Keeping the lid on Soviet labor

The Soviet Union, with disapproving glances at the new labor unions next door in Poland, has adopted a carrot-and-stick approach to worker dissatisfaction at home.

The stick, dissident sources here say, consists of a continuing crackdown on the Soviets' own tiny equivalent of the Polish union movement.

The carrot: Soviet authorities are striving to energize their own state-controlled unions as effective advocates of worker interests.

And is there a chance that fallout from the Polish unrest will waft eastward across Soviet frontiers? Peter the Great once said that Russia is a country where things that just don't happen, happen. But for the time being at least, the possibility seems remote.

Soviet workers do gripe, and some of the things they gripe about -- working or safety conditions, arbitrary or unfair or corrupt moves by management -- make their way into the official press.

And there have been more reports of the occasional, "unofficial" labor protest in recent months, although it is hard to say whether the increasing (second-hand) reports signal significantly more protest.

One report: A Soviet friend told this correspondent that some factory workers in Riga, Latvia, had walked out when management suddenly hiked the official retirement age. The management reconsidered.

As early as 1977, a small group of dissident workers had begun pressing for the right to form unions truly independent of the state and Communist Party apparatus. Since then, dissident sources say, members or supporters of the group have periodically been jailed or committed to mental institutions.

One such man is Alexei Nikitin, an engineer and former mine worker. At the end of last year he invited two US reporters to the Ukrainian town of Donetsk to meet dissatisfied miners and other workers.

Within days he was reportedly interned in a local mental hospital. On June 3 , dissident sources here said, a doctor who has told Western reporters Mr. Nikitin has no mental problems was scheduled to go on trial. The formal charges remain unclear.

But if the Soviet Union is showing no more sympathy for its labor militants than for political dissidents, top officials are also directing their state unions to act a little less like dutiful employees and a little more like representatives of the workers.

Officially, the problem is not stated this way. Soviet communist theory holds that worker and state are one. "In the Soviet Union," one official publication says, "the basis does not exist for sharp conflicts between workers and management, which abound in the West," adding that a Soviet plant manager is "himself a trade union member."

"Soviet trade unions operate in a working people's state . . . so trade unions and the Soviet government have identical interests."

Indeed. The official unions, friends in Moscow say, spend a good part of their time in what amounts to cheerleading, calling on-the- job meetings to discuss the latest and finest points of party policy. Workers, of course, attend.

But more than a few seem less than excited by the exercise. "Usually the meetings just make it twice as difficult to find time to buy food for dinner," griped one young Moscow woman who is far from being a political dissident.

Against this background, officials from President Leonid Brezhnev on down have in effect served notice recently that the unions -- and party -- must redouble efforts to act like the workers's representatives that communist theory says they are.

"The events in Poland," Mr. Brezhnev said in a major February address, "show once again how important it is for the party . . . to pay close heed to the voice of the masses."

"Our trade unions," he went on, "sometimes lack initiative in exercising their broad rights. They do not always act with perseverance in questions concerning the fulfillment of collective contracts and the rules on labor safety , and still react poorly to cases of violation of labor legislation, bureaucratic practices, and red tape."

Theoretically, the state unions do have the right to call strikes, but it is a right rarely if ever used. "Strikes are not the important issue," one official union representative said. "The important thing is to decide issues in the many other ways in our hands, to properly correct situations."

He said the main vehicle was enforcement of "collective agreements" governing all work places -- including regulations on working hours, bonuses, fringe benefits, or items like constructing kindergartens for children of working women. Most Soviet women work.

The challenge now, as Soviet trade union leaders see it, is to make the collective agreements stick, and to fine or sack managers who aren't helping.

In a large Moscow office, a member of the union's national leadership suggests he is ready to battle the Soviet Union's awesome bureaucracy -- where loyalty is traditionally valued much more than boat-rockers are -- in order to energize the official unions.

He seems an example of what the Soviet government is supposed to be: a self-made man, a workaholic, either a very good actor or genuinely concerned about the people whose fate he may control.

Born of peasant parents, he slowly rode a state education in Moscow and party-union work to the upper reaches of Soviet power -- to membership in the national secretariat of the trade unions and a seat on the party Central Committee.

He talks of the Polish crisis in mainly economic terms, charging that "irresponsible elements" there are making demands the economy cannot possibly absorb.

He says the unions here are getting feistier, that more than 9,000 management officials were sacked last year. This is nine times the published figure for 1976.

But there are still problems, the union official says. "There are such things as executives . . . who give only one day off, or stretch workers' hours . . . or there may be a new enterprise with no schools or the like. This is what President Brezhnev was talking about when he said the unions should use their full rights."

"Last year, there was a case with a director named Filipov in the electronics factory in Odessa," he said. The plant director was insensitive to his workers, hadn't built a promised recreation facility, bypassed the factory workers' committee, made some salary changes, didn't provide proper treatment of workers' clothing.

Slowly, the case worked its way up the Soviet bureaucracy to the top, where ultimate decision power rests.

The union official wanted the plant director removed. Another official with effective veto power resisted, saying the factory was meeting its economic targets and should be left alone.

"I clashed with him. . . . Finally he went along."

And what happened to the director?

With the hint of a smile, the union official replied: "He is now working as a simple construction engineer in the same plant."

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