On 4 October 1989, a new legislation regulating the right to strike came into force in the USSR. This was both a result of and a trigger for confrontation between the powerful Soviet bureaucracy and the workers in the country. The new law entailed a ban on strikes in industries considered essential to the well-being of the state, such as coalfields, energy and transportation, as well as explicitly political strikes in other industries. Only in the previous July, a large-scale strike of coal miners followed by considerable disruptions in the running of the industry had led to the necessity of reviewing strike law.
One should remember that this partial ban on strikes was a testimony and in many ways a product of an era of serious changes in the USSR. Under the Gorbachev government, an opening towards the West through wide-ranging political, economic and social reforms was attempted. Glasnost (‘transparency’) and perestroika (‘transformation’) were the key words at the time. Many members of the Soviet bureaucracy were convinced that, in order to achieve those goals, a major nationwide effort was indispensable.
The original idea had thus been a prohibition on any strikes until 1991, as a guarantee of a smooth functioning of the state’s industries. Gorbachev justified the restrictions on a crucial workers’ right, saying that: “We must avoid our reforms being taken hostage. These measures are being taken to prevent the escalation of a process, which if unchecked, can affect everything that we are doing.”
The proposal of the law came with a debate between advocates and opponents within Soviet bureaucracy, as well as pressure from the working class, who were, unsurprisingly, not in favour of a ban on strikes. As a consequence, the final bill was a watered down version of the original proposal, which was criticised by many. While some people – for example Leonid Abalkin, one of Gorbachev’s closest advisors – feared this would pose a threat to the well-being of the state and the reform programme, others considered it a significant step towards pluralism and a practice of finding solutions through compromise.
Bearing in mind the context, the law was arguably a creditable example of compromise. However, the immediate reaction of those affected by it was not favourable to Gorbachev’s reform plans; due to a protest involving thousands of workers, thirteen mines in the Vorkuta region alone had to be temporarily closed.
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