chapter  7
30 Pages

Masters of the Shop Floor: Foremen and Soviet Industrialisation

Addressing the Eighth Congress of Trade Unions in December 1928, M. I. Tomskii, the soon-to-be-ousted chairman of the trade unions' central council, referred to a recent incident at the Leningrad Skorokhod shoe factory. There, a foreman had been shot and killed by a worker. This act, he said, might be attributed to the 'abnormal' and 'hooligan' nature of the worker, but such an explanation was too simplistic and cliched. In his view, what was responsible for this and similar 'unhealthy and shameful' occurrences of recent times was the 'uncultured' and 'rude' behavior of foremen and the unions' failure to intervene in relations between foremen and workers. 1

Tomskii's interpretation appears well-founded. Over the previous few years, the press had reported numerous instances of foremen establishing or perpetuating 'old regime' relations with workers. They demanded bribes in the form of money, vodka and sexual favours in return for preferential job assignments; they compelled workers to work on the side for them, using the factory's equipment; they placed their unqualified relatives in high wage-skill categories; they threatened workers with demotion or dismissal if the latter complained or in other ways challenged their authority, and in several cases, made good their threats. Far from attempting to put a stop to these outrageous acts, some factory and shop committee chairmen willingly served as accomplices? Some workers were moved to respond in kind. The incident at Skorokhod was only one of several reported by the press. 3

At the same time, however, the press had been critical of other actions by foremen, actions that belie their image as the tyrants of the shop floor. From Kolomna it was reported that before Easter and other holidays, foremen assigned workers to better paying and easier tasks, that, being 'insufficiently independent in their relations with workers', they were indulgent with them and were thus guilty of 'tailism'.4 At Krasnoe Sormovo, foremen were said to be too lenient

withabsentees,compensatingthemwithovertimework,whileat KrasnaiaOboronainMoscow,theytooka'conciliatory'attitude towarddrunkennessamongworkers.5Workersintheirtumcouldbe indulgenttowardforemen.AtaproductionconferenceintheStenka Razinglassworks(NizhniiNovgorodguberniia),workersarguedthat itwasnottheforemenbutthehigheradministrationthatwasresponsibleforthehighproportionofdefectivegoods.6Andinaletterto Trud,aworkerfromKrasnoeSormovodefendedaforemanagainst thechargeofcarelessness,claimingthatallthesinsoftheadministrationwerewronglyplacedonhim.7