent ap­pear­ance of coal min­ers took place in April 2015 as sev­eral thou­sand min­ers crowded the gov­ern­ment district in Kyiv. The pro­test­ers de­manded the dis­missal of Volodymyr Dem­chyshyn, the Min­is­ter of En­ergy and Coal In­dus­try, higher prices for coal and ther­mal power plant-pro­duced en­ergy, and state sub­si­dies for the coal in­dus­try. At the same time, a con­ven­tion of coal min­ers was tak­ing place where the del­e­gates of min­ers’ com­mu­ni­ties con­demned the work of Volodymyr Dem­chyshyn and were threat­en­ing to launch an en­ergy disas­ter. Jour­nal­ists and eye­wit­nesses re­ported that most of the min­ers were from DTEK en­ter­prises. The main ef­fort to hold the con­ven­tion came from DTEK peo­ple as well. One does not need much in­sight to draw con­clu­sions here: DTEK was ac­tively cam­paign­ing for an in­crease in coal prices from UAH 1,100 to 1,500 per t in the spring of 2015. It needed the gov­ern­ment to au­tho­rize such a price hike. The gov­ern­ment blamed DTEK for mo­nop­o­liz­ing the in­dus­try and charg­ing too much as the real pro­duc­tion cost of a ton of coal from DTEK mines was al­legedly UAH 800-900. Nat­u­rally, the com­pany wanted to com­pen­sate for the losses it faced with the oc­cu­pa­tion of the Don­bas, so “the min­ers on a hunger strike” turned into the lever­age of so­cio-po­lit­i­cal pres­sure against the gov­ern­ment. They could have been hun­gry in­deed as their mines were al­ready de­lay­ing their wages.

As a re­sult, Ukraine found it­self in a patho­log­i­cal sit­u­a­tion where in­di­vid­ual com­pa­nies ma­nip­u­lated their weight in the en­ergy sec­tor to launch an open war against the gov­ern­ment and used their staff as a bat­ter­ing ram. The rev­enues they re­ceive un­der the likes of the in­fa­mous Rot­ter­dam+ coal sup­ply for­mula hardly ever reach the aver­age work­ers. In other words, the coal is get­ting more ex­pen­sive while the po­si­tion of the min­ers is get­ting worse.

At first sight, in­ef­fec­tive man­age­ment of the in­dus­try is the rea­son for this – espe­cially the fail­ure to elim­i­nate cor­rup­tion schemes. How­ever, even full erad­i­ca­tion of cor­rup­tion in the coal in­dus­try will only de­lay the cri­sis into which it has been tum­bling over the past half a cen­tury. Once Ukraine’s en­ergy sec­tor mod­ern­izes it­self sooner or later, it will no longer need even the mines that re­main in oper­a­tion to­day. How dra­matic that fi­nal is de­pends on how ef­fec­tively the gov­ern­ment will man­age to sup­port the work­ers whose ar­du­ous and hazardous work will no longer be needed by the coun­try. The main prob­lem is that the threat of big in­flu­en­tial com­pa­nies ca­pa­ble of shap­ing the en­tire in­dus­tries – from en­ergy and trans­porta­tion to agri­cul­ture, bank­ing and more – will not van­ish. There is no guar­an­tee that the DTEK min­ers bang­ing their hel­mets against the as­phalt in Kyiv in 2015 will not be re­placed by the staff of other com­pa­nies whose emo­tions and in­ter­ests will be sim­i­larly ma­nip­u­lated by other bosses and man­agers. At some his­tor­i­cal mo­ments, such cor­po­rate wars can in­flu­ence not just a given gov­ern­ment but the ex­is­tence of the state. And that in­flu­ence will not nec­es­sar­ily be aimed at pre­serv­ing Ukrainian sovereignty.


Not a grass­roots move­ment. Min­ers' strikes of the late 1980s were di­rectly or­ches­trated by the red direc­tors

The oli­garchs’ strik­ing as­sets. The trade unions of min­ers mostly de­fend the in­ter­ests of Ri­nat Akhme­tov to­day

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