The Soviet Worker
on the World Today
A BRITISH newspaper correspondent, recently returned from eighteen months in Moscow, describes the Soviet Union as a tangle of paradoxes. “Whatever one’s prejudices about the Soviet regime and the Russian people, for or against,” he writes, “there are incontrovertible facts to be found in Moscow to prove them to the hilt.”
The extreme contradictions of Soviet life are nowhere more apparent than in the sphere of labor relations. By an appropriate selection of lacts, one may draw a picture of the Soviet worker as a slave of the state and its bureaucracy or as a protected and privileged member of the ruling class. The truth lies somewhere in between.
The oppressive restraints upon the Soviet worker’s freedom of movement are well known. Under legislation of 1940 still in force, a worker who is more than twenty minutes late for work is subject to a fine of 25 per cent of his monthly wages for six months; and a worker who leaves his job without the director’s permission is subject to imprisonment for two to four months. Labor books, in which dismissals, penalties, and other data are entered, are required to be kept for each worker. Social insurance benefits are dependent upon length of continuous employment in the same enterprise.
Although there has been no general mobilization of labor, except during the war, the law permits compulsory transfer of engineers, technicians, bookkeepers, economists, and other specialists, as well as certain skilled workers. Also, some 700,000 youths of fourteen are conscripted annually into the State Labor Reserves, where they are trained until they are seventeen and then sent for several years to whatever job the authorities desire. In addition, there are the corrective-labor camps, in which convicts serve as a labor force for work projects of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Soldiers on the labor front
The scarcity of labor, and especially of skilled labor, in view of the heavy production demands made upon factory directors by the state, has facilitated widespread evasion of some of the restrictive laws. The press complains about malingering, absenteeism, and heavy labor turnover. Labor books are easily lost; directors in need of workers do not ask too many questions and are reluctant to press charges. Furthermore, the law prohibits lateness, absenteeism, or unauthorized quitting only when committed “without adequate reason.” In interpreting this phrase, the courts have accepted medical and other excuses. They have sustained the right of a mother to leave her job, even without the director’s permission, in order to take care of her children.
In the case of a worker who had served his imprisonment for unauthorized quitting, and who still refused to go back to his old job, a Soviet court has held that the labor contract was dissolved by the worker’s earlier departure, even though it was unlawful, and that therefore he did not have to return. Thus the Soviet worker, in struggling against the bonds of immobility, may receive help from the manager, the doctor, and the lawyer.
On balance, however, even apart from the new graduates of the State Labor Reserves and the inmates of the labor camps, Soviet workers can hardly be called free by American standards. Constitutional duties, implemented by specific criminal laws, make the Soviet worker more like a soldier or, as the Soviets say, “a fighter on the labor front.”
Rewards for initiative
The Soviet worker has considerable freedom to improve his condition by his own effort and ability. There is a nation-wide system of differentiated progressive scales of piece rates, with bonuses for extra efficiency for individual branches of industry and individual categories of workers. Thus the average wage for coal miners is about two and onehalf times ihe average wage for workers generally; some coal miners — so-called shock workers and Stakhanovites — may earn as much as thirty times the general average. “Especially valuable specialists and practitioners” may receive “personal salaries" of an arbitrary amount outside any scale.
“Heroes of Soviet Labor” and recipients of prizes such as the Order of Lenin receive special financial benefits. Workers’ inventions and suggestions for rationalizing production are rewarded generously. Extra profits of enterprises provide sources of bonuses and increased wages.
Individualism. Soviet style
The extent to which the Soviet system encourages so-called socialist competition among workers is illustrated by a 1947 decree on the wages and salaries of personnel in stores and shops, Cashiers, bookkeepers, janitors, and other persons not directly connected with selling receive fixed wages ranging from 175 to 560 rubles per month; in addition, it they work in the store they receive 1 per cent of their monthly wages for each per cent of profit made by the enterprise.
The manager of the store is paid a bonus ranging from .10 to .23 per cent of the turnover. Salesmen are also paid bonuses based on their actual sales — 5.1 per cent for toys and books, .4 per cent for shoes, .3 percent for clothes, 2.6 per cent for perfumes and toilet articles, 1.4 per cent for other goods.
The emphasis upon rugged individualism among workers has created a labor aristocracy of the strong and skillful. Despite the shortage of consumer goods, the labor aristocrat is able to purchase the better grades of clothing and some luxury goods.
Apart from liberty and equality there is the question of fraternity. So acute an observer as Sir John Maynard has spoken of the “ ‘ws’-feeling" in the Soviet factory, and the “sense of ownness" among the workers. Others have said that Sov iet factories “belong" to the workers. Neither in political theory nor in law can the Soviet workers be said to own the factories. In modern Soviet theory the state is identified with the entire Soviet people– the so-called toilers, including “workers, peasants and intelligentsia"— so that it would be just as true to say that the peasants or the managers own the factories. And in Soviet law the workers have, as regards the factory, none of the rights of possession, use, or disposition which are associated with ownership.
Management of a Soviet factory is legally the monopoly of the factorydirector. In actual practice the triangle of director, secretary of the factory’s party organization, and chairman of the union factory committee, which was officially in control in the early thirties, has continued to exist informally in many plants. However, although he is subject to controls from above, it is entirely within the director’s discretion whether or not to consult with anyone else.
Soviet labor unions
The trade union cannot lawfully interfere in the hiring of labor, in planning production or expansion, or in determining contractual relations with supplier or purchaser enterprises. In regard to dismissals, job classification, transfers of workers, and payment of wages, the union has only an indirect voice through the system of arbitration of grievances.
The Soviet trade union is a state organization. Its main job is the administration of social insurance and of workers’ welfare generally, and the exhortation of the workers to increase productivity. Although strikes have occasionally occurred in the Soviet Union, any union leaders who support a strike run a grave risk of indictment for breach of labor discipline if not for sabotage.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to conclude that the Soviet state identifies itself solely with management. Management, too, is a state organization under severe limitations of independence and power. The state imposes upon it important obligations toward the workers.
In the inevitable conflicts between management and labor, the union plays an important role in protecting workers’ rights. When workers’ grievances against management reach the courts, as they often do, the workers are entitled to the free services of a union lawyer, and the cases — those officially reported as well as those recounted bysome former lawyers who have fled the Soviet Union — show the Soviet courts to be in general favorable to the workers.
For example, a worker who was fired sued for reinstatement and back pay on the ground that the real reason for his dismissal was the fact that he had criticized the working conditions of the plant at union meetings and in the company newspaper.
The management argued that the worker was fired because he refused to be transferred to another plant of the same trust, and that the Labor Code permits dismissal on that ground. The court granted reinstatement, finding that the transfer was prompted by the management’s desire to get rid of a man who had criticized it. It held that the provision of the Labor Code which permits dismissal for refusal to be transferred must be interpreted to refer only to transfers “in the interests of the business.”
The Labor Codegives management the right to dismiss a worker “in the event that he shows his unsuitability for the work.”Although this provision might be interpreted as giving management full discretion to determine, in good faith, the worker’s unsuitability, the courts review the manager’s decision and have often ordered reinstatement on the ground that the worker was in fact competent.
These and other labor cases– involving job classification, vacation pay, severance pay, and similar matters– do not come before the courts automatically but are decided first in a grievance procedure by an arbitration board consisting of an equal number of representatives of union and management. If the representatives fail to reach an agreement, the worker may take the case to the People’s Court. Once in the courts, the case may go all the way to the Supreme Courl of the U.S.S.R.
A striking feature of such litigation is the protection of the worker against expense and delay. The worker who appears as a plaintiff in a labor case is exempt from the payment of court costs and is entitled to the free services of the union lawyer. The court must hear the case not later than five days after the action is begun. A decision in favor of the worker is subject to immediate execution to the extent of a month’s wages. If, after the worker is paid, the favorable decision is reversed by a higher court, the sum paid (and indeed any sum mistakenly paid to a worker by management) may not be recovered from him, on the ground that “the limited budget of a worker should not be upset.”
It is in the interest of the Soviet state, of course, to foster a spirit of teamwork between management and labor. Managerial personnel of a state enterprise belong to the union local, and both the director and the union chairman are almost always members of the Communist Party. Moreover, the union is supposed to strive to increase the efficiency and productivity of the enterprise, while management is supposed to improve workers’ housing (often supplied by the enterprise), health and safety conditions, and welfare in general.
However, too much teamwork may meet with disapproval from above. There have been complaints in the press that “in some factories businesslike relations (between management and union) are supplanted by domesticity and mutual back-scratching.” In the collective contract required to be drawn up annually in each enterprise, both sides are encouraged to make demands upon each other.
For example, in a typical collective contract signed in 1951 for the Moscow Food Combine “Mikoyan,” the union promised a 3 per cent raise in efficiency, and management promised to mechanize the carrying of raw materials between certain departments, to repair the clubroom, and to improve dining facilities, especially for the night shifts.
Wages are not subject to bargaining; however, the pledges of management to introduce certain machines, or to establish a certain number of schools for teaching workers methods of increasing productivity, are in effect a means of raising wages, in view of the system of piece rates.
Although there is no legal enforcement of the collective contracts, meetings of the whole collective are supposed to be held every three months for mass supervision of their fulfillment. Workers’ criticisms at these meetings and in letters to the press may be sharp, and names may be named.
The Soviet worker may actively participate in the total life of the factory. He shares directly both its responsibilities and its benefits. Although it is not true to say that the factory belongs to him, he belongs to the factory, and his sense of belonging gives him status. It is this status which explains both the hardships to which he is subjected and the protection which he is accorded.