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Workers in Russia Strike for Back Pay

November 06, 1996|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IZHEVSK, Russia — Hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets Tuesday, showing that President Boris N. Yeltsin faces more troubles even if he fully recovers from heart bypass surgery.

Teachers, factory workers, miners and members of the military--the backbone of the nation in Soviet days, but now the stragglers in Russia's race for wealth--organized a nationwide day of protest against the government's failure to pay their wages virtually since the day Yeltsin was reelected four months ago.

"Maybe when he [Yeltsin] gets over this operation, he will be in a better position to feel our pain and do something about it," said Eduard A. Polyakov, a union activist. By coincidence, Yeltsin's surgery occurred the same day as the protests, which had been scheduled two weeks earlier.

Interior Ministry figures showed that nearly 320,000 people took part in protests held in dozens of cities nationwide.

In Moscow, tens of thousands marched in the rain to Red Square, where hot dog stalls and ritzy stores now compete for attention with Lenin's Tomb and the onion domes of Kremlin cathedrals.

"Give Us Our Money Back," read signs in the Moscow crowd. According to the Federation of Independent Unions of Russia, the government owes workers about $7 billion in unpaid wages and social benefits.

In the iron cold of impoverished central Russia, thousands of half-employed, half-paid, hungry protesters from the gun factories of Izhevsk, about 600 miles east of Moscow, gathered in threadbare coats and balding fur hats to complain that a life of layoffs and late wages had become unbearable.

"This must be the only country in the world where people work for nothing," said Vladimir I. Kuzmin, a 41-year-old metalworker from the giant Izhmash gun factory, which is working at half capacity now that the end of the Cold War has killed off demand. "What do I care if Yeltsin dies? He's brought the rest of the country to its knees."

Looking passive and depressed, middle-aged men listened to speeches booming through loudspeakers or quietly compared notes on the humiliation of coming home to their wives every day without wages. Some residents, oblivious to the crowd, rooted through garbage cans in search of food.

"This is the first mass action since perestroika in the 1980s in which all social organizations have joined forces to show their strength," Viktor M. Yegovkin, deputy leader of the union federation, said in Izhevsk.

Unions, employers and government representatives resume talks in Moscow today, and unionists hope the protest will give them extra leverage.

Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, running Russia while Yeltsin recuperates, duly promised that back wages will be paid when the government's crackdown on overdue taxpayers generates enough revenue--but he showed little sympathy for the protesters.

"Of course, it's not good that people aren't getting their wages," Chernomyrdin briskly told picketers with whom he spoke briefly in Red Square. "But when I'm told that 100,000 people will take part in protests during working hours, how will that help us?"

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