Soviet leaders face economic, labor problems

Behind the calm public facade of the gigantic Soviet economy, second biggest in the world (behind the United States). Soviet officials are beset with problems:

* Hundreds of workers went out on strike for two days last month in the huge auto plant at Togliatti, east of Moscow, protesting a range of economic issues. The factory, built by the Fiat company of Italy, makes the Lada car, which earns large amounts of foreign exchange for the Kremlin in exports.

* Supplies of food, especially meat, are worsening in provincial cities around the country, even as officials make strenuous efforts to ensure that overseas visitors have enough in the five Olympic Games cities of Moscow, Tallinn, Leningrad, Minsk, and Kiev.

* With key growth rates falling, officials are traveling widely to try to poke the Soviet economy into a respectable performance following a mere 2 percent growth last year.

Information about this strike -- and others since 1945 -- comes from unofficial Soviet sources in touch with one of the ministries supervising industrial production, as well as from other sources.

"The economy here is like a horse -- it won't go unless it's prodded all the time," comments one unofficial source.

Notwithstanding the latest information, the party is still well in command of the country and the economy. Strikes still seem to be comparatively rare, though sources say they know of one in a munitions plant in 1945, another in Leningrad in 1947, and one, put down by troops firing into a crowd, in 1962 in the southern industrial city of Novocherkassk.

Strikes are not reported in the controlled Soviet press.

The Soviet sources say that, limited or not, unrest does exist and does spill over into strikes -- though for economic not political reasons.

The Brezhnev era has seen efforts to placate workers, the sources said, rather than confront them. Intellectual dissidents are strongly repressed, but workers are given meat in their factory canteens and if they strike, their demands are met -- at least temporarily.

At Togliatti, where some 700,000 Lada cars are turned out a year on an Italian Fiat 124 assembly line, some reports say workers struck after bus drivers refused extra routes. Other reports say the walkout culminated years of economic unrest.

It is not known how the workers were persuaded to return to work, though it is said their demands were met.

Food shortages usually are among the causes of worker discontent. Even though meat is available in staff canteens, to eat and to buy, the stock in stores where workers can shop for their families is extremely poor, other sources say.

Big cities have preference under a four-step scale from A (at the top) to D. Moscow, Leningrad, and some others are A. Provincial capitals are high on the scale. Cities awarded the title of "hero city" have lesser but definite privileges.

But thousands of average provincial towns are without privilege. Villagers have been flooding in since 1940, seeking to escape the boredom and decay of the countryside.

If food production has risen 1 percent, sources say, population in the provincial cities has gone up 3 percent in recent years.

Such towns welcome visits from senior officials such as party leader Leonid Brezhnev or Premier Alexei Kosygin. Meat appears in stores weeks beforehand -- but disappears when they leave -- the pattern seen in the industrial center of Tula in 1976 before a Brezhnev visit.

Mr. Brezhnev referred to complaints about food in his speech (which alleviated the situation somewhat by making Tula a hero city). More trouble and a strike broke out in 1978, sources now say. Workers protested by refusing to accept pay packets for two pay periods in a row -- one month in all.

Mikhail Solomentsev, a nonvoting member of the ruling party Politburo, referred to food shortages in Tomsk, Siberia, on a recent visit. A Moscow university professor said flatly in Pravda May 24 food was in short supply around the country.

Last year saw the economy in a slump, caused by poor weather, a low grain harvest, and widespread inefficiency resulting from centralization. In large measure, the party refuses to confront the latter problem, because its own control depends on centralization. For the first quarter of this year, industrial production recovered to 5 percent above the same period last year -- but last year's was abnormally low. Coal, steel, oil, iron, chemicals, paper, and pulp are all below the targets for the current five-year plan, which ends Dec. 31.

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