Honor the Worker Who Undermined the System

ALICE CORNETT

September 07, 1992|By ALICE CORNETT

London, Kentucky -- After 14 years of silence, it may now b possible to learn the fate of Vladimir Klebanov, the coal miner who in 1978 formed the first free labor union in the Communist bloc.

The union was short-lived, as was Klebanov's freedom. If still alive, he can perhaps appreciate the irony of Lech Walesa's election to power in Poland. More than two years before the Gdansk shipyard workers organized Solidarity, the Ukrainian miner, together with a handful of workers from other trades, boldly announced the formation of the Union for the Defense of Workers' Rights.

Klebanov was a foreman in the Bajanova mine in the Donbass, a region roughly equivalent to Appalachia. His activity on behalf of his fellow workers began in 1972, when Klebanov, who had worked in the mines for 16 years, took the unusual and dangerous step of setting out grievances in a letter to the mine bosses.

The six-hour day supposedly worked by Russian miners is a myth, he wrote. To meet unrealistic production goals, miners were working 12-hour shifts, with the predictable result of injuries and deaths.

In the Bajanova mine alone, 15 deaths a year were the usual, and there were upward of 600 injuries a year. The causes of this grisly toll were not investigated by the managers, who instead tried to keep accidents secret.

The letter brought swift response; Klebanov was fired. Soon after, he was arrested, then confined in a psychiatric hospital for four and a half years.

Klebanov's ''cure'' was not effective. Released from the hospital in 1977, the miner boarded a train for Moscow. There, in the waiting room of the Central Committee for the Communist Party, he met citizens from various regions of the Soviet Union who were in Moscow to present stories of corruption and mismanagement in their workplaces.

As with Klebanov, complaints to superiors had brought dismissal, loss of pensions and a stigma that preventing them from getting other jobs.

This chance meeting of outcasts from the labor force led to a gathering in a Moscow apartment, and in December 1977 a letter, composed by Klebanov and signed by 38 Soviet citizens, was dispatched to state authorities. It stressed the loyalty of the signers to the government, but pointed out that workers were being oppressed without recourse.

When their letter was ignored, the group took the only means of getting its story to the Russian people. It invited Western journalists to a press conference. Up to then the foreign press had never heard of Vladimir Klebanov, a man who did not fit the picture of a ''refusenik.'' He was neither a political dissident nor an intellectual, no Sakharov or Amalrik.

When the story appeared in Western newspapers, Klebanov was picked up and detained for two weeks in a Moscow psychiatric institution. News of the workers' movement had been broadcast on Western radio, however, and some 200 sympathetic letters reached the group. On his release, Klebanov was greeted by a crowd of supporters.

At a second press conference, Jan. 26, 1978, he announced formation of the first independent labor union in the U.S.S.R. Soviet law in fact permitted any group of workers to form a union, so long as it did not affiliate with an international labor organization.

But it was an unprecedented step for which the organizers would soon pay. On Feb. 7, Klebanov was seized in a Moscow subway station and transported back to the Ukraine. Four other union members reportedly were arrested the same day.

Then the mine foreman who had dared to voice concern for his men's safety simply disappeared.

Few Russian watchers would have predicted in 1978 that, in 1990, Soviet miners would go on strike or that their representatives would tour the United States -- among them men from the Donbass region who visited United Mine Workers picket lines in Southwest Virginia, where the U.M.W.A. was engaged in the long Pittston strike.

But where was Vladimir Klebanov, forgotten man, perhaps martyr, who risked everything to win safer conditions for his fellow mine workers? While it appeared that his movement failed, Klebanov's courage may well have sparked the Polish laborers to emulate him by setting up an independent trade union which caught the world's imagination.

Alice Cornett is a journalist in Eastern Kentucky.

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