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In Mother Russia's Mines, A Mother Lode Of Rage

Shouting above the metallic screech of mining machinery a half-mile below the frozen surface, Farit Galikeev considers himself lucky. The 36-year-old group leader ranks high enough that his paychecks run only about three weeks late. His compatriots in Vorkuta, a desolate spot above the Arctic Circle 1,500 kilometers northeast of Moscow, fare much worse. Their paychecks are often four months late, and unlike other miners in more southern climes, they can't grow their own food. Hence, they often go hungry. Not surprisingly, they're angry.

So angry that on Mar. 15, Vorkuta miners plan to join a nationwide coal strike if the government doesn't hand over nearly $1 billion in overdue wages and skipped payments for coal. Miners' ire is also rising over collapsing social services and working conditions in some of the world's most polluted spots. Meanwhile, worker restiveness is spreading beyond the coalfields. So far this year, Russian strike activity is running at twice last year's levels as overdue wage bills pile up. Says Mikhail K. Gorshkov, general director of the Russian Independent Institute of Social & National Problems: "There are likely to be local, wage-related strikes or protests in sectors where orders are way down, like steel, construction, and textiles."

NORTHERN EXPOSURE. Still, if any group is going to lead a wave of labor unrest, it is likely to be the coal miners. And the hardest-pressed are those in Vorkuta. Take Alexander Marmalukov, 47. When he moved to Vorkuta in 1976, he thought he was getting a good deal. In exchange for putting up with subzero Arctic weather and a dangerous mining job, the Soviet government promised him a comfortable apartment, high pay, a good pension, and extra-long vacations.

Nineteen years later, Marmalukov feels betrayed. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the special benefits granted to workers in polar regions. Inflation has wiped out Marmalukov's savings, dashing his dreams of retiring to a dacha in a warmer place. Like thousands of other miners, Marmalukov doesn't have enough money to move out of Vorkuta. "It's like we're hostages," he says. Even though he quit the mines two years ago, Marmalukov has taken a job as chairman of the regional branch of the NPG, an independent coal-miners union that has broken away from the much bigger NPRUP, the union that represented miners in the Soviet era.

Things promise to get even worse. Over the next five years, the state-run coal company plans to close 5 of the region's 12 mines. But Vorkuta is a one-industry town. Unlike workers elsewhere in Russia, Vorkuta miners who lose their jobs have little chance of getting a local job in a different line of work. So Vorkuta's leaders want the government to promise them it will provide money to relocate miners to other regions. "If they want to close the mines, they should give us the money to do it," says Marmalukov.

Vorkuta has some of the highest-quality coal and most productive mines in the former Soviet Union. But with Russian demand for coal expected to decline 50% by 2000, Vorkuta's coal production will never bring in enough money to support the region's 200,000 inhabitants. At current production levels and prices, the city's annual heating bill alone exceeds the value of its yearly coal output. Local officials say Vorkuta's mining industry has a chance to be self-supporting and profitable only if it closes half its mines, slashes its workforce by over 50%, to 12,000 miners, and sheds its social services. Says Alexander S. Stepanov, chairman of Vorkuta's coal-industry association: "To do what's needed, we will have to go through all of Dante's circles of hell."

Many miners may well think they've already made that descent, so deplorable are their working conditions. Miners wear no safety goggles, earplugs, or mouth coverings. There is no lighting other than that provided by lamps on the miners' hard hats. Electric wires hang exposed, despite the threat that a spark could ignite an explosion. When Galikeev wanted to stop the passenger trolley inside the coal mine, he had to short-circuit the train by pressing his penknife blade against the bare power lines.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin may still have a chance to maintain labor peace as he did in 1993, when he paid off the miners and other irate workers. But with Russia's finances a wreck, that may be a short-lived option. If so, Yeltsin may soon be facing off across the barricades with Vorkuta's miners.

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