Health-Care Workers, Teachers Threaten Strike Wave in Russia


FED up with what they call intolerably low pay and abysmal working conditions, workers in public sector occupations like health care and education in Moscow and other Russian cities have begun to strike or are threatening to do so.

Medical unions have stated that they will shut down all hospitals and clinics unless an agreement with the government is reached tomorrow. A separate trade union has called on teachers and schools administrators to begin striking May 22.

Support for both strikes, which could seriously undermine an economic recovery here, appears to be more solid in cities and towns throughout the Russian hinterland than in Moscow, where doctors and teachers appear reluctant to press for gains at the expense of critically ill patients and children.

Top government officials are taking the possible strikes very seriously. Sergei Stankevich, a top economic adviser to both Moscow Mayor Gavril Popov and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, has expressed concern that the medical workers' and teachers' strikes could quickly snowball into "a catastrophe on a republican scale": an all-Russia strike of public sector workers.

President Yeltsin Thursday met with Igor Klochkov, head of Russia's independent trade unions, and created a working group to address the situation.

The present wave of strike actions was inspired by last year's coal miner's strike, which brought salaries of up to 35,000 rubles (about $300) a month, a princely sum in Russia.

Both medical workers and teachers earn between 400 and 1,500 rubles a month (about $3 to $12), depending upon position and longevity of service.

Medical workers are demanding that the lowest paid workers in their profession - beginning nurses - be given a 10-fold raise over their present salaries of 400 rubles and that higher ranking medical personnel be raised three- to four-fold.

Teachers and medical workers are also demanding that their salaries be indexed to the cost of living - which the government rejects - and are calling for increases in government funding for health care and education.

City officials have offered both medical workers and teachers raises on the order of 1.8 times their present salaries.

Although unions have threatened to cut off all medical services tomorrow, Alexander Sverdikov, a leader of the city-wide strike committee, says doctors and nurses in Moscow probably will not go to such extremes.

Vladimir Gabel, a doctor who heads the strike committee at Moscow City Clinic Hospital No. 24, says he and his colleagues find themselves in a dilemma.

"It is intolerable that someone like myself with 28 years experience and at the top of my profession makes a total of 1,150 rubles a month," Mr. Gabel says. "On the other hand, my conscience will not permit me to refuse treatment to people.... To do that would be immoral and inhuman."

Apparently many educators feel similar qualms. Natalya Vasiliyeva, principal of Moscow Public School No. 43, says that only about 20 of 800 Moscow schools back the May 22 strike, despite much higher claims by trade union leaders.

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