Thousands of Russians strike for back wages One-day national walkout fails to draw 10 million predicted by unions

March 28, 1997|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ZHUKOVSKY, Russia -- Thousands of Russians walked off their jobs yesterday in a long-planned nationwide strike called to protest unpaid wages that are months overdue.

But the protest reflected hopelessness rather than the social explosion the Communist-backed union leaders had threatened.

Russia's Interior Ministry estimated that 1.8 million people participated in demonstrations in nearly 1,300 cities nationwide. But it was only a fraction of the 17 million strikers that labor leaders had expected to join the one-day strike against President Boris N. Yeltsin's government, which has not made good on promises to pay $8.8 billion in wage and pension arrears.

Won't be ignored

Still, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin said yesterday that the protests were a "vivid and objective measure" of the seriousness of the problem and he said the government would not ignore them.

The Yeltsin government sits atop what would seem to be a powder keg of social unrest. For weeks, Yeltsin has expressed sympathy for the strikers' plight, which most people blame on the economic policies of his government.

The Russian government has trouble collecting taxes and has repeatedly promised, set deadlines, and then failed to pay billions of dollars in long-overdue pensions and wages.

Scolding his government for the economic crisis, Yeltsin has reshuffled the Cabinet over the past week, bringing in a team of free market economists to ramrod stalled reforms.

On the eve of the strike Wednesday, in an effort to show government concern over the economic crisis, Yeltsin banned the use of imported luxury cars by Russian government officials.

Yesterday, about 1,000 workers in Zhukovsky, a suburban Moscow aerospace center, shuffled quietly in their gray and threadbare winter coats down the main street to the central square.

No pay for eight months

Most of them haven't received their government-subsidized wages for eight months. Two weeks ago, they received their June wages.

They listened politely but unemotionally as astronaut-turned-legislator Svetlana Savitskaya and local union leaders called for Yeltsin's government to resign.

"We don't think these speeches are going to change anything, but neither do I think violence would -- it's not our way, we're patient," said Ira Vladimirovna, a 46-year-old typist who earns $30 a month at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute. "On the other hand, maybe our patience is why they don't pay us."

Alexei, a 19-year-old locksmith afraid to give his last name, started his $150-a-month job here in January and he hasn't been paid yet. Even so, he said, a job with the promise of pay is better than the year of unemployment he spent waiting for his current job.

"I'm supporting my fellow workers, that's why I'm here," he said of the strikers' demonstration. But as for the demands for Yeltsin's government to resign, he said, "It's hard to say who is to blame. I don't want to ruin the country [by bringing the government down]."

His fellow workers and retirees from the area's aerospace industry were harder on the Yeltsin government. Their banners blamed Yeltsin's economic liberalization for their lack of housing and medicine. They deplored the wealth displayed in the fabulous country houses built nearby by the newly rich.

The demonstration here was organized by both union leaders and plant management -- a coexistance that is a throwback to Soviet times when labor unions were just social services groups for each industrial sector. There was no distinction in Communist theory between worker and manager -- everyone was a worker.

The lusterless protest here was a reflection of those nationwide yesterday.

No industries disrupted

The protests began in the Far East, eight time zones ahead of Moscow, and moved westward as the day wore on. But as with previous strike calls, the numbers appeared to fall well short of organizers' expectations and were not disrupting any key industries. Shops and offices were open and public transportation ran normally.

Russian television said an estimated 130,000 people took part in protests in 15 cities and towns in the Far East. In Vladivostok, the largest city in the Far East and beset by chronic economic problems, only 10,000 of the expected 50,000 workers paraded down the city's main thoroughfare waving red flags and banners with the names of their factories.

Still, Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov claimed victory as he joined the Moscow rally.

"Changes in the government have convinced no one. This march is going from [the Pacific city of] Vladivostok to Kaliningrad [on the Baltic] and no one can stop it," he said.

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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