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Soviet Coal Miners Union Could Become Second Largest Mass Organization

October 26, 1990

DONETSK, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ Hundreds of hopeful coal miners created the Soviet Union’s first nationwide independent trade union Friday, unanimously accepting an ambitious plan to reduce government control over their lives.

The new Association of Independent Unions of Miners will act as an umbrella organization for an unlimited number of local unions. Membership could include 2 million miners and an unknown number of students, engineers, rescue workers and others who work at the country’s 600 mines.

It could become the country’s largest mass organization outside the 18 million-member Communist Party.

The new confederation, created during the second nationwide miners’ congress in this industrial Ukrainian city, plans to use national strikes to push its demands, which range from better medical care and mining equipment to profit-sharing and higher salaries.

The 900 delegates to the congress put off calling any strikes until the parliament of the Russian Federation, the largest Soviet republic, finishes its special session in December.

The union registered its first victory just hours after its formation when a deputy minister of the coal industry agreed to dispatch a special commission to investigate complaints about unfair firings at several mines.

However, the new union still faces several hurdles in establishing itself.

The Soviet coal industry and its official union administer dozens of schools, hospitals, vacation resorts and housing complexes, in addition to mines and mineral processing factories. Miners have become accustomed to the state-provided services, and the new union has yet to decide which of the tasks it can or should try to take over.

It was also unclear how many miners might join the new union or remain loyal to the official one.

″We have created a new union, but the old one still exists,″ Konstantin Fesenko, a miner from Donetsk, told the congress. ″The old and new unions at some point might negotiate to come together, but the current apparatchiks must go first.″

The delegates, many of whom fear for their jobs without government guarantees and subsidies, were deadlocked for most of the congress over whether and how to create an independent union.

The impasse was broken when a group of 130 miners, fed up with the delays, split Thursday night to form an independent union led by radicals from the Kuznetsk Basin, a mining region in western Siberia.

On Friday morning, the congress voted by unanimous show of hands to absorb the radicals’ union into its new, much larger confederation.

Vyacheslav Golikov, leader of the radicals, drafted a charter that became the basis of the new confederation. It calls for the union to ″represent and defend miners’ interests″ in negotiations with the government, take actions based on a consensus of its members, administer a strike fund and set up a bank for the miners.

On Friday, the congress approved the charter and created a 20-member executive bureau to plan the union’s first conference. No date or location was set.

Miners were told to return home to solicit members for the new local unions that will, in turn, elect representatives to a union legislature.

The union will be funded by deductions from miners’ monthly wages, which average $673, about one-third more than the national average.

Delegates at the congress represented hundreds of workers’ committees that sprang up during a series of strikes across the country in 1989. The biggest wave of strikes that summer threatened nearly half the country’s energy supplies and forced concessions from the government, including promises to improve safety equipment and supplies of consumer goods.

However, the miners say many of the promises have not been kept. At their first congress in June, they demanded the resignation of the national Council of Ministers, or cabinet, led by Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov.

″The central government has not fulfilled its promises,″ said Alexander Sergeyev, a Kuznetsk miner. ″Now we demand financial and material support from the government during the country’s ‘transition to a market economy.’ The official union also must give back dues to workers who are leaving to join our new union.″

In a parallel congress in Moscow this week, the official Central Council of Trade Unions voted to reconstitute itself as a voluntary organization. Previously, all trade unions had been required to belong to it.

Organizers of the Donetsk congress denounced the central council’s move as a facade to hide continuing government control of unions. A representative of the council told the congress Friday that the council’s leaders would meet soon to decide whether to recognize the new union.

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