Workers Organization

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The overthrow of the tsar in February (old style) 1917 immediately created the possibility for workers to organize without fear of repression. Workers seized this opportunity to form factory committees, soviets, trade unions, political parties, neighborhood associations, and other institutions claiming to represent their interests. Whereas Soviet historians long represented working-class organizations as increasingly coming under Bolshevik influence thanks to the growth of workers’ class consciousness, more recent historiography has stressed a broader-based desire for freedom, democracy, and socialism — often expressed in religious metaphors — as well as vengeance against enemies who were defined in class, but also in national and ethnic terms.

Throughout 1917 the most direct and vibrant form of working-class democracy were the factory committees (fabrichno-zavodskie komitety or in their abbreviated form, fabzavkomy). The factory committee movement sprang up during the February Days in Petrograd and soon spread to every industrial center throughout the country. The movement was abetted by the Petrograd Soviet which counseled workers to establish factory committees as organs of workers’ control over factory administrations, and on March 10 signed an agreement with the Petrograd Society of Factory and Mill Owners recognizing the committees as legitimate bargaining agents for their constituents. From the end of May 1917 to January 1918, six city-wide conferences, each attended by several-hundred delegates, were held. These conferences rang with debates over the advantages of state as opposed to workers’ control, whether the factory committees should be subordinated to the rapidly expanding network of trade unions, how supplies could be obtained to keep enterprises from shutting down, the relationship of factory committees to the socialist parties, and a host of other issues both quotidian and momentous. Though many committees maintained the strong support of their constituents, their inability to arrest the deterioration of working conditions and prevent “sabotage” by owners led to calls for more resolute actions, which coincided with the Bolsheviks’ agenda for insurrection. Soon after the October Revolution, the Council of People’s Commissars issued a decree on workers’ control that put the factory committees in charge of the production, storing, buying and selling of raw materials and finished products as well as over the finances of the enterprise – making them the de facto administration.

The subordination of the factory committees to trade union authority after the October Revolution paralleled the inexorable trend towards the centralization of authority among the soviets. Within the unions, the Mensheviks, having gained a strong foothold in the years before the Revolution, fiercely and for several years successfully resisted their ouster from positions of leadership, especially in the printers’ and baker’s unions. Supreme authority within the trade union movement rested with the All-Russian Central Council (VTsSPS). Its instructions and resolutions were binding upon all territorial councils and the committees of individual branch-based unions of which there were twenty-five by 1919. The first All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, which met in January 1918, stipulated that unions should become “instruments of state authority.” Indeed, during the civil war when the difference between labor and military service was blurred, the unions performed disciplinary, administrative, and mobilization functions along with and sometimes instead of official state institutions. Only in 1920-21 was the issue of the unions’ status fully — and hotly — debated within the Communist Party. At the party’s Tenth Congress, delegates approved Lenin’s formulation which called for union autonomy, albeit on the understanding that unions would be under party leadership and guidance.

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