Russian Trade Unions

By the end of the 19th century there were over 2 million industrial workers in Russia. At this time the Russian industrial employee worked on average an 11 hour day (10 hours on Saturday). Conditions in the factories were extremely harsh and little concern was shown for the workers' health and safety.

People who attempted to form trade unions were likely to be imprisoned or sent to Siberia. Strikes were illegal and the Russian government would often call out the Russian Army to deal with workers during industrial disputes.

In 1901 Sergei Zubatov, chief of the Okhrana in Moscow, used secret agents to set up the Mutual Assistance League of Workers in the Mechanical Industry. His agents became the leaders of this union and they attempted to persuade the workers not to make demands for higher wages and better working conditions. This proved unsuccessful and by 1903 the union had to be disbanded because its members had began to take part in strikes.

In 1903 Father George Gapon, a priest from St. Petersburg, formed the Assembly of Russian Workers. Within a year it had over 9,000 members.

1904 was a bad year for Russian workers. Prices of essential goods rose so quickly that real wages declined by 20 per cent. When four members of the Assembly of Russian Workers were dismissed at the Putilov Iron Works, Gapon called for industrial action. Over the next few days over 110,000 workers in St. Petersburg went out on strike.

In an attempt to settle the dispute, George Gapon decided to make a personal appeal to Nicholas II. He drew up a petition outlining the workers' sufferings and demands. This included calling for a reduction in the working day to eight hours, an increase in wages and an improvement in working conditions. Gapon also called for the establishment of universal suffrage and an end to the Russo-Japanese War.

Over 150,000 people signed the petition and on 22nd January, 1905, Gapon led a large procession of workers to the Winter Palace in order to present the petition to Nicholas II. When the procession of workers reached the Winter Palace it was attacked by the police and the Cossacks. Over 100 workers were killed and some 300 wounded.

After the 1905 Revolution the Russian government decided to change the laws that prohibited trade unions. This was followed by the rapid expansion of trade union membership. Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were often the leaders of these new unions.

Primary Sources

(1) Alexander Shlyapnikov was only sixteen years old when he took part in a strike at the Semyannikov plant in 1901.

I was very active for my age in the strike, inciting apprentices from all the workshops, shipbuilding as well as joinery, to drive out workers who did not want to join us. We stuffed our pockets with screws and all sorts of scraps of iron, and made for the docks and workshops. Those who went against the general strike decision was pelted with iron fragments, nuts and bolts, and were forced into line. Policemen on foot and horseback threatened us with their whips, but this only strengthened our youthful readiness to fight. For such active participation in the strike, I was dismissed from Semyannikov's and blacklisted.

All my attempts to find work at another factory ended in failure. With the help of some workers, I was given a job at the Obukhov works, but was dismissed as a striker after a couple of weeks. Other attempts had the same result. The impossibility of finding a job in a large factory turned me to work in small workshops. The pay was so paltry that it did not even cover the rent.

(2) At the age of thirteen Stanislav Kossior went to work as a metalworker at the Sulin Works in Lugansk.

The Sulin Works were closed following a strike in 1905 and I was forced to move to the Yuriev factory. The strike made such an impression on me that with the cooperation of my brother who was a member of the Social Democratic Labour Party, I was received into membership. Within a short time I was arrested, sent into exile, dismissed from the factory and blacklisted.

(3) In 1896 Felix Dzerzhinsky joining the illegal Social Democratic Labour Party. Later that year he agreed to try and organize trade unions in Kovno.

At Kovno I infiltrated myself among the hard core of the factory workers, coming across appalling poverty and exploitation, particularly of female labour, and it was here that I learnt by practice how to organize strikes. During the second half of the year I was arrested in the street after being betrayed for ten roubles by an apprentice. I was deported to Vyatka province for three years.