Trade unions in the Soviet Union

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The membership card of the all-Union Central Council of trade unions of the USSR.
The slogan of the trade unions are a school of communism.

Trade unions in the Soviet Union, headed by the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, had a complex relationship with industrial management, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet government given that the Soviet Union was ideologically supposed to be a state in which the members of the working class ruled the country and managed themselves.

During the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War that immediately followed, there were all sorts of ideas about how to organize and manage industries, and many people thought that the trade unions would be the vehicle of workers' control of industries. By the Stalinist era of the 1930s, it was clear that the party and government made the rules and that the trade unions were not permitted to challenge them in any substantial way. In the decades after Stalin, the worst of the powerlessness of the unions was past, but Soviet trade unions remained something closer to company unions, answering to the party and government, than to truly independent organizations. They did, however, challenge aspects of mismanagement more successfully than they had under Stalin.

By the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the trade union system consisted of thirty unions organized by occupational branch. Including about 732,000 locals and 135 million members in 1984, unions encompassed almost all Soviet employees with the exception of some 4 to 5 million kolkhozniks. The All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions served as an umbrella organization for the thirty branch unions and was by far the largest public organization in the Soviet Union.

Early history[edit]

Soviet trade unions, headed by the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (Всесоюзный Центральный Совет Профессиональных Союзов, ВЦСПС), traced their history back to the 1905 Russian Revolution, roughly 15 years before the Soviet Union was founded. Many trade unions were shut down or restricted on the eve of World War I and during that war, but they revived after the February Revolution of 1917, and their leaders were democratically elected in the following months. After the October Revolution later that year, some anarchist and Bolshevik trade unionists hoped that unions would manage industry. A strong factory committee movement had sprung up, from workers occupying workplaces or forcing their bosses into compliance with demands as the government would no longer protect them. However, as the Bolsheviks seized and consolidated power, this movement was ended by the nationalization of industries.

With the Russian Civil War and the Bolshevik policy of war communism, the trade unions lost staff to government, party, and military organs. Government economic organs, like the All-Russian Council of the Economy (VSNKh), increasingly took the primary role in directing industry, which lost many workers due to the economic crisis. The Bolsheviks' communist party, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (bolsheviks), exerted increasing control over trade unions, which even many communist trade union leaders resisted. By the end of the Civil War, a dispute over the role of trade unions occurred within the party, which had become the Russian Communist Party (bolsheviks) and would soon become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Leon Trotsky, Nikolay Krestinsky and some others insisted on militarization of trade unions and actually turning them into part of the government apparatus. The Workers' Opposition (Alexander Shlyapnikov, Alexandra Kollontai) demanded that trade unions manage the economy through an "All-Union Congress of Producers" and that workers comprise a majority of Communist Party members and leaders. There were several other factions. Eventually, all of them were defeated at the 10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) by the so-called "Platform of the Ten" headed by Lenin, which called for trade unions to educate workers, under the control of the Communist Party. After that congress, Vladimir Lenin's saying that "Trade Unions are a School of Communism" became an indisputable slogan.

Like the Communist Party, the trade unions operated on the principle of democratic centralism, and they consisted of hierarchies of elected bodies from the central governing level down to the factory and local committees.

Because of the course that was determined as the Bolsheviks defeated other models of socialism, Soviet trade unions ended up, in fact, actually governmental organizations whose chief aim was not to represent workers but to further the goals of management, government, and the CPSU and primarily promoted production interests.[1] In this respect, through the Western lens of a dichotomy of independent unions versus company unions, they were more accurately comparable to company unions.

Stalinist era[edit]

During Lenin's rule, a resolution entitled About Party Unity had dissolved and banned any factions within the Party under the pretext that intra-Party discussions distract from "solving actual practical problems". This resolution radically shifted the balance in the notion "democratic centralism" from "democratic" to "centralism" and helped lay the groundwork for Joseph Stalin's future dictatorship.

During the Great Terror, the distortion of interests, whereby unions fought for state production interests rather than workers' direct interests of compensation and safety, reached the point of absurdity, as no degree of unsafe working conditions or low pay could be countered by the unions if the party and state decided that the sacrifices must be made. The head of the trade union council during the 1920s, Mikhail Tomsky, first was deposed and some years later committed suicide to avoid the false persecution of the purges. He was rehabilitated decades later under de-Stalinization.

After Stalin[edit]

Before the worst of the Terror and in the decades after Stalin, Soviet trade unions did have some input regarding production plans, capital improvements in factories, local housing construction, and remuneration agreements with management. After Stalin, unions also were empowered to protect workers against bureaucratic and managerial arbitrariness, to ensure that management adhered to collective agreements, and to protest unsafe working conditions. However, strikes were still illegal. As such, unions were partners of management in attempting to promote labor discipline, worker morale, and productivity. Unions organized socialist emulation "competitions" and awarded prizes for fulfilling quotas. They also distributed welfare benefits, operated cultural and sports facilities, issued passes to health and vacation centers, oversaw factory and local housing construction, provided catering services, and awarded bonuses and prepaid vacations. The newspaper Trud and the magazine Soviet Trade Unions (Советские профсоюзы) were major media of the Soviet trade union system.

Late Soviet period[edit]

The trade union system in the late Soviet Union consisted of thirty unions organized by occupational branch. Including about 732,000 locals and 135 million members in 1984, unions encompassed almost all Soviet employees with the exception of some 4 to 5 million kolkhozniks. Enterprises employing twenty-five or more people had locals, and membership was compulsory. Dues were about 1% of a person's salary. The All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions served as an umbrella organization for the thirty branch unions and was by far the largest public organization in the Soviet Union.

Union membership influenced union operations only at the local level, where an average of 60% of a union's central committee members were rank-and-file workers.

After the Polish trade union movement, Solidarity, had achieved some success in Poland, Soviet trade unions became more vocal in protecting workers' interests.

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