Labor Discipline

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Labor discipline, which meant everything from showing up to work on time and not falling asleep on the job to carrying out supervisors’ instructions and improving job performance, was a cardinal principle of Bolshevism in power. Having been proclaimed by Lenin as “the peg of the entire economic construction of socialism, the basis of our understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” labor discipline became a yardstick by which individual workers’ “consciousness” could be measured. Yet, however much labor discipline was ritualistically invoked by the party and the trade unions, Soviet workers evinced little evidence of having internalized it.

With the fate of the industrialization drive at stake, the Soviet government moved to punish what were referred to in a decree of January 18, 1931 as “malicious disorganizers of production.” Another decree of November 15, 1932 extended the strictures of the earlier law to include automatic dismissal from work, confiscation of ration cards, and eviction from enterprise housing of workers who were absent without just cause for even a single day. Restrictions on the subsequent employment of workers fired for absenteeism followed in June 1933. Data on absenteeism show a significant decline after 1932, though it is unclear whether this was because of an actual improvement or because labor-hungry managers were willing to turn a blind eye towards truancy.

The disorganization of production resulting from the Terror of 1936-38 and the likely prospect of war precipitated a second crackdown on labor indiscipline towards the end of the decade. On 20 December 1938, the government introduced labor books which workers were required to present to new employers upon being hired. Eight days later, on 28 December, another decree reasserted the penalties of the November 1932 law on absenteeism and placed new restrictions on workers who wanted to leave their jobs voluntarily. Lateness to work by more than 20 minutes was to be punished by immediate dismissal and eviction from enterprise housing. Pregnancy leave was reduced from 16 to nine weeks, and the mandatory notice period for those wishing to leave their jobs was extended from seven days to one month. The final and most draconian act came on 26 June 1940. This decree essentially criminalized quitting and absenteeism.

Although severely limiting workers’ and managers’ options, even these decrees were circumvented. Nor could it be otherwise given that the conditions militating against labor discipline — a shortage of labor, unreliable and overcrowded transportation, significant downtime due to breakdowns of machinery and shortage of spare parts — were an endemic part of Soviet life.

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