The Russian Revolution in Ukraine

Nestor Makhno

Chapter 8: The workers' strike


Early in June the anarchists of Aleksandrovsk invited me to a conference being held to unify all the local anarchists into a federation. I came immediately to help the comrades come to an agreement. The Aleksandrovsk anarchists were all manual or intellectual workers. Formally they were divided into anarcho-communists and anarcho-individualists, but in reality they were all revolutionary anarcho-communists. All of them I esteemed as the closest of friends and I did my best to help them set up a federation. After organizing themselves, they began to organize the workers and for a time had a great ideological influence on them.

When I returned from Aleksandrovsk, the workers of the Gulyai-Pole Union of Metal and Carpentry Workers invited me to help them set up their union and sign up as a member myself. And when I did this they asked me to direct their impending strike.

Now I was completely absorbed, firstly by the affairs of the Peasant's Union, secondly by the workers. However, among the workers there were comrades with a better grasp of workplace problems than myself, for which I was grateful. I undertook to lead the strike, hoping to win over these fine comrades and draw them into our Group. One of them V. Antonov was sympathetic to the S-Rs. The others were non-party. Of these especially energetic were Seregin and Mironov.

Before declaring the strike, the workers of both foundries, all the mills, home workshops, blacksmith's and joiner's shops held a meeting. The upshot was that I was asked to formulate their demands and present them through the union executive to the owners of the enterprises. While this was going on it became clear to me that comrades Antonov, Seregin, and Mironov had been working as anarchists for quite some time in the workshop committees. In fact Antonov had been elected chairman of the Soviet of Workers' Deputies. These comrades had not joined our Group only because they were overloaded with their work in the shops. Naturally I was against this. From the day of my return from prison I had insisted on the necessity of our Group being well-informed about the work of all our supporters among the peasants. So I strongly urged these comrades to join the Group immediately and in future to coordinate with us their own work in the workshop committees and among the workers generally. The comrades entered the Group and then joined with me in summoning the proprietors of all the enterprises in order to present them with the workers' demands, which reduced simply to: a wage increase of 80 to 100 percent.

Such a proposal from the workers aroused a storm of protest from the proprietors who categorically refused a wage hike of any such proportions. We gave them one day to consider our position while the workers continued to work at their machines. The next day the proprietors came to the Union Soviet with their own counter proposal of a 35 to 40 percent wage increase. As representatives of the workers we considered this offer insulting and, after a lengthy debate which became abusive on both sides, we offered them one more day to reconsider, as required by civil law. The proprietors and their agents, some of whom knew the constitutions of trade unions by heart and were socialists by conviction, left the meeting assuring us they would not be returning the next day with an offer higher than the one already on the table. They knew the central authorities would back them up.

We called together the members of the workshop committees and representatives from the home workshops and discussed a simultaneous work stoppage for the following day, timed to coincide with the moment when the proprietors would leave the trade union Soviet after arriving without a new offer. It was decided that the Soviet must plant one of its supporters at the telephone exchange to connect my telephone directly with all the workshops. Then I could advise the workers of the rejection of their demands and the owners, upon returning to their enterprises, would be greeted by demonstrations of striking workers.

I now proposed to the members of the Trade Union executive and factory committees a plan of expropriation of all the money capital to be found in the enterprises and the Gulyai-Pole Bank. I had no illusions about our ability to take over the enterprises, even with this cash at our disposal. The uyezd and gubernica Public Service Committees as well as the commissars of the central government would send troops. And these troops, hoping to win favour with the central authorities and avoid being sent to the front to face the Germans, would shoot the best militants of the workers, myself in particular. It was important to me to bring forward the idea of expropriation of capitalist enterprises at a time when the Provisional Government had still not succeeded in controlling the labouring masses and diverting them counter-revolutionary ways.

However, the majority of members of the trade union and factory committees earnestly requested that I refrain from presenting such a plan of action to the mass of the workers. They said we weren't ready for such a step, justified though it might be, and premature action on our part might jeopardize any possibility of carrying out such a program in the future, when we would be better prepared.

After a frank discussion, the members of the Group came to the same conclusion. If my proposals were carried out now, the workers would have to depend on the peasantry to sustain them by expropriating the estates of the pomeshchiks. Practically this wouldn't be possible until the fall harvest. Thus we would be taking a fatal step.

These conclusions shook me. I no longer insisted on immediate expropriation of the factories and workshops. But I urged that my proposal be accepted as the basis of the work of the factory committees namely to prepare the workers to carry out expropriation in the near future. I assured the worker comrades that the peasants were also thinking along the same lines and said we must devote all our strength to coordinate the aspirations of both peasants and workers that they might be realized in practice simultaneously.

My position was adopted. At that time I was elected by all the workers as chairman of the Trade Union and Mutual Aid fund. Comrade Antonov was selected to be my deputy and replacement in the event of my being overloaded with work in other organizations.

The peasants also chose a comrade as a back-up who could replace me. But in both cases the rank-and-file insisted any initiatives come from me and that I coordinate the activities of both organizations.

* * *

The proprietors of the factories, mills and workshops came again to the Trade Union Soviet. Their position had not changed from the previous day. After two hours of bargaining they had a fit of generosity and agreed to increase wages by 45 to 60 percent. My response, as chairman of the meeting, was to declare our negotiations at an end. "The Trade Union Soviet has empowered me to take control over all public enterprises directed by you, citizens, but not rightfully belonging to you. We shall settle with you on the street in front of your respective businesses. Meeting adjourned!"

I collected my papers and headed for the telephone. At this moment, the owner of the largest factory in Gulyai-Pole, Boris Mikhailovich Kerner, got up from his seat and exclaimed: "Nestor Ivanovich, don't be in such a hurry to end the meeting. Personally I consider the workers' demand totally justified. They are right to expect us to comply with their proposal and I, for one, will sign my agreement to this... ."

The other proprietors and especially their agents cried indignantly: "What are you doing, Boris Mikhailovich?"

"No, no, gentlemen, you do as you wish. I'm obligated to satisfy the demand of my workers," replied Kerner.

I told them all to calm down, called for order, and asked: "Citizens, you're all sticklers for law and order. Is it legal to re-open the meeting to discuss the same question which led to its adjournment?"

"Certainly, certainly!" was heard from all the proprietors and their agents.

"Then I declare the meeting open and propose that all of you sign the contract raising the workers' wages by 80 to 100 percent." And I handed out copies of the contract previously prepared. Feeling rather faint from fatigue and nervous tension, I handed over the meeting to comrade Mironov and retired to another room to take a short break.

Half an hour later I returned to the meeting hall. The proprietors began to sign the text of my proposed conditions. When they had all signed and left the Union hall, I sat at the telephone and called the worker-comrades in all the enterprises about the success of our negotiations, about the acceptance of our demands, and advised everyone to stay at their jobs until evening. And in the evening the members of the Union Soviet made detailed reports about our collective victory... .

From that time on the workers of Gulyai-Pole and the surrounding region prepared themselves and organized all their workplaces. They studied the economic and administrative aspects of their enterprises and readied themselves for the seizure and direct management of these businesses.

Also from this time Gulyai-Pole attracted the special attention of the Ekaterinoslav Public Committee, along with the Ukrainian nationalist "Selyan'ska spilka" [Peasants' Union], the Provincial Soviet of Workers', Peasants', and Soldiers' Deputies, and the Provincial Industrial Committee, not to mention various Aleksandrovsk organizations controlled by agents of the Provisional Government. The visits to Gulyai-Pole of instructors, organizers, and propagandists from these places became more frequent.

But these agents always left without results, stymied by the actions of the peasant- and the worker-anarchists.

 


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