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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Miners: A Special Case Of the Social Contract

Miners are special wherever they remain. In the deep coal mines of the American east, communities (and their industrial action) remain rooted in the 19th century; in Britain, they endured a year-long strike under terrible leadership before submitting to a closure plan; in Romania a year after the fall of Ceausescu, they were summoned to the capital during an election campaign to bolster the ruling party by their intimidation of liberals and intellectuals.

Their distinguishing feature is usually their singularity. In capitalist countries, they are generally solidly on the left-socialist or communist side. But in communist countries, they have often been at the forefront of the anti-communist movement - as in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

This is most of all true in Russia. Here, they played and still play an extraordinary role - as the working class guarantors of the morality of the Yeltsin government. Having deserted communism in the later eighties, they embraced Yeltsin in 1990-91 - an embrace which on their part has become desperate and on his, stifling.

Miners are nearly always, sooner or later, supplicants to government - and usually in a big way. For them, the natural bargain in an advanced society is that, in return for work more dangerous and tough than any other occupation, they receive high pay, social benefits, and job security. The latter's significance is increased in that in most societies they live in communities in which they dominate employment and the social structure. Closing pits usually means "closing" communities - or necessitating their restructuring.

Russia's communities are typical of this. The miners of the Kuzbass, of Karaganda and, most of all, of Vorkuta live in communities in which they wholly dominate. What other industry there is is usually integrally linked to the pits or serves it. Often the literal descendants of convicts (in Karaganda and Vorkuta) they now receive high wages but often live in sub-standard housing and work in appalling conditions.

Many of these pits are hopelessly uneconomic - they produce coal at a price which entails very high subsidies to make it affordable to the end user. In Vorkuta, whose Arctic circle temperatures mean vast expenditures simply to keep humans going, subsidies put the cost of the high-quality coking coal above world prices.

The government has a program, of sorts, which entails closing over 10 of the 250-plus pits in the country to the end of the century. It is said to have started; and indeed, in the northern part of the Vorkuta district, a pit, Khammer Yu, is "closing" - which means it works fewer days, but the workers receive their pay. Khammer Yu is in a pit village whose population entirely depends on the pit: Since no one is about to move any alternative employment in, the closure means a removal program for thousands of families - which does not exist. Both the republican (Komi) government, and the central authorities, seem paralyzed. Will things change after an election?

Sooner or later, they must. Coal kills those who work it, but is also death to budgets - an endlessly expensive commodity which can never be brought under budgetary control because its communitarian and political base is nearly always stronger than its financial one. Coal is high up in the "in" pile of the future government. It will be a tough number.

John Lloyd is Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times.