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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Miners Blast State As Strike Goes On

KEMEROVO, Central Siberia -- Hundreds of thousands of miners struck for a second day across Russia on Friday, leading angry nationwide protests over unpaid wages, as the government showed signs of caving in to workers' demands, but failed to reach an agreement.

Miners here in the Kuzbass heartland of Russia's coal-mining industry were furious at the news that talks in Moscow between the government and union leaders had ended without result Friday.

"What, we don't have anything to go out and tell the people!" declared Gennady Mikhailets, the regional miners union head, after hearing the inconclusive result of the union's talks in Moscow with Kadannikov. "They reached zero, zero, absolute zero."

Seventy-three out of 101 mines in the Kuzbass heartland had ceased operations Friday night, while extraction was sporadic at many other locations.

Across the country about half a million miners remained on strike and 118 of the nation's 182 mines shut down, miners union leaders said, in the largest job action since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Vitaly Budko, head of the coal miners union, held talks in Moscow with new First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Kadannikov and Yury Malyshev, head of the Rosugol state coal-mining monopoly. He said afterward the session had been "useful and constructive," but the two sides failed to reach a final agreement.

"He understands the problems of industry rather well and he is easy to deal with," Budko said in an interview about Kadannikov, who, until last month, was the chief of the struggling AvtoVAZ carmaker.

But "Kadannikov said the government could not make a decision earlier than Wednesday, and we decided to continue striking," Budko said.

Miners are pressing for at least 1 trillion rubles in back pay after rejecting a government offer last week of 600 billion rubles ($126.6 million) in arrears. They also are calling working or lose their jobs and see the mines close, Mikhailets said.

"We hope that the strike will stop," said Nina Semionova, head of the union at the Severnaya mine about 10 kilometers outside Kemerovo. "On the one hand we understand it is necessary, but on the other, it's killing us."

Miners in the Kuzbass region struck for two weeks in 1989, and 1991 saw a six-week walkout. This year, however, is the first winter strike in the history of the region.

It comes at a time when coal reserves in some parts of the country are low and winter demand for heat and electricity is high, a combination that could have catastrophic effects on the economy and gives the miners leverage in their bargaining with the government.

Nikolai Peters, director general of the Kuzbass-Energo Electricity Co., said reserves at the local Yuzhno-Kuzbask power station were down to 12,000 tons Friday, compared to a usual total of 450,000 tons.

The plant used 6,000 tons of coal Friday night and the regional miners trade union told two mines -- Kiroea and Kolchuginskaya -- to ship 5,000 tons to the station to keep it going through the weekend.

Not all miners in the region have heeded the union's call for industrial action.

Workers at the Bulovskaya mine started their day as normal Thursday and continued coal production Friday.

Bulovskaya is one of the few mines in the region that has survived the harsh changes of the market economy and even plans to invest in construction of a new pit, Semionova said.

At the nearby Pervomaiskaya mine -- where 15 miners were killed in an underground methane explosion last September -- the local government is playing a strong hand, apparently under pressure from the Russian coal monopoly, Rosugol.

"The administration tried to scare them, saying they would lose their jobs. Some went to work, others went on strike," Mikhailets said.

Leninskugol Coal Co. in the south Kuzbass region kept production at 4,000 tons a day to supply coal to power stations, he said.

The miners were gloomy, disheartened and bitter.

"All of my clothes are old. I'd like to buy something new before summer, but there's no money," Vladimir Buza, 50, said bitterly as he sat in a rusty wagon ready to take him down a tunnel in the Severnaya mine.

Despite being bitter at the government and saying he would vote for a Communist in the June presidential election, Buza was busy working Friday to supply coal to a nearby boiling station.

Budko tried to strike a moderate tone. "We understand that today is winter and we don't want to freeze the whole country," he said. "But our demands are not something senseless, and we hope the government will take a decision soon."

Rosugol spokeswoman Galina Suvorova said the company sympathizes with the miners' demands, but "cannot support their radical methods they use."

Analysts say a quick government capitulation could lead to its own problems.

"It could easily cause a wave of strikes in other Russian industries which underwent similar problems," said Yaroslav Lisovolik of the Russian-European Economic Expert Group.

-- Anton Zhigulsky in Moscow contributed to this report.