Militarization of Labor

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The success achieved by the Red Army on the military front during the civil war and the continued disintegration of the economy stimulated interest in applying the military model to the organization of labor, and catapulted Lev Trotsky, as Commissar of War, to the forefront of those advocating its implementation. The militarization of labor involved two main processes: converting military units into labor armies, and “mobilizing” industrial workers to carry out particular tasks under quasi-military supervision.

In January 1920 Trotsky took steps to convert the Third Army, located in the Urals, into the First Labor Army. The labor army, under the direction of a Revolutionary Council composed of representatives of various commissariats, was assigned duties in mining coal, cutting timber, loading and unloading freight, and clearing road and rail lines. Subsequently, labor armies were set up in other parts of the country including Ukraine where Stalin served as chairman of the republic’s Council. Simultaneously, more than twenty mobilizations of workers were conducted, some fixing workers to particular “militarized” enterprises, and others ordering their transfer to areas of labor deficit. The mobilizations covered a variety of occupations ranging from mining, metal processing and shipbuilding, to the woolens and fishing industries and even “tailors and shoemakers who worked in Great Britain and the United States.” The entire operation was placed under a Main Committee for Compulsory Labor (Glavkomtrud) which was chaired by Feliks Dzerzhinskii, head of the Cheka.

These and other forms of compulsory labor, including the enlistment of the trade unions in administering punitive measures against “labor deserters,” were endorsed by the Ninth Party Congress in March 1920. However, when Trotsky cited the need to “shake up” the unions themselves (along the lines of what already had been done to the union of railroad workers), it provoked outrage among party activists and especially from the Workers’ Opposition. The issue roiled until the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921 when Trotsky’s proposal for “statification” of the trade unions was soundly defeated. Nevertheless, while rejected in principle, the subordination of the trade unions to the state was achieved in practice via tight party control of the unions’ All-Russian Central Council.

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