Double wages offered striking Soviet miners

April 04, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- One day after admitting that it has no money even to pay the army, the Soviet government sought yesterday to lure striking coal miners back to work by offering to double their wages over the next year.

"The main thing now is not to allow ourselves to be drawn into a fight," President Mikhail S. Gorbachev told a delegation of miners in the Kremlin. "We're all in the same boat, so let's row in the same direction."

But it was far from certain that the costly wage concession, part of a package deal negotiated in three days of talks, would actually end the strike.

K? Some strike leaders have denounced those attending the Krem

lin meetings as "strikebreakers" and said they do not speak on behalf of the 300,000 idle miners.

Many miners, especially in the Kuzbas coal basin of Western Siberia, say they will reject all financial offers and insist on their political demands, including the resignation of Mr. Gorbachev and his government and the dissolution of the Soviet parliament.

Even if many or most of the miners return to work, the settlement could set a dangerous precedent for other groups of workers. Workers in many other industries, from metallurgy to oil drilling, live and work in conditions not much better than those of the miners and have the same ability to cripple the economy by striking.

Understanding this hazard, Mr.orbachev and Prime Minister Valentin S. Pavlov took a tough line at the beginning of the strike a month ago. Mr. Pavlov said he would not negotiate until the miners returned to work.

But with nearly one-third of the nation's coal miners out and the steel and chemical industries being forced to close by the coal shortage, the Soviet leaders apparently decided they had no choice but to try to buy labor peace. Their action may also have been prompted by tensions related to Tuesday's steep price rises on most food and consumer goods.

On Tuesday, the Soviet finance minister and the head of the state bank warned the parliament that the state spending deficit for just the first quarter of this year -- 31.1 billion rubles -- had already exceeded the total planned for all of 1991 -- 26.7 billion rubles.

In a letter distributed to deputies, the officials warned of catastrophe if the spending gap were not closed, saying there was no money to pay for defense or crucial investment in the second quarter.

They blamed the deficit on spendthrift republics and proposed tough measures against them, including

suspending republican laws and authorizing the Soviet state bank chairman to dismiss the heads of republican banks and overrule their decisions.

Yesterday, in an admission of the ruble's weakness, the government increased nearly fivefold the rate it pays tourists for hard currency. Previously it was paying 5.74 rubles for $1; now, it pays 27.60 rubles, nearly the same as the black market rate.

There also exist an "official" rate of $1.72 per ruble and a "commercial rate" of 57 cents per ruble. No change was announced in those rates.

The vice president of Russia, the biggest republic, Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, sharply rejected the central government's budget accusations yesterday and said Russia would resist any attempt to divert more money to union coffers.

"It will bleed dry our republic and other republics," he told reporters.

One reason for the current miners' strike is the Soviet government's failure to keep promises made after the last big strike in the summer of 1989. So the more politicized of the strikers say their goal is to force a change in the political system rather than squeeze out of the government promises it cannot keep.

They have allied themselves with Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin and his proposal to abolish the Soviet presidency and slash the central bureaucracy, leaving most real power in the republics. At the same time, he has proposed a faster, less regulated transfer to a market system.

The Russian Congress of People's Deputies maintained its political deadlock on major issues yesterday. While hard-line Communists have been rebuffed in their hopes of removing Mr. Yeltsin as parliamentary leader, they have managed to block the creation of a directly elected Russian presidency for which he would be the leading candidate.

In addition to the wage offer, the package of concessions to the miners includes letting them sell on the free market 7 percent of the coal they produce. They were promised that "additional resources" would be supplied to mining towns to build housing and public buildings.

"This sharp, difficult discussion was needed," Mr. Gorbachev told the miners. "It didn't divide us but deepened mutual understanding. But not all the problems of the miners can be solved immediately, since there are plenty of troubles in the country, and the miners themselves should do a lot here."

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