NOVOKUZNETSK, USSR — FROM a small room on the second floor of a nondescript building in this bleak Siberian city, a group of coal miners have transformed an underground strike into a mass movement that threatens to topple the Soviet system. The room is the headquarters of the Novokuznetsk Workers' and Strike committees - forces that have idled 88 of the 101 coal-related mines and industries since early March in the key Kuzbass coal field, the nation's largest.
Unlike their counterparts in the Donbas coal region of the Ukraine, the Kuzbass miners have no economic demands. They are waging a purely political strike, demanding that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev resign.
"We have come to the conclusion it will be impossible to solve the economic crisis under the current government structures," says Ravil Vakhitov, chairman of the Worker's Committee. "We just don't want to change governments, we want to change the system."
Despite such militant rhetoric, strike organizers aren't trying to achieve goals overnight. Restraint, education, and preparation are the operative words at the Novokuznetsk headquarters. Drawing on experience from a 1989 walkout, the strike leaders are learning from their mistakes, as well as training miners to serve as organizers and agitators.
"The Workers' Committee has been a school," says Mr. Vakhitov. "There are guys who are now leaders who a few years ago couldn't speak in front of a crowd. But after they worked at the committee, they became used to talking to people and were exposed to organizational methods."
Indeed, the Novokuznetsk strikers have evolved into militant missionaries of the proletarian class - spreading across the country, seeking converts.
"The workers in Leningrad wanted to form their own committees, so they asked us for help, because we have experience in organizational methods," said Mikhail Gonturov, a Worker's Committee member of the Bolshevik Mine outside Novokuznetsk. He spoke the day before departing to serve as an adviser at the massive Kirov munitions factory in the old imperial capital.
"It's funny that we have to reteach them what they knew so well in 1917," Mr. Gonturov said, referring to the Bolshevik Revolution in which Leningrad factory workers played a vital role.
Movement begins to grow
The miners' movement has spread rapidly, threatening to collapse Soviet industry. Factories nationwide have announced their support for the miners' goals and are striking, or threatening to strike, pressuring the government from all sides. Even in the normally docile Communist stronghold of the republic of Byelorussia, workers are following the miners' example. Workers in Minsk, the Byelorussian capital, virtually shut down the city last Thursday, protesting steep price increases introduced by the government last week.
The price hikes, together with the miners' leadership, have so fanned the flames of worker discontent that conservative Communists are trying to disassociate themselves from Mr. Gorbachev in an attempt to avoid being dragged down with him.
"To say the party defends Gorbachev is nonsense," says Mikhail Yelovikov, the conservative Novokuznetsk party boss. "If Gorbachev continues acting this way and cannot contain the situation, it may cause the party to demand his resignation."
The government has tried desperately to isolate the miners' movement, but its efforts have met with little success. Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov last week offered a 100 percent pay raise over a one-year period. But the vast majority of miners, who are already among the best-paid workers in the Soviet Union, earning an average of 450 rubles monthly (about $264 at the commercial rate of exchange), aren't buying any wage concessions.
"Pavlov's offer is the same old stuff - just more lies," says Alexander Kartoshin, a striking miner at the Bungurskaya coal pit.
Miners remember '89
The seeds of such militancy were planted during the 1989 coal strike, when miners sought improved living and working conditions. They returned to work after the government made significant concessions, but officials never lived up to their end of the bargain, they say.
Indeed, many miners still live in appalling conditions. Novokuznetsk is little more than a jumble of crumbling apartment blocks that all look the same, except some are painted a rusty yellow, while others are grisly gray. But most miners are housed in dilapidated barracks in the hills on the outskirts of the city.
"We don't live. We merely exist," says Valentina Katikhina, whose husband and son are both miners.
The shattered promises and squalid living conditions have irreversibly hardened not only those at the strike headquarters, but the rank-and-file miners also.
"We are prepared to keep striking until death, in order to achieve our political demands," says Valeri Bender, a miner at Bungurskaya.
The Kuzbass miners are united and well organized, causing some local journalists to draw comparisons with the 1981 Gdansk Shipyard strike in Poland, which that gave birth to the Solidarity movement. But unlike Gdansk, the Kuzbass miners have yet to produce a leader like Lech Walesa, who rose from shipyard electrician to become the Polish president.
"There's not a leader here who, like Walesa, can gain the support of the whole nation," says Mikhail Grevnev, a journalist for Nasha Gazeta, a Novokuznetsk Worker's Committee periodical.
Yeltsin relies on miners
For the time being, the miners have backed Russian leader Boris Yeltsin as their standard bearer for change. Mr. Yeltsin relied heavily on the support of miners at the just-concluded session of the Russian legislature to break up Communist opposition to establishing a executive branch of government in Russia. He is likely to gain the presidency in the June 12 election, greatly enhancing his ability to initiate market-style reforms. But Yeltsin can't count on the undying support of miners.
"We don't idolize Yeltsin, but we realize he's the only man who at least talks about radical change," says Yuri Komarov, a Novokuznetsk Strike Committee member. "If he starts to waver, we'll stop supporting him."
Even now, the miners are not leaving their fate totally in others' hands. Steps have been taken to start a school of market management in Novokuznetsk, Mr. Komarov says.
"We just want a decent life," says Yuri Oveshkin, a miner at the Bolshevik coal pit.
"In any other country, the government would have the decency to resign if it made such a mess of the economy," Mr. Oveshkin adds. "It's a shame that we must strike to make the government do what it should do naturally."