The Role of Trade Unions in the Soviet Union

From Is The Red Flag Flying

The basic functions of Soviet trade unions include: 1) taking part in drafting, discussing and examining the production plan of the enterprise; 2) participating in drafting new systems of wages and fixing wage scales, 3) establishing obligatory safety rules and norms; 4) participating in drafting legislation on labour conditions; 5) promoting active forms of worker participation in solving production problems; 6) encouraging workers’ initiative in the introduction of new techniques, inventions and rationalization of production; 7) managing much of the social insurance and welfare programmes including funeral allocations, help with childcare, free legal aid, subsidies for special diets, places in sanatoriums, sickness benefits, retraining expenses and housing; 8) organizing cultural, recreational and sports activities including tourism (the unions own and manage resorts for their members), music events, dances, artistic programmes, films, educational programmes, lectures, etc.; 9) organising meetings of workers in the enterprise at which management must report and be scrutinized [these meetings were described as excruciating for management according to western observers] 10) approving or rejecting the dismissal of workers 11) discussing the correct use of work time and personnel, and methods for increasing labor discipline and productivity; 12) establishing collective agreements with management on production quotas, methods of production, allocation of workers, etc.; and 13) checking up on management’s compliance with the collective agreements and labour laws.

The Soviet view of trade unions is that they should perform this dual role of directly representing the interests of production workers and advancing the quality and quantity of production for the benefit of the working class as a whole. If in fact the Soviet Union is a socialist society, there is no antagonistic relationship between the interests of the state and management and the one hand and the workers on the other. Therefore both goals can be realized at the same time. Thus an evaluation of the union’s role in advancing the interests of production hinges on one’s evaluation of whether there exists in the Soviet Union an exploiting class that derives a disproportionate benefit from increases in production at the expense of the working class as a whole.

As international and domestic pressure decreased, more and more decision-making and influence was extended to workers in their workplaces. Ernst Mandel (a Trotskyist who was generally opposed to the USSR) said that 40-50% of workers said that they actively and regularly participate in organizations in the factory where they work, and this number generally increased over the course of the USSR. studies in yugoslavia found that only around 50% of workers were interested in decision-making in their places of work, so this number shouldn’t be seen as too low.

more formal systems of workers control don’t result in a more democratic factory life. in Yugoslavia when it was in its least-centralized state (after the reforms of 1965), 87% of the proposals were initiated by those with advanced technical education and only 5% were initiated by blue-collar workers. the highly educated people utterly dominated factory life. 98% of the proposals from highly educated people were accepted without modification. only 8% of people agreed that workers councils played a leading role in the direction of the factory.

Compare this to the USSR, where 13-24% of managers and specialists, 32-45% of skilled machinists, 32-67% of skilled manual workers, and 67% of unskilled workers said that they felt that they had no influence over their work collectives. While there was certainly room for improvement, the Yugoslav experience tells us that official worker council control tells us very little about actual dynamics.

Except for the illegal second economy, which bloomed under the revisionist leadership of Khrushchev and his successors, there wasn’t an exploiting class. The difference in wages and benefits that the highest echelons of the Soviet bureaucracy and unskilled workers was about the same as the differences in wages and benefits between skilled workers and unskilled workers in capitalist countries.
The bourgeoisie doesn’t directly manage a country, it gives that job to a power elite that it controls. For much of the Soviet Union’s history, the producing classes had class control of the Soviet Union. While we can discuss the desirability of a power elite, the existence of a power elite does not negate socialism.