“To live humanly – with dignity”

Labour movement activists in Moscow believe that the strikes, meetings and demonstrations that spread through the Kuzbass coalfield in May – the most widespread in recent years – could be renewed later this year. The protest movement surged brought miners and their families into conflict with local government and the security forces as well as mine managers.

The protests were triggered by one of Russia’s worst mining accidents in recent years, at the Raspadskaya mine at Mezhdurechensk. An explosion late on 10 May killed a group of miners and left others trapped underground; a second blast caught rescue workers and miners trying to reach the trapped men. The total reported death toll was 67.

Inspectors’ reports indicated that the first explosion was caused by high concentrations of methane gas. Mine managers had turned a blind eye to workers – who rely on productivity payments to make a living wage – tampering with safety equipment. They had disabled gauges that automatically shut down the power supply to drilling equipment if gas concentrations exceed a certain level.

Safety officials have started criminal proceedings against the mine manager, Igor Volkov. But as any miner will tell you, this is a question of corporate culture. Institutional collusion is needed to neutralise safety equipment significantly. And there is a history in post-Soviet Russia’s privatised pits: in 2007, when 110 died at the Ulyanovskaya mine in western Siberia, it emerged that safety equipment had been tampered with there, too.

On 14 May, miners gathered in the town square of Mezhdurechensk – a historic meeting-place during the 1989 miners’ strike, the key event in the late Soviet revival of the Russian workers’ movement.

 Kvant, a local TV station, reported that miners arrived “in groups, whole work brigades”, with their families. In a clip posted on You Tube, the journalists promised to transmit interviews “without any censorship”. You can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGL0U3xbYiQ&feature=player_embedded One miner, surrounded by his workmates, said they were demonstrating because:

No-one from the mine management came to beg forgiveness. No-one in any official position came and said, “forgive us please, mothers, forgive us, wives [of those killed in the explosion]”. [The management] didn’t really grieve. That was all false. […] [We want] to live humanly – with dignity. It’s that simple. Everyone thinks we get huge great money. But actually people here live from one wage packet to the next. On average, without fulfilling the plan, people get 25,000 [rubles per month. The ruble/$ exchange rate is about 30:1.] If the plan is met, 30-35,000 – 40,000 is the absolute maximum. […] But it’s dirty money. To receive that 35,000, our lads – for the sake of their families, not for the sake of money – go into the mine to work and, honestly, they break safety regulations. They disable the methane gauges. Because it’s impossible to do otherwise. There is a great deal of [methane] gas. It’s constantly present. […] All the managers know perfectly well what’s going on. And they [the managers] on the surface do too.

Other interviewees said pay was cut after the 2008 financial crisis and that when miners complained, the mine manager responded: “If you don’t like it, I’ll just bring in Chinese workers who’ll work for half of what you get.”  

Overnight on 14-15 May, protesters blocked a local railway line. About 200 of them confronted the riot police (OMON) who arrived to try to move them on. The miners and their families were attacked by OMON officers with batons; stones were thrown in response and 28 arrests made.

As tension rose in the region, and labour movement activists feared an extension of repressive action, a manifesto appeared on the internet signed by the Union of Kuzbass Residents, an unknown organisation. It called for mass meetings in towns throughout the region on 22 May; urged “all parties and public organisations” to support those arrested during the railway protest; and called for mass meetings to become a regular feature of the region’s political life. The appeal is reproduced below, in the item dated 17 May.

Despite the mystery surrounding the appeal’s origin, local authorities in Kuzbass became concerned about the planned day of action. Many of them reacted nervously, arranging sports activities – and in the case of Kiselevsk, an organised potato-picking expedition – and putting security services on standby.

On 22 May, a small group of people turned out to demonstrate in Mezhdurechensk. Andrei Orlov, a miner at the Olzherasskaya-Novaya pit and activist in the Independent Miners Union, told the protestors that security guards had detained and interrogated him, and asked him to attend a forensic centre to be tested for traces of drug use. He refused and said he would only accept testing by independent doctors – an understandable stance, since a miner activist from Yakutsk, Valentin Urusov, is currently serving six years’ hard labour on trumped-up drugs charges.

In Novokuznetsk, the regional capital, a crowd of 300 gathered at the town hall, where the mayor, Valerii Smaly, had agreed to meet the protestors. An angry exchange between the crowd and officials was published on Russia’s most comprehensive site for labour and social movements, IKD.ru. Many of the speakers from the crowd focused on the issue of low wages. IKD.ru’s correspondent quoted with pathos a woman who jumped up to the microphone as the chairman tried to close the meeting and said:

Esteemed gentlemen! You have spoken many fine words hear but, listening to you, I understood that nothing will change. This city has no future. My daughter’s husband is a miner and he takes home 9000 [rubles a month]. My daughter is pregnant now. The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is to say to her that she should get a termination. She just will not be able to bring up a child on that.

In the days that followed, promises of two 7% pay rises in rapid succession were formalised and the movement subsided – for now. Activists in Moscow, who had organised solidarity demonstrations with Kuzbass, began to discuss the lessons of an upsurge that had galvanised coalfield communities in a way not seen since the mid 1990s.

Andrei Demidov of IKD.ru, addressing a press conference on 31 May, said that the conflict in Mezhdurechensk had been sharpened by “many years of pressure on the free trade unions that had been active there, and other civil initiatives that were not under the control of the local authorities. As a result, at the critical moment, the energy of social protest burst out in radical forms.” Nevertheless, organisations had been developed to express mining communities’ interests, “and that is certainly not the virtual Union of Kuzbass Residents”, Demidov said. As well as an “initiative group” formed locally during the protests, there is the local branch of the Independent Miners Union, which has 60 members at Raspadskaya – while there are 3000 in Rosugleprof, the “official” union that is integrated into management structures in a way similar to the soviet-period union from which it is descended.

Those in Moscow who followed the events believe that none of the fundamental issues – the sharp fall in living standards that followed the 2008 crisis, the productivity drive in mines and other industries that endangers safety, and Russia’s gigantic legacies of other unresolved social problems – have been resolved. Further social movements are to be expected.

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