MOSCOW — As more than 10,000 energy workers in Russia's Far East went on strike this week to demand long-overdue paychecks, the country's top trade union leader threatened to lead 66.5 million workers out in Russia's first-ever nationwide general strike to protest unpaid wages.
A crisis that has been bubbling for nearly two years is now in danger of boiling over. Small wildcat strikes have broken out with increasing frequency in recent months, but with little effect.
Workers are owed more than $7.5 billion in back wages, and union officials say the mood among members is growing ugly.
The problem of back wages lacks a clear solution because businesses and workers both look to the government to find the money to pay the missing wages.
But the government has made it clear that it will not provide such funding, for fear of reigniting inflation by pumping too much money into the economy.
Equally hard to understand is why millions of Russians have put up with not being paid for so long without going on strike.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the painful economic reforms under way in Russia since the collapse of communism is how little social unrest the harsh belt-tightening has provoked.
A large part of the explanation for employees' extraordinary acceptance of endemic delays in getting paid appears to lie with trade unions, which are still a long way from shaking off their Soviet heritage and standing up boldly for their members' rights.
"The effectiveness of our trade union movement is not so high at the moment," admits Mikhail Shmakov, president of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), by far the largest labor confederation in Russia.
Largest property owner
The only significant change that the FNPR has undergone since Soviet times is its name. The institution once known as "the conveyor belt of Communism" evaded the fate of the other two pillars of the Soviet system - the Communist Party had all its property confiscated and the state was dissolved - to emerge as the largest property owner in the new Russia. The FNPR also controls the largest single nongovernmental sum of money in the form of the national social security fund.
Traditional union bosses, complains Edward Vokhmin, an official in the Moscow branch of the AFL-CIO's Free Trade Union Institute, are still stuck in Soviet thought patterns. Instead of siding with workers against management, they side with management in demanding money from the government.
"The division is not between employees and employers, but between an industry and the government officials distributing budget money," Mr. Vokhmin explains. "So workers don't figure out their position vis--vis their boss. They take a corporatist attitude."
That attitude was evident last February during a nationwide strike by coal miners, the most militant work force in the country.
The miners struck, affecting 90 percent of Russian mines, to demand wages they had not been paid for several months. They agreed to end their strike, however, when the government promised to pay out subsidies it owed to the state coal-mining agency.
"The working class still keeps its belief in the state, which is a holdover from the [Soviet] socialist period," agrees Anatoly Lukyanov, a senior Communist Party leader. And the dominant unions "keep their ideas of social partnership. But there are no conditions for social partnership in the current circumstances."
Workers who have long been accustomed to knocking on the factory director's door when they have a problem are reluctant to blame him when he doesn't pay them, and instead blame government authorities, Vokhmin says.
"Workers believe their director when he says he didn't get any money from Moscow, and they feel themselves in the same boat as the poor director who says he can't pay them because he doesn't have any orders for the goods they make. They don't demand that he pay them and find investments, or restructure, or whatever."
New unions belonging to the free trade union movement, founded by grass-roots democracy activists in the late 1980s, are trying to challenge these attitudes, but they remain small and their influence is limited.
To join a free trade union, rather than be enrolled automatically in the old union, requires a conscious decision to be militant. But this is a decision that few new employees - grateful to have a job in the first place - are ready to make.
In addition, the older FNPR unions have retained their Soviet role as a pipeline for any perks that come along, such as a bunk at a summer camp for your child or spare parts for your car.
One reason that unions are wary of calling strikes, points out Irene Stevenson, director of the AFL-CIO's Moscow office, is that they are liable to pay material compensation to an enterprise for its losses if a court rules the strike illegal. The law, she says, "makes the process of calling a legal strike practically impossible."
Though informal groups of workers cannot be sued for compensation, even unofficial wildcat strikes are less common than they would be in the West, Ms. Stevenson suggests, because workers know they are pointless. "If you are not being paid because your factory is not working, withholding your labor doesn't get you very far," she says.
If FNPR leader Mr. Shmakov attributes the surprising passivity of his members to their Soviet past, he reminds that "we do not have very much experience of strikes in Russia."
Stevenson is more blunt. "People in this country simply don't know what a trade union is," she says.