MAY DAY. Soviet workers mark holiday in Red Square, but there's not much to celebrate
MOSCOW — THE May Day floats and banners were as festive as ever in Moscow this year, but the brass bands did not drown out rising notes of discontent from Soviets less and less convinced they're living in a proletariat paradise. The magazine Ogonyok has compared the position of workers for much of Soviet history to slavery, and a newspaper carried a May Day article slamming official trade unions for kowtowing to the government instead of defending their members' interests.
In Moscow, May 1 also marked the beginning of sugar rationing, just one more shortage in the deepening economic crisis accompanying Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms.
Ogonyok wrote that in the 1940s, ``the Russian proletarian, who had dreamed of bringing freedom to the workers of the world, became a slave of his work record, a slave of the administration.''
The magazine, citing poor conditions, said Soviet workers on average live six years less than their counterparts in other developed countries. Under Soviet norms, female workers lift an average of seven metric tons per shift, compared with 700 kilograms (about three-fourths of a ton) in France or Britain, author Vyacheslav Kostikov wrote.
The newspaper Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya, in its workers' holiday attack on official unions, said they acted as ``a government maidservant concerned not with defending the interests of the workers, but only with maintaining peace and quiet and an imitation of mass support.''
The newspaper said that the need for real worker representation under perestroika, Mr. Gorbachev's reform program, is greater than ever.
Soviet workers, who are constitutionally guaranteed the right to work and have traditionally had little fear of being fired, no matter how poorly they performed, must now worry increasingly about their job security.
Soviet news media reported that more than 1 million factory workers have been laid off as Gorbachev's reforms trimmed the fat from state enterprises. Pravda, the Communist Party daily, estimated that 16 million Soviets would be laid off in the next 12 years. The government has promised to place all laid-off workers, but meanwhile they receive no unemployment benefits and there are few retraining centers.
Workers who want to demonstrate their displeasure also have a problem: Strikes are illegal.
That has not stopped Soviet miners. They have struck twice this spring, most recently in the Siberian city of Norilsk, where miners stayed underground for five days to demand a wage increase. Moscow's taxi drivers planned a strike for May 1, but it was canceled after some of their demands were met.
Amid the general economic upheaval, panic buying has spread to cities around the country and is beginning to reach the well-supplied capital. Muscovites are buying up matches and salt in fear that they will soon be in short supply.
Gorbachev acknowledged in a recent speech to the Central Committee that his reforms had failed to improve the standard of living. ``There is a dearth of consumer goods in the shops. The list of shortages is growing. The state's financial position is grave,'' he said.
Economists say that, ironically, the shortages stem partly from an improvement in the workers' lot: Wages have been rising. But salaries have been rising faster than productivity, creating loose money that buys up whatever is on the shelves.
Although perestroika has made life harder for Soviet workers, it has begun to give them hope of gaining more rights and more meaningful political power.
Under a draft law published just before May Day, Soviet workers would gain a limited right to strike. The law, which must be approved by the Supreme Soviet (parliament), appears to be a compromise aimed at preventing labor unrest from taking on the dimensions that led to the formation of Poland's Solidarity labor federation.
Ogonyok predicted that heightened democracy under perestroika would restore to workers the political authority they lost during years of acting as government puppets.
The results of multi-candidate elections held this spring showed ``that the working class of the country, which makes up the majority of voters, is acquiring an independent voice,'' the magazine said. In 1986, 82.1 million Soviets were officially classified as ``workers,'' as distinguished from white-collar, service, or management personnel and collective farmers.
Voters in many districts rejected Communist Party leaders and chose more-independent, reform-minded candidates to represent them in the new national parliament.
The Ogonyok article listed several features of the current reforms that act in workers' favor, among them increased self-management at enterprises and smaller work units that make each member more accountable.
In all, Kostikov wrote in the popular magazine, there is at least some hope the reforms may foster a ``thinking proletariat,'' who will take the place of bureaucrats in the halls of Soviet power.