Stalinist Laws to Tighten "Labor Discipline," 1938-1940

Copyright © 1999 by Hugo S. Cunningham

Added 990820
Last updated 991113
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Workers' living standards declined sharply from 1928 to 1933 by at least half, to a bare subsistence level. Part of this was the disastrous outcome of agricultural Collectivization, but part of it was deliberate policy: to finance the forced industrialization of the First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932) by squeezing the workers with simultaneous pay-cuts and production speed-ups. After 1933, living standards began to recover, but only precariously. For example, by 1937, wages had climbed back to 60% of the 1928 level. Nearly all investment was directed to heavy industry and weapons, rather than consumer goods for working families. Despite a shortage of workers for new industrial projects, fierce repression of independent union activity ensured that wages would remain low.

Lower wage levels were not the only indicator of poverty. (After all, money has only limited value in a rationed "access" economy.) Equally important were wretched housing conditions, especially in industrial complexes outside established cities: overcrowded, sometimes unheated barracks, or even pits in the ground ("zemlyanki"). For ideological reasons, the Soviet government had destroyed any private housing market, that otherwise might have taken some of the slack. Government food supplies were often scant (requiring much waiting in lines) and sometimes rotten; private food suppliers had been wiped out by Collectivization. Local public transport was crowded and unreliable, if it existed at all.

(The wonderful Moscow Metro, first opened at a few stations in the 1930s, was only a showcase, in no way representative of conditions on buses and streetcars, especially outside the capital. In many areas, the only transport was by foot along muddy unpaved roads. One should not confuse the Stalin era with the more settled Khrushchov and Brezhnev periods, where a real effort was made to provide most urban working families with some sort of housing, public transport, and tolerable [even if not luxurious] living standards.)

Nevertheless, when workers got fed up with conditions at one site, they were free to quit and go look for something better. And this was no mere "freedom to starve"; Stalin's forced industrialization meant that plenty of jobs were available, even if low-paid. Or, if workers didn't want to move, they might simply take days off or show up late.

Nominally, by 1932, absentees were to be fired; quitters (and discharged absentees) were to barred from housing and rations, and were to be blacklisted from new employment. See, for example

In reality, these sanctions were widely ignored, partly because they were unenforceable: an attempt in 1930 to impose "labor books" (labor passports, required for getting new jobs, listing all previous work and the conditions for discharge) had been quietly frustrated by shopfloor resistance. In addition, managers, desperate for additional workers, would hire them without too rigid an examination of their past. Some workers deliberately showed up late in order to force their firing, so that they could get a better job elsewhere.

In late 1938, however, after he had exterminated his former political opponents, Comrade Stalin was ready to settle accounts with the workers.

His first measure was a requirement for labor books. Unlike the 1930 law, this one was enforced; society by now was thoroughly cowed.

Now that labor books gave the government leverage, this was followed by a major revision of the labor code:

This restated the 1930 and 1932 penalties for quitting and absenteeism (mandatory firing, blacklisting, and loss of social benefits, eg housing, food rations, and social insurance). Managers who failed to obey and enforce these laws were subject to dismissal and criminal prosecution.

On 8 January 1939, the government made clear that an unauthorized lateness of 20 minutes (or taking a break 20 minutes too long, or leaving 20 minutes early) counted as absenteeism, grounds for mandatory dismissal (Pravda, 9 Jan 1939). Transportation breakdowns (a common event) were no excuse; a doctor's certificate was required, and doctors who gave certificates too easily themselves faced prosecution and prison.

Some workers still found it worthwhile to be absent and force a mandatory dismissal, so that they could seek work in a place where labor books were not closely read. Stalin put an end to this with a remarkable law,

This replaced the civil sanctions of the 28 Dec. 1938 decree with mandatory criminal penalties: 2-4 months imprisonment for quitting a job, and 6 months of probation and 25% pay confiscation for an unauthorized tardiness of 20 minutes. Both managers and prosecutors were themselves subject to criminal prosecution if they did not enforce this law strictly.

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