Soviet Coal Miners Test Nation's Commitment to Change

THE legacy of last summer's coal strikes looms ever larger as a renewed work stoppage in the Arctic coal field of Vorkuta finishes its first month. Last July, Moscow made a host of expensive promises - including more pay and consumer goods - to get coal miners in Siberia, the Ukraine, and the Far North to go back to work. At the time it was already clear that the Soviet government, facing a deepening economic crisis, could not afford these concessions. And now, the Vorkuta miners, who live and work in especially tough conditions, are accusing Moscow of failing to follow through on its promises.

``Whether we like it or not, Vorkuta has today become another serious test for the whole country,'' wrote the government daily Izvestia recently. The miners have defied demands by Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov to return to work. Since the work stoppages began Oct. 26, the number of pits operating at Vorkuta has gone down to as low as 1 out of 13. Ten were reported producing some coal Wednesday to handle local demand, though this was not necessarily a sign that the strikes were winding down. In addition, 13 miners have gone on a hunger strike in support of strike organizers who are being sued in a local court by the state-run mines. The future of the job action will become clearer on Nov. 27 - 10 days after a meeting between mine representatives from around the country and Mr. Ryzhkov - when documents are due to be released detailing what was agreed at the meeting.

``The experience of the July negotiations with the government has convinced us that formal documents can differ greatly from verbal agreements,'' a strike committee leader told Moscow News in Wednesday's issue. ``Therefore we won't start working until we have the essential documents in our hands.''

So far this month, miners in other key coalfields, Kuzbass in Siberia and Donbass in the Ukraine, have stayed on the job, though their leaders have expressed support for the Vorkuta strike. And if the Nov. 27 documents are not satisfactory, the Kuzbass and Donbass miners have threatened short work stoppages in sympathy.

The Vorkuta miners say five demands must be promised in writing before they will return to work:

Maintenance of hardship bonuses for workers who are laid off or who move to a different part of the country.

Granting of hardship bonuses to young people who grew up in that part of the country when they begin work.

Cancellation of laws that have made the miners' strike illegal.

Restoration of official status of the strike committees.

Punishment of government officials ``guilty'' of ``preventing fulfillment'' of last July's strike settlement.

At this point, says Boris Leonov, who covers social issues for the labor newspaper Trud, the government doesn't have a well-formed strategy for dealing with the strikers. ``It is looking for options to meet the miners' demands,'' says Mr. Leonov. ``They understand the miners' demands are well-founded. But the reforms are not hinging only on the government. There is also the discussion in the Supreme Soviet on a package of economic reforms.''

The miners, Leonov adds, are right on the edge between pushing reluctant government officials toward more radical economic reform and derailing the reform process altogether.

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