Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum
The second and last all-Union strike of coal miners was declared in early March 1991 and suspended two months later. Not only in duration but in many other respects it differed from the strike of July 1989. Thanks to prodigious organizational activity in the interim, a multitude of institutions — city and regional strike/workers’ committees, the Independent Union of Miners (NPG), the Union of Kuzbass Workers, the Confederation of Labor — were involved in generating and pursuing demands. During the first strike, the miners had rejected assistance from outside; now their leaders worked closely, if surreptitiously, with the so-called “democrats” ranged around Gorbachev’s rival, Boris Eltsin, and solicited and received funds from other independent trade unions, political movements, and the general public. Whereas in 1989 the miners were wary of provoking repression, in 1991 they boldly called for Gorbachev’s resignation, the dismantling of the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet, and the transfer of mines and their assets to respective republican governments. But also in contrast to 1989, participation by individual mines was spotty, and there were few mass meetings of miners on public squares.
The strike, precipitated by inflation that had all but wiped out previous wage increases, was both a reflection of and a further impetus to the decline of the Soviet “center.” Gorbachev’s announcement in early April of a doubling of miners’ wages (albeit in stages and with certain provisos concerning productivity) and other concessions was dismissed by strike leaders as inadequate and, in view of their political demands, irrelevant. Only after they had concluded agreements with the republican governments did they terminate the strike.
In retrospect, the strike of 1991 proved to be the high-water mark of working-class militancy and political effectiveness. In Russia, the leaders of the NPG and regional councils of workers’ committees threw their weight behind Boris Eltsin in the presidential election of June 1991 and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in his clashes with the Russian Supreme Soviet, but had little to show for their support. In Ukraine, miners voted overwhelmingly for independence in the referendum of December 1, 1991 but soon discovered that, as one activist put it, “The Center has just moved from Moscow to Kiev.” Despite repeated strikes, sit-ins, and other forms of protest, the miners’ movement in post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine failed to arrest the decline of their industry, the living standards of miners, and itself.