Ted Grant

Russian Workers in Britain barred from joining Trade Union by Russian Delegation

Source: Socialist Appeal, No. 50, October 1947
Transcription: Fransesco 2009
Proofread: Fred 2009
Markup: Niklas 2009

An instructive light on the bureaucratic attitude and methods of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia has been provided by the case of the five Russian workers at the Hangers artificial limb factory at Roehampton.

Under instruction from the Soviet Trade Delegation, these workers have refused to join the appropriate British Trade Union. This episode has become an international scandal by the obstinate and high-handed refusal of the Stalinist bureaucrats to adhere to democratic working class principles and procedure.

These workers started as trainees at the Hangers factory at the beginning of May in order to learn British methods for use in the Soviet Union.

In the usual way, after they had settled down, the question of membership of the appropriate Trade Union was raised with them. A letter published in the September issue of the N.U.F.T.O. Record, journal of the National Union of Furniture Trade Operatives (and significantly enough written by V. Zak, a prominent member of the “Communist” Party in London who would naturally enough try and present as favourable a picture as possible for the Stalinist bureaucrats) gives the facts of the dispute which followed.

The Russian, workers through their translator expressed agreement to joining the British Union and said they “would fill in nomination forms for membership and hand them in on the following day.”

On the next day, however, they stated that they had instructions from the Soviet Trade Delegation not to join a British Trade Union.

The ostensible, obviously feeble excuse given was that the rules of the Soviet Trade Unions forbid dual union membership, and that they would forfeit their rights if they joined a British union! As if such a situation could arise in democratically controlled unions with the facts before them! As if a single word from the present Russian authorities, who completely control the Russian “Unions” would not have been sufficient to settle the matter!

Then followed a great deal of bureaucratic mishandling of the situation by the Russian Trade Delegation. According to the Union Journal, despite the attempts of the London District, in whose hands the matter had been placed, to contact Kuchurov, a responsible member of the Trade Delegation he ignored their approaches and visited the Managing Director of Hangers before contacting the London District Committee of the Union.

After the interview, which did not reach a satisfactory conclusion, Kuchurov was asked to raise the question with a higher authority and give the answer within eight days.

“As no reply had been received by June 13th, Mr. Kuchurov was ‘phoned but again was not available, nor was he available on the 16th, but on the statement that unless we had a reply that afternoon we would have to raise the matter with the Soviet Ambassador, a Mr. Andrienko promised a favourable reply for the 18th. It could be added, however, that within an hour Messrs. Kuchurov and Andrienko were at the head Office of our union at Golders Green interviewing the two Assistant General Secretaries.”

“On the 18th June a letter was sent to the Soviet Ambassador enclosing copies of the letters already referred to and pointing out that ‘as a result in the main of long struggle, the Trade Union workers have established in… the artificial limb factories a position where the management has been forced to agree that only workers belonging to appropriate Trade Unions shall be employed or work in the factory. This arrangement covers skilled workers, unskilled workers and trainees. In the circumstances, therefore, for the workers to agree in any such particular factory that a worker being trained or otherwise employed shall be considered as excluded from such agreement would, in fact, be the thin end of the wedge to enable once again the introduction of non-unionism. This is more especially true in the artificial limb factories at Roehampton, in view of the fact that workers from countries all over the world, as well as from this country, are trained there in this kind of work. It should of course be added that the breaking down of the principle of 100 percent trade unionism in the appropriate Trade Unions would bring with it the undermining of wages and working conditions.

“It is further necessary for me to point out in view of the arguments advanced, that:

“1. Nobody is querying the fact that the workers in question are members of their appropriate Trade Union in the Soviet Union.

“2. The Soviet Trades Unions cannot be considered as being appropriate Trades Unions for workers in this factory.

“3. While the Soviet Trade Union rules exclude membership of two Unions within the Soviet Union, this cannot be considered as applying in factories outside of the frontiers of the Soviet Union.”

This moderately worded and reasonable presentation of an unanswerable case from the point of view of workers’ democracy and trade union struggle did not receive even the courtesy of acknowledgment let alone a reply. The Union, even though the Stalinists have a powerful fraction within it, faced by this contemptuous attitude sent a telegram appealing to Kuznetzow, Chairman, All Union Council of Trade Unions of the U.S.S.R., requesting his…“immediate intervention as position extremely difficult friction arising between Soviet trainees and British workers…”

On 30th June, the General Secretary of the Union, together with Zak himself, met representatives of the Ministry of Labour who had requested the meeting. The Russian Ambassador had raised the question with Bevin! Apparently the Stalinist Government considered it so vital as to get the Russian Ambassador to raise it with the British Government. He had disdained to consult the direct representatives of the workers concerned, but hoped to achieve his object by diplomatic pressure.

Meanwhile, the Russian press and the wireless had come forward with the usual distortions and lies of the Stalinists against working-class opponents. The stand of the Union leaders under the pressure of the workers at Hangers, as well as of the workers in the London District of the Union on the question of elementary trade union organisation was described as an appeal “to the basest instincts of the most backward section of the workers of this Trade Union…”

The Russian bureaucrats pictured the situation as one of “discrimination” against Soviet workers, despite the fact that it had been explained that the principle applied to all workers from other countries abroad, as well as at home.

In fact, the workers at Hangers had regularly organised collections for the Stalingrad hospital during the war. As the letter of Zak correctly comments:

“Yes there was discriminatory action regarding the Soviet workers. They were requested to become members of an appropriate Union in accordance with the custom and practice established over a number of years in regard to foreign and other trainees; but contrary to the normal procedure of giving them seven days to join, ten weeks went by in negotiations before the workers took any action, and then did not do what they would have done in any other case: demand the removal of the offenders from the factory.”

“On the 8th July at the regular shop meeting the workers heard a full report of the attempts to settle the matter and decided:

“(a) that the agreement on 100 percent Trade Union membership must be upheld;

“(b) that the Soviet workers not holding membership of appropriate Trade Unions would not be allowed to use tools, but could remain in the factory as observers.”

The most crushing comment of Zak is:

“In capitalist countries the question of the establishment and maintenance of 100 percent Trade Union membership in appropriate unions is a fundamental cornerstone to class action. And let it be added that the ‘duty of proletarian solidarity’ is not a one-sided one.”

Stalinists fear truth

But any worker would scratch his head over such a hullabaloo and din for what, after all, to such a mighty state as Russia should seem a trivial matter. Why such a fuss? Why antagonise a powerful British Trade Union, and the workers in the furniture trade on what is an elementary trade union necessity, over five people? Why the antagonism and fear at joining a Trade Union in Britain?

In this incident can be seen the symptoms of the Stalinist disease. The Stalinist bureaucrats are afraid of the contact in the democratic organisations of the trade unions of even a handful of specially selected workers for fear that they should contrast the comparative freedom of British unions with the totalitarian set-up in Russia. It is the same reason which leads the bureaucrats to refuse exit visas to the Russian brides of British and other peoples. No one must leave Russia, over whom the G.P.U. has not got entire control. They may talk too much and reveal the truth about the Stalinist dictatorship. No Russian worker must have even the remotest connection with British or other unions for fear it might loosen their tongues.

Even the smallest particle of truth is dangerous to the Soviet bureaucracy.