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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Coal Union Threatens to Strike

Russia's largest coal industry union announced Tuesday it would call a nationwide strike Aug. 25 unless the federal government met a series of demands, including the payment of some 1.7 trillion rubles ($325 million) in back wages to miners.

Vitaly Budko, chairman of the Russian Independent Union of Coal Industry Workers, said the situation in Russia's coal industry had reached a "catastrophic limit," and unless the government paid its debts to miners in full, the union's 780,000 members -- 90 percent of the industry's workforce -- would lay down their picks indefinitely Aug. 25, the national holiday of Russian miners.

"It is clear that the situation has now reached the point where a social explosion is possible," Budko said.

The union leadership sent an open letter to President Boris Yeltsin on Tuesday, calling on him "to take personal control over the coal industry, which was and will remain the foundation of the Russian economy. This must be done without delay in the name of fairness and socio-political stability in the country."

Some 11,000 miners have been on strike in the Primorsky Territory in Russia's Far East for nearly a month, although a spokesman for the local coal mining company, Primorskugol, told Interfax all mines had resumed work Tuesday after miners were promised partial payment of back wages.

Yury Malyshev, head of the state-run coal company Rosugol, who traveled to the region with Fuel and Energy Minister Yury Shafrannik to resolve the strike, promised the miners 38.5 billion rubles within the week, and full compensation by year's end, Interfax reported. Miners were owed five months' back pay, over 230 billion rubles, when they struck.

At least 30,000 miners in the Rostov region continued their week-long strike at 19 pits Tuesday, and Itar-Tass reported that the union local in Vorkuta in the Russian Far North voted to strike as of Thursday at all regional coal-related enterprises. The miners of Vorkuta ceased a previous strike only in April.

The union made four demands of the government Tuesday, announcing that if all four were not met, a nationwide strike would be called. In addition to payment of the 1.7 trillion rubles in back wages from the federal budget, the union called on the government "to ensure the payment of debts from consumers" of coal, which he estimated at 6 trillion rubles. Energy producers "completely stopped paying us three months ago," Budko said, acknowledging that the country's power plants also "had it tough."

"The illness in the coal industry today is not unique to it," said Budko's deputy, Ruben Badalov. "It is common to the whole economy. Therefore to demand a cure for this illness from the miners is not right. Only the government can cure it, and it must do so with a complex approach," he said.

The union required the government to take "concrete measures" to guarantee that consumers would pay their bills in future and to form a financial oversight commission for the coal industry which would include representatives of the unions.

Budko said miners had no choice but to strike because the government planned to cut its payments to the coal industry by more than half. In the six months of 1996, the government allocated some 758 billion rubles per month to the coal industry, he said.

"But for the second half of the year, the coal industry is allocated only 250 billion rubles per month in government support. In July we received 370 billion rubles -- less than half what we received monthly in the first half of the year," he said.

Igor Kozhukhovsky, who oversees the coal industry for the Economics Ministry, declined to comment on the union's demands or the likelihood that the government could come up with such a large sum before Aug. 25, saying that the matter was "still being investigated."

Budko said union locals would be put on "pre-strike status" Wednesday, and workers would vote on whether to join the nationwide strike.

In addition to its call for the president to take the nation's coal miners under his wing, the union will appeal to the State Duma and Federation Council to look into the socio-economic situation in Russia's coal-mining regions, Budko said. Materials on the "systematic delays in payment of wages" would also be presented to the Prosecutor General.