Trade union independence and the Georgian republic

Irakli Petriashvili addressing the GTUC congress.
Irakli Petriashvili addressing the GTUC congress.

Presentation to the Georgian Trade Union Confederation’s congress, Tbilisi – 15 September 2017

I want to begin by thanking the Georgian Trade Union Confederation and your president, Irakli Petriashvili, for inviting me to speak at this historic congress.

As you may know, I have just written a book about the first Georgian republic, the one that lasted just three years – from 1918 to 1921. I want to speak for a few minutes about that book and that period, and then we can have a conversation about it.

The book is called The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution and I’m very pleased to tell you that a Georgian language edition will be coming out in time for the 100th anniversary of Georgian independence next May.

There could not be a better time to look back at the history of the first Georgian republic than now. The story I tell in this book could not be more relevant than now.

And the people who have the most to learn from this history are sitting right here in this room: the leaders of the trade union movement in this country.

I say this because one of the things that stands out when you look at the history of that first Georgian republic and when you compare it to Soviet Russian experience – one of the great differences between the two societies – concerns the role of the trade unions.

In both countries, in Russia and in Georgia, trade unions arrived on the scene relatively late. Though there were early attempts to organise workers in Georgia, particularly railway workers, the first real unions emerged only during the course of the 1905 revolution.

Those unions were not welcomed by the tsarist regime and suffered severe repression. And the repression of trade unions in Georgia was even greater than that in Russia.

Only the revolution of 1917 granted workers the right to join and form trade unions of their choosing, and to strike. The first unions to emerge were the printers and then the commercial employees. By the very end of that year, the first trade union congress was held here in Tbilisi, with 41 unions represented, with a combined membership of 29,000.

That number was soon to soar, doubling by 1919. And by the end of 1920, there were 113 unions in Georgia with a membership of 64,000 – out of an estimated 100,000 wage workers. In other words, two-thirds of the working class was organised into unions after just three years.

Though the unions were officially politically neutral, it has been estimated that 95% of their members supported the Social Democratic Party. The Party actually had a larger membership than the unions, because in addition to workers, it included peasants, intellectuals and others.

The unions and the Social Democratic Party had an extensive network of newspapers, including dailies, weeklies and monthlies. Their publications appeared in both Georgian and Russian. They owned their own buildings, including a meeting house named after the founder of the Russian Marxist movement, Plekhanov.

The railway workers played a key role in the early Georgian labour movement. Their union had a building of its own in Tbilisi and it owned two newspapers.

Until October 1917, when Georgia and Russia were still united under one government, the situation for unions was similar in both countries.

But once Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, everything changed.

The Bolshevik leadership was convinced that as a “dictatorship of the proletariat” had now been established, the proletariat no longer needs any means of self-defence, such as trade unions.

The Bolshevik leader who spoke most forcefully against the trade unions was Trotsky, whose success as leader of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army convinced him that what was needed to give the Russian economy a boost was the militarisation of labour.

Trade unions, if they were to exist at all, were to serve as transmission belts, passing on orders from the Communist Party leadership down to the shop floor.

Once this idea took hold in Russia, it remained largely unchanged for nearly 70 years.

It was only after the fall of the Communist regime that free and independent trade unions emerged in the Soviet Union, including in formerly Soviet Georgia.

But during the years 1918-1921, when the Social Democrats ruled the independent Georgian republic, they didn’t share Trotsky’s view.

Trade unions were part of a broad family that included the Social Democratic Party and the cooperative movement, and together they tried to create a society in which human rights were respected, and which aspired to social justice and greater equality.

The Georgian unions 100 years ago were very clear about what they wanted: they demanded to be treated as equal partners, and they insisted on a constitutionally-recognised right to strike — which they won.

In the early days of the revolution, they went on strike a lot. This infuriated the visiting German and later British military forces, who were convinced that Georgian workers were both over-paid and excessively militant.

In June 1918, for example, port workers in Poti regularly walked out on strike, infuriating the German military which was keen to export manganese and other badly needed raw materials for the German war effort.

The Batumi port workers were no different. In the British government archives I came across a telegram sent by a British diplomat in June 1919 denouncing those workers, saying they were demanding an enormous increase to an already high rate of pay.

But that same year, strikes became rarer. Across the country, Georgian workers increasingly stopped going on strike. Why?

The Social Democratic government created a Board of Wages under the authority of the Ministry of Labour.

This Board, which included equal numbers of representatives of employers and unions, helped keep workers’ incomes rising with the rate of inflation, and ensured that staple goods, such as bread and salt, were available at low prices. It also acted as a mediator in industrial disputes.

Because of that, and because of the Social Democrats’ land reform, which distributed land to the peasants rather than trying to nationalise or collectivise it, there was no mass starvation in Georgia, snf no famine like there was in Russia at the same time.

With their wages keeping pace with prices, and with food available to purchase, labour unrest declined during the years of Social Democratic rule. The number of days lost to strikes fell steadily.

This was the result not of unions weakening, but of union power. Because unions were strong, and because their concerns were listened to, they were willing to help keep up production under difficult circumstances.

An example of that union power appeared in a Georgian government publication in 1919. It declared that any employer who prevented a union member or the union itself from exercising their rights was liable to imprisonment. Employers could actually be send to jail for union-busting.

In addition to making it easier for unions to flourish, the government passed many pro-worker laws.

An eight-hour workday was enacted. Overtime work was permitted only in special cases. Child labour was banned. Insurance schemes were created to give workers and income when unemployed or ill. Strict rules were adopted regarding the hiring and firing of workers. And night work was forbidden for women and adolescents.

The right of workers to join and form unions of their choosing, free from government interference, was enshrined in the constitution that the Social Democrats were then drafting.

The establishing of strong, independent trade unions at a time when in Bolshevik Russia they were being crushed, was a great achievement. But there is much more to say about the Georgian Democratic Republic.

The most important socialist thinker of the time was Karl Kautsky, a leading figure in the German Social Democratic Party, who was known as the “Pope of Marxism.” He visited Georgia in 1920 together with a delegation of European socialist politicians. He stayed for several weeks, and wrote a short book the following year. Kautsky was convinced that the Georgian Democratic Republic was the antithesis of the regime created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia.

He wrote: “In comparison with the hell which Soviet Russia represents, Georgia appeared as a paradise.”

The Georgian republic was not a paradise, of course not. But it was a functioning democracy, it had free elections and a multi-party system. The cooperative movement thrived and there were signs that in some sectors of the economy cooperatives had already replaced privately-owned businesses.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Georgian Social Democrats was the land reform. Georgia, like Russia, was a country where the emancipation of the serfs in the 1860s led not to their freedom, but to their impoverishment. In Russia, under the leadership of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the city and the countryside were in a constant state of war. Armed detachments of urban workers were sent out of Petersburg and other cities to grab as much food as they could from peasants who refused to sell it. Millions of people died unnecessarily in man-made famines.

But not in Georgia. Here, the Social Democrats were not the enemies of the peasants. Here the peasants were a key constituency of that party. Peasant support for the Social Democrats preceded the 1917 revolution by more than a decade. When the Social Democrats came to power, the land reform they enacted was welcomed by the peasants.

There was no war between city and countryside, no famine, no starvation. The later horrors of forced collectivisation under Stalin had no parallel in independent Georgia. The Georgian Social Democrats applied a rigorous Marxist analysis to the question of land and concluded that giving the land to the peasants was the best way to begin building a new society – and they were proven correct.

Kautsky told the whole story about political democracy in Georgia, about the land reform and about the powerful and independent trade unions and cooperatives that dominated Georgian society.

All this came to an end in February 1921 when the Red Army invaded Georgia.

One of the first things the Bolsheviks did was to smash the independent trade unions and replace them with Soviet-style labour fronts, which served as transmission belts passing on instructions to the workers.

From then until the early 1990s, the Georgian working class had no experience of actual trade unions. What were called trade unions bore no resemblance to what had existed prior to 1921, or what exists today.

After the collapse of Soviet rule, the Georgian working class had to rebuild a labour movement from scratch, and to overcome decades of lies and deceit.

At the same time as Georgia was declaring its independence from the Soviet Union, the Georgian working class by creating new and independent trade unions was declaring its independence as well.

That independence – both Georgia’s as a country, as yours as a trade union movement – did not come cheap, or easily. And just as Georgia needs to defend its borders against foreign aggression, so the Georgian trade unions need to keep up their guard to ensure their independence from attempts by others to restrain them.

That is one of the lessons we can learn from Georgia’s great experiment in democratic socialism.

Thank you.