NOVOKUZNETSK, Soviet Union — It was almost two years ago when a group of miners from this filthy, smokestack-filled Siberian city made their first visit to the magnificent chambers of the Kremlin.
These miners--who had organized the first major labor protest their country had seen in decades--were negotiating in the halls of power. Although clumsy with words and seeming as out of place as a Politburo member would have been in one of their shafts, they had the clear advantage. Half a million men were refusing to go back to their jobs until the government gave them better working and living conditions.
What the miners found in Moscow was a shock: The men who for almost three-quarters of a century had ruled in the name of the Soviet working class had no notion of what the nation's proletariat really wanted, much less how to deliver it.
That was in 1989. Now, fresh from yet another massive work stoppage, the miners are looking ahead to finally being able to run their own affairs, and even touting a plan to replace those uncomprehending men in the Kremlin with a coalition government styled after the Polish round-table talks which ultimately put the Solidarity movement in power in that country.
"When we went to the Kremlin during the first strike, we quickly learned there was no one there capable of handling the economy and making our lives better," said Anatoly Malykhin, a cocksure Siberian who is the closest thing this country's miners have to a spiritual leader. "We saw that the whole structure was wrong."
That first strike won for the miners government pledges to improve living standards and provide safer working conditions. But despite those promises, many miners and their families are still living in barracks built here 45 years ago for Nazi prisoners--barracks with only two communal toilets for 100 people. More than 600 miners are still killed on the job each year.
So when workers in the Kuznetsk basin of western Siberia launched their second major strike this spring, they set their goals far higher. They skipped the economic demands this time and declared their intention of uprooting the system that has proved itself incapable of giving them a decent life.
For two months, as many as 300,000 miners from the Pacific coast to the Western Ukraine boycotted their jobs--demanding Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's resignation, the abolition of the national Parliament and the establishment of a new coalition government made up of the leaders of the various Soviet republics, democratic movements and labor unions.
Although these specific demands were not met, the coal workers went back to their jobs last week having won independence for their mines, which had been under the control of the central government bureaucracy. The miners remain determined to play a continuing political role at the local, republican, and national level, and according to some analysts, they've already turned the tide of Soviet politics.
Before the strike, conservative forces in the Soviet Union appeared to have gained the upper hand. A progressive 500-day plan to move to a market economy was spiked by conservatives and Gorbachev himself. Several top liberal advisers or allies of Gorbachev were fired. Soviet troops and police cracked down in the Baltics, killing unarmed citizens, and Gorbachev proposed harsh new measures to restore order.
"Without the strike there would have been a crackdown," said a Moscow-based Western diplomat who is an expert in Soviet labor movement. "It would have been back to the freezer--the end of perestroika.
"It sounds dramatic, but it's perfectly true," added the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "When conservatives began to see real mass participation in the strike and that the miners' tenacity was having an effect on the rest of the labor force, they realized that the democratic movement was not only a movement of small groups of intellectuals in Moscow and Leningrad."
Moreover, this time, unlike in 1989, the miners were not alone. Two brief strikes at dozens of large Byelorussian factories, a brief labor action in the Ukraine and a symbolic one-hour work stoppage across Russia showed for the first time that the democratic movement has a broad base among blue-collar workers.
"It's no longer just a miners' movement--it's a workers' movement," Malykhin said. "And it's very organized. That was demonstrated by our strike. When the strike started, some regions had only economic demands, but we in the Kuzbass (Kuznetsk basin) had only political demands. Within two weeks, we were all united behind the political demands. Then workers in other industries started supporting us."
By launching their strike when they did, the miners gave the radical leader of the Russian Federation, Boris N. Yeltsin, the support he needed going into a crucial session of the Russian Parliament, where conservatives were planning to call for his resignation.