Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Coal Miners to Lead Way in Nationwide Strike

Leaders of Russia's beleaguered coal industry said Thursday that miners would "lead the way" in a one-day nationwide strike set for Nov. 5, part of their increasingly desperate campaign to force Moscow to pay its debts.

"Tension has passed the critical point," Leonid Astafyev, president of the Association of Mayors of Mining Cities, said Thursday. "In some places, such as Kuzbass, alternative power structures are being formed, so-called salvation committees, which are attempting to take over the role of executive power."

Vitaly Budko, chairman of the Russian Independent Union of Coal Industry Workers, or Rosugleprof, said "at least 85 percent" of his 780,000 members would lay down their picks next Tuesday to protest wage arrears of 1.1 trillion rubles ($202 million) owed by the federal government.

Rosugleprof, which represents some 90 percent of the coal industry workforce, demands that Moscow pay miners their back wages or face the prospect of an open-ended strike at every pit in Russia, Budko said.

Strikes continue at seven pits in the Tula region, in the Urals, and at individual pits in Kuzbass, a major coal-producing area in central Siberia centered on the city of Kemerovo. The Tula miners, Budko said, would stay off the job until the Nov. 5 strike, organized by the Federation of Independent Trade Unions.

Nor will miners limit themselves to work stoppages in their fight for back wages. Astafyev said that Mikhail Kislyuk, governor of Kemerovo Oblast in the heart of the Kuzbass region, had forbidden the shipment of coal outside the oblast's borders.

"Moscow may not feel this soon, because it has largely been converted to gas, but other regions which heat with Kuzbass coal -- 40 percent of Russia's coal -- will feel the pinch very quickly when there is no heat or electricity. By comparison, the crisis in Primorsky Krai last summer will seem like child's play," he said.

Several major power stations in Kemerovo Oblast ran short of coal this week, shutting down some power grids and forcing others to ration electricity. This nearly led to catastrophe Wednesday when more than 1,000 miners were briefly trapped underground in Mezhdurechensk after power was cut off.

Strikes have hit 3,767 enterprises to date in 1996, the State Statistics Committee told Itar-Tass, and 356,000 people have walked off the job, costing a total of 1.87 million man-hours through September. The coal industry has been hardest hit. Wage arrears have been the main cause for the strikes in all industries.

Rosugleprof announced a nationwide strike in late August, but 11th-hour negotiations with the government averted the stoppage. At the time, Moscow promised to pay all back wages, which then exceeded 2 trillion rubles, according to Rosugol, the state-owned coal monopoly. Those promises, Budko said, proved empty.

Nonpayment of wages is not the only crisis facing mining areas, Astafyev said. Under a 1992 decree, local governments now foot the bill for housing, utilities and other social programs once covered by the mining companies. For the last year, however, there has been almost no money to meet these expenses.

Because of this failure, the World Bank could withhold a second, $250 million dollar tranche of its loan program aimed at reforming Russia's coal industry. The first tranche was released in July; under the loan agreement it was supposed to go to local governments for the miners' needs. But Astafyev said little of it had been received.

The miners will be joined Nov. 5 by nearly a million civilians employed by the Russian Armed Forces. Union leaders and some 500 workers staged a rally Thursday on Moscow's Pushkin Square to protest their own wage arrears of 7 trillion rubles.

Spartak Arzhavkin, chairman of the Federation of Trade Unions of Workers and Personnel in the Russian Armed Forces, which represents some 850,000 members, demanded the government pay back wages to civilians and soldiers, and that increased funds be allocated to cover wages in the 1997 budget.

"Many people who live on military bases have been forced to dig through dumpsters looking for food. This situation is unconscionable," said Pyotr Kravtsov, a union leader from the military construction division of the Northern Fleet.

"What is the government thinking? This was one of the mightiest fleets in the world, and now its combat readiness has been reduced to naught."