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Soviet Miners' Strike Grows; 100,000 Join In

July 17, 1989|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A weeklong strike by Soviet coal miners demanding better supplies of food, safer working conditions, more housing and an environmental cleanup around their mines in western Siberia grew to about 100,000 workers on Sunday and threatened to turn into a general strike there.

Almost all of the mines in the Kuznetsky Basin, the Soviet Union's second-largest coal producing region, are now closed, officials said, and the strike has spread quickly from Mezhdurechensk to nine other towns in the region, becoming a major political and economic challenge to the country's leadership.

Describing the region, known as the Kuzbass, as a "raging basin" with "only a few small islands of tranquillity," the Communist Party newspaper Pravda said that more than 80,000 workers have joined the strike. The trade union newspaper Trud put the number in a later report at 100,000, and Radio Moscow reported an even higher figure.

Although some of the original strikers have resumed work, coal shipments out of the area have been halted and dozens of other enterprises closed by local trade union leaders in an effort to force a showdown with the central government.

Efforts by government and Communist Party officials to calm the situation and restore production have so far failed. Thousands of miners are occupying the central squares in the towns hit by the strike, Soviet newspapers reported Sunday, although order is being maintained by patrols of workers as well as police.

"You can imagine the impact--all the pits and mines are on strike and most of the other major enterprises have joined them," Valery Legachev, a member of the strike committee in Prokopyevsk, one of the striking towns, said Sunday. "The place is shut down."

Mikhail I. Shchadov, the coal minister, spoke to tens of thousands of miners in an evening rally in Prokopyevsk on Saturday, but afterward the strike grew as miners demanded that more senior officials come to negotiate with them.

"The situation is changing from hour to hour, and mines that were peaceful yesterday stopped working unexpectedly today," the newspaper Soviet Russia reported Sunday.

Political, Economic Problem

As it continues to grow, the strike poses both a political and an economic challenge to the government and the Communist Party leadership under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

The demands of the strikers are largely that the leadership honor the promises that Gorbachev has made--promises not only of better living conditions but also of greater democracy and of worker control over the enterprises where they are employed.

At the same time, the work stoppage, one of the largest in the Soviet Union in recent years, threatens to shut down major segments of the country's industry--notably iron smelters, steel mills, thermal power plants and all the factories that depend upon them for materials or energy--by depriving them of fuel.

Already, more than 1 million tons of coal production have been lost, according to Pravda. The monetary value, about $31 million, is of less importance, the paper said, than the effect of the lost production on other industries. The government is battling for economic growth in order to underwrite its reform program, and these losses could have a severe impact.

The central demand of the strikers is for local administration of the mines--with strong worker participation--under new industrial and labor laws adopted in recent years as part of Gorbachev's broader economic reforms, known as perestroika.

This would give miners the right, under government-set guidelines and overall economic plans, to manage the mines, set production goals and use their revenues in accordance with local priorities.

Break With Policy

But it would also be a major break--and in a key industry--from the Soviet Union's centrally planned and managed economy, whose Moscow-based administrators remain firmly entrenched four years into Gorbachev's reforms.

A. Yevsyukov, chairman of the regional miners' strike committee, told Pravda that "the strikers' demands come down essentially to granting miners' collectives the real right to control their enterprises' destiny and to dispose of the coal produced by their hard labor."

Yevsyukov said that the miners want to use the coal they produce above the governmental quotas to conclude barter deals for consumer goods and, if it is exported, to use foreign currency earned for the social needs of the city and region.

In Prokopyevsk, Legachev also said that the key issue is local worker control of the mines. The workers would set their own production schedules to meet government orders but would be free to sell above-plan production and use the money, including highly prized foreign exchange, as they wished.

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