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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: Rail Strikes Must Run Full Course




The harsh budget cuts that will be needed to cope with the current financial crisis are certain to lead to more protests by angry unpaid workers. The government will have to exercise a lot of patience and err on the side of democracy in handling them.


In Moscow on Wednesday, the Vorkuta coal miners continued their vigil outside the White House where every morning for the past month they have banged their helmets on the Gorbaty Bridge in protest against wage arrears.


Just across town, a group of defense workers from across Russia rallied Wednesday on Arbat Square, also demanding back pay.


And in the remote Kuzbass region in Siberia, miners have for the second time this summer blocked the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Although some passenger and mail trains are being let through, the flow of heavy traffic along one of Russia's crucial arteries has been restricted for a week and the cost is now rising into millions of dollars.


The government has responded to these protests by meeting their leaders, hearing their demands, but, in the main, sticking by its position that it will not promise what it cannot deliver. The miners in particular are being told that it is not the government, but the individual coal companies, that owe them money.


The government can do little more except tough it out and hope to find a compromise.


The city of Moscow may regard the straggly coal miners' camp in the center of Moscow as an embarrassment at a time when the city is playing host to the showcase event of the World Youth Olympics.


But the miners, despite their helmet-banging antics, are engaging in the sort of peaceful protest that is essential to any democracy.


The protests by the coal miners in the Kuzbass pose a trickier problem.


Surely, by damaging innocent companies and workers who depend on the rail line, the miners have gone beyond what in most societies would be regarded as an exercise of normal democratic rights?


The Russian government has vaguely raised the threat of bringing criminal charges against the Kuzbass miners for obstructing a transport artery that is protected by federal law.


In fact, this is not the time for gung-ho action. All over the world, the balance between the right of workers to protest and the rights of the general public is a delicate one.


The miners themselves are aware of the damage they are causing and will eventually be forced to abandon their protest by the force of local public opinion.