A group of workers who say they have been persecuted for reporting safety hazards and other shortcomings in the Soviet workplace announced formation of their own "union" yesterday to help fend off further reprisals.
The group said that 200 other workers from factories and enterprises around the country have joined their "Trade Union in Defense of Workers" and that more will join as word spreads of its existence.The formation of such unauthorized organizations is illegal in the Soviet Union.
The fact that the workers are willing to meet with Western reporters is unusual and their tales of abuse in what has been called the workers' paradise, while impossible to verify, are plausible. The Soviet press routinely reports such abuses, which lends credence to the men's stories. Rarely, if ever, do the official media disclose that those who point out shortcomings are disciplined or fired for their troubles.
Attending a press conference yesterday were five men, including a former coal mine foreman, a power plant quality control inspector, and an assembly line worker from a bus factory. All had accounts of abuse instead of reward for reporting unsafe conditions, financial hanky-panky and other irregularities.
"Our elementary rights have been violated," said the mine foreman, Vladimir Klebanov. "We are simply Soviet prople, workers and engineers, who have suffered."
Klebanov said the union will issue public appeals on behalf of workers who are treated unjustly. The organization will not actively recruit members but will consider membership for anyone who approaches them.
There is a passing resemblance between this fledgling group and the workers' grievance committees active in Poland that fiercely contested workers' arrests in the aftermath of food riots in 1976.
Those who labor in the Soviet Union - from writers to farmers - belong to powerful trade unions that set hours, participate in decisions on promotion and control important fringe benefits, such as vacation retreats, assignments of housing and similar aspects of life. Soviets carry "character" booklets with them, setting forth their job performace. Good ratings make it possible to switch jobs or apply for new ones.Dismissal, demotion or troublemaking, once entered in the work record, all but end a worker's chance of getting a new job.
For workers who are fired - regardless of the reason - life can be bleak and unpromising. Faced with these dismal prospects, the workers said today, they presented their cases to several Soviet newspapers, including the powerful official dailies, Izvestia and Pravda. They were ignored or told their complaints were beyond the papers' competence to investigate.
"There is a tradition of criticism of abuses in Trud and Pravda" acknowledged Klebanov, "but the press often criticizes odd exceptions. But people get fired for their criticism and still the problem isn't solved."
He said the workers came together in a group to draw attention to themselves and their difficulties "because we have exhausted all avenues of appeal and we are left only to apply to you, the press" in the West. When Western press accounts of the group's complaints were picked up and broadcast into the Soviet Union by foreign radio stations "other workers came forward to join us," said Klebanov "for everyone listens to the radio."
The bus assembly-line worker has recounted how he discovered a boss to be getting kickbacks from other workers for paying them although they did no work. When he reported it, he said, he was fired.
The power plant engineer, Shagen Oganesyan from Soviet Georgia, said he discovered while working for a People's Control Commission - a government grievance office - that half the contruction called for in a particular power station was left undone although people were being paid for it. When he reported this, his career began to deteriorate, he was criticized and eventually, he quit in protest.
Klebanov, 45, first ran afoul of officials when he tried to start an alternative labor union in 1960 in his Ukrainian coal mine. Authorities accused him of anti-Soviet activity and the group was broken up. He said he eventually was fired for refusing to send workers into unsafe mine shafts.
Soviet secret police were said to have seized Klebanov last month and held him for two weeks after he initially met with reporters.
He said today the new organization intends to apply for recognition from the International Labor Organization (ILO), a U.N. agency based in Geneva that seeks solutions to international manpower and labor problems.
Klebanov added that the "Trade Union in Defense of Workers" has no connection with human rights activists. He said he has been rebuffed by Andrei Sakharov and other dissidents when Klebanov sought their help. "They consider themselves above us," he said.