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Frank Demby

Stalin Orders Labor Peonage

The Second of a Series of Articles on Russia

(January 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 4, 27 January 1941, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On May 28, June 26 and July 10, 1940, Stalin’s Council of Peoples’ Commissars of the USSR and the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued three decrees which subject the workers of Russia to a vicious slavery. These decrees represent the first fruits for the Russian workers of Stalin’s debacle in Finland, and the alliance with Hitler fascism.

The First Decree

The first of these decrees, that of foremen in most of the heavy indirect equivalent in every sense of a superintendent in a capitalist factory. He is to be considered the leader in that portion of the shop over which he has jurisdiction. He has full power in regard to the work assigned to him and bears complete responsibility for the carrying out of this work. The workers will now receive their orders through the foreman exclusively. The foreman now has the power to hire and fire all workmen, with the approval of the head of the department in question. The foreman is given the power to punish workers guilty of interfering with labor discipline. He pays out the wages of the workers. The foreman controls production and changes in production. He is expected to see to it that his workers are properly placed, given the proper tools, and properly instructed so as to produce the maximum amount possible.

Since the foreman is now to occupy such an important position in Russia, he is to be chosen from among engineers, technicians, or highly qualified workmen. As a reward for administering Stalin’s whip over the workers, the wages of foremen were raised, starting June 1, so as to be higher than the average wage of qualified workmen. This means, at the very least, a doubling of wages for foremen. Already functioning foremen, without the necessary technical education, as well as newly appointed foremen, must pass a test given by the Committee of Attestations. In the usual propaganda blast which accompanied this decree, it is indicated that those previously in positions of management were distinguished by a lack of culture and general ignorance. “Proletarian origin” will no longer be a major qualification, or indeed a recommendation, for holding a managerial position, in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Now the heads of departments and factory directors, as well as the practical workers without formal education, will respond to this decree remains to be seen, but there are already signs of discord and protest.

The Second Decree

The second decree, that of June 26, is the most drastic of all. To make it more palatable, it was issued at the initiative of the Central Council of Trade Unions of the USSR. A very important part of the decree is that which institutes a general wage cut amongst all workers of more than 15 percent. This is done not by directly cutting the amount of rubles which one Russian worker gets, but by lengthening the working day. Work is now organized on the basis of a seven day week, instead of a six day week. Hours of work per working day are lengthened from seven to eight hours, in all cases where the working day was formerly seven hours. This covers the overwhelming majority of workers. Those previously working six hours must now work seven hours, while employees of institutions and persons reaching the age of 16 who had previously worked six hours must now work eight hours. In all cases, of course, while the hours of work are increased, the wage remains the same.

More important, however, than the wage cut in the decree of June 26 is the remainder of the decree which establishes complete industrial peonage. Workers are now absolutely forbidden to leave their jobs without authorization, or to move from one job to another. Permission for leaving or changing jobs can be granted only by the special authorization of a factory director. If a worker violates this provision, he can be sentenced by the People’s Court to a prison term of from two to four months. If the violation is called an illegal absence, the previous penalty for illegal absence – compulsory dismissal from the job – is supplanted by the new penalty: compulsory labor at the place of employment for a term of six months at a 25 percent wage reduction. And, typical of all Soviet decrees, factory directors who do not properly enforce these provisions will themselves be hold responsible.

The lengthening of the work day is justified by references to the dangerous international situation and the threat of war. But it is nowhere indicated that this lengthening of the work day is to be temporary. The binding of workers to the factory, coming on top of the previous introduction of the internal passport system, is aimed at reducing the labor turnover in Soviet industry. The average Russian worker changes his job at least once a year. This is merely a reflection of the terrible living conditions obtaining in most Russian towns and factories. In addition, many of those workers guilty of “illegal absence” were Communist Party members absent on meetings of one kind or another. Consequently, the plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party held in July, 1940, in order to enforce the decree of June 28 amongst Communist Party workers, decreed that there were to be no meetings or conferences of any kind during the working hours of the factory! Nothing, absolutely nothing, is to, interfere with the worker’s performance on his job.

The Third Decree

The third decree, that of July 10, has to do with output of poor quality and bad performance on the job. Such cases are to be considered wreckage, and therefore a crime against the State. Factory directors and engineers will be held responsible and are subject to prison sentences of from five to eight years in case established standards are not lived up to in, any respect whatsoever.

Closely related to these decrees are two others, one of which establishes the penalty for “petty theft” (regardless of the amount) or “acts of hooliganism” at one year in jail; the other specifically applies the industrial peonage decrees to the factory directors, and other managerial officials. No one employed in a factory in any capacity is now permitted to leave that factory, without the consent of Stalin, or one of his hirelings. Life in Stalin’s “paradise” will be something like the following for the average person: He attends school until the age of 14 (our equivalent of free secondary education, and free higher education has been abolished by a more recent decree); from the age of 14 to 18 he will be drafted for compulsory vocational training in mechanical lines which will serve the war machine; at the age of 18 he enters upon five years compulsory military training; at the age of 23, unless he enters permanent service in the armed forces, he will be assigned to work in any occupation in any location that pleases the dictate of the Kremlin. All this, of course, is in direct violation of Stalin’s own constitution of 1936.

When assigned to some factory or establishment, regardless of his own inclination or family ties, the Soviet slave is now bound to the establishment for the rest of his working days. If, of course, the masters in the Kremlin wish to change his place of servitude, they may do so without consulting the worker himself. The result is, therefore, that the Russian worker today does not even have the same rights that the Russian serf had. The serf, at least, while treated as a thing, whose function was simply to produce enough for his lord and master to live on, was bound to the soil and could not be moved about at the whim of his master.

The immediate reason for these decrees of industrial peonage is to be found in the visible breakdown of the Russian system of economic planning. The only way that Stalin knows to increase production is to command slave labor to produce or else. Whether these decrees will increase production or not, remains to be seen. If they do not, it will only hasten the day when Hitler decides to take over the direction of Soviet economy himself. If they do bring results, which is most unlikely, they can only serve to increase the thickness of the chains which bind the Russian worker in servitude today. In my next article in this series, I shall try to show the extent of the breakdown in Soviet economic planning and the reasons for this breakdown, for it must never be forgotten that the fundamental reasons for Stalin’s present policy are to be found in the internal weaknesses of Stalin’s regime.

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