Metalworkers and the Russian Revolution


I would like to start by saying what an honor it is to be speaking to you about the Russian Revolution and the metalworkers. As you may know, the metalworkers played a crucial role in the Russian revolutionary movement before 1917 and during the revolutionary year. I will try to summarize some of the events and contributions by metalworkers in this movement.
By Kevin Murphy.
Russia’s economic development started very late in the second half of the 1800s. The major boom was in 1890s during the construction of the Russian rail system and continued through to 1917. The two largest cities in Russia, Moscow and St. Petersburg, had only about half a million people in the 1860s, but by the start of the World War fifty years later, thanks to industrialization, they both had two million people. Metal was key to industrialization, to the rail system, to building of factories, engineering and also war production.
This was especially true in St. Petersburg, later renamed Petrograd in 1914 at the start of the War. Petrograd and its suburbs had 400,000 workers by 1917, an amazing 240,000 of these were metalworkers, that is 60% of workforce were metalworkers. Russia’s late industrial development meant that very modem and large metal factories were built in very short period of time. Seventy percent of workers in Petrograd worked in factories of over a thousand workers, more than twice as many as in the United States. Some of the metal factories were enormous, the Pipe works employed 30,000, the Obukhov machine building works 13,000, the Putilov works 30,000, the Baltic shipbuilders 8,000. Petrograd was the most militant industrial center during the 1905 Revolution, the strike wave from 1912 to 1916 and during the revolutionary year. It is not an exaggeration to say that metalworkers were at the heart of this movement.
Metalworkers played a crucial role in the start of the 1905 Revolution. Before Bloody Sunday January 9, 1905 socialists were a tiny minority within the working-class movement. In an attempt to undermine the influence of socialists, the head of the Tsarist secret police, Sergei Zubatov, organized police unions that were loyal to the Tsar and that tried to win some social Justice. In fact, the Zubatov police unions organized the first general strike in Odessa in 1903.   Father Gapon’s Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill Workers was similar. Gapon was actually a police agent and his Assembly enjoyed a following that far outstripped the influence of the socialists. Social democratic speakers at their meetings repeatedly were shouted down and sometimes forcibly removed by angry workers.
The dismissal of four metalworkers from the giant Putilov Metalworks sparked a strike wave of almost four hundred factories over a variety of economic and political demands. On January 9, 1905 Gapon’s Assembly led a march of about 50,000 to the Winter Palace to submit a petition to tsar Nicholas II that started:
We, the workers and inhabitants of St Petersburg, of various estates, our wives, our children, and our aged, helpless parents, come to Thee, O Sire, to seek justice and protection. We are impoverished; we are oppressed, overburdened with excessive, contemptuously treated…
The workers’ demands were quite radical: a constituent assembly elected on the basis of universal suffrage, civil liberties for all, the right to organize trade unions and an eight-hour working day. Government troops were ordered to fire on the demonstrators, killing 139 people. The response was immediate outrage: “Murderers! Blood Suckers! Hangmen! You run away from the Japanese, but shoot your own people. This newfound hatred of the Tsar meant that the days of humbly petitioning a supposedly benevolent Tsar were over. Petitions like the following no longer appealed to the Tsar:
Demands from Metalworkers in Ekaterinoslav to Duma Deputy

  1. Introduction of legal protection of labor.
  2. Immediate introduction of eight-hour day by legislation, retaining current wages.
  3. Abolish mandatory overtime work.
  4. Establish local mediation offices for workers in all branches of industry, with representatives from both workers and administration.
  5. Amnesty for all political prisoners and abolish capital punishment.
  6. Unlimited freedom of conscience, speech, press, assembly, strike and union.

You can see by the way these demands are presented that Bloody Sunday 1905 was a major turning point in the working-class movement. No longer did workers view the Tsar as a benevolent dictator and no longer were police unions the leaders of the workers’ movement. From this point on, socialists would dominate in the workers’ movement. This was a major turning point for Russian workers. The other major lessons of the 1905 Revolution were the mass strike as a political weapon and the formation of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in October that grew out of the mass strike. Metalworkers were instrumental in both the general strike and in leading the Soviet.
The low-point for Russian labor activism carne in years of repression after the 1905 Revolution. After the 1905 Revolution, 3,000 political prisoners were executed and another 57,0000 were exiled or imprisoned. During the 1905 revolution 2.8 million workers went on strike, almost half metalworkers. ln 1910, only 37,000 workers went on strike.
ln the aftermath of the 1905, some metalworkers participated in legal activities that helped strengthen the network of activists. These included insurance cooperatives and trade union work. Metalworkers’ union membership reached 11,000 in Petrograd and 3,000 in Moscow by 1914, very low numbers. This was because unions had a legal right to represent workers but the union could not strike. This weakness of the unions forced workers into more militant forms of illegal organization.
As in 1905, the turning point for workers’ activism was the state massacre of striking workers. The Lena Goldfield miners worked fifteen-hour days for very low wage in dangerous working conditions. On April 4, 1912 2,500 workers marched in protest, government troops opened fire upon striking Lena miners killing 270. Within days, news of the massacre and the threat by the Minister of Internal Affairs Makarov: “So it has been, and so it will be in the future” spread like wildfire. Over the course of the next three weeks, the massacre reignited the dormant workers’ movement as more workers struck in St. Petersburg than in the entire empire over the previous three years. The political strike movement from April 1912 to January 1917, briefly interrupted by the start of the war, was the most spectacular strike wave in world history. Over 9,000 strikes, involving 4.5 million workers and more than 12 million days lost, including thirty-two rounds of political strikes.
I want to make three points about this strike movement. First, prior to 1916 women and teenage workers were not very active in the strike movement, in part because militants did not take their concerns very seriously. One worker wrote that “they earned low pay and they remained outside the movement and did not participate in strikes.” Yet during the war, as men were conscripted into army, more and more teenagers and women started working in the metal industry. ln the Moscow Metalworks, to have unity against management meant that it was necessary for male metalworkers to start addressing the concerns of the previously ignored women and younger workers. In May 1916, when the entire factory went on strike, the workers’ demands included minimum wage demands for both apprentices and women. Better organization also meant fighting against victimization, that is the firing of the shop leaders who the Tsarist political police reported as leaders of the strikes. ln October of 1916, another strike of a thousand workers again shows the increased level of workers’ solidarity, again involved previously marginalized woman and young workers and this time, and to avoid victimization the workers organized formed a strike committee.
Second, strike participation of workers in specific factories and even specific shops depended on the work and agitation of individual militants. If there was a group of militants, that factory participated. They did so despite the Tsarist Okhrana (political police) roundups of militants after every strike. I’ve looked at these Tsarist police reports. In every strike, the police reports list the names of the militants and the number of strikers that participated and then they list the names of the militants, usually Bolsheviks, that were arrested and exiled to Siberia.
Third, the majority of political strikes in Russia during this period took place in Petrograd and by metalworkers. The factory owners in their annual report of 1912, complained about the “frequency of the demonstration strikes, which happen one after another, and the unusual variety and difference in the importance of motives for which workers considered it necessary to interrupt work.” This variety and solidarity would continue for most of the next five years, with a brief interruption at the start of the War. In November 1913, militant Obukhov metalworkers went on trial and 83,000 workers struck in solidarity. ln March 1914, women workers in Treugolnik rubber factory got sick because of bad ventilation, 130,000 workers went out on strike in solidarity. ln April 1914, Socialist Deputies expelled from Duma assembly, 75,000 workers struck. ln September 1915, Tsar Nicholas closes the Duma and 60,000 workers strike. ln October 1916, 90,000 workers strike because of food shortages. The next week Baltic sailors are arrested and more than 100,000 Petrograd workers strike. Time after time, the Tsarist state attacked the working class, and metalworkers in Petrograd led the solidarity response. The Tsarist political police reported that “the most energetic, courageous elements, capable of tireless struggle, resistance and constant organization, have been those people concentrated around Lenin.” As I mentioned, after each strike, police rounded up the militants in the metal factories, arrested and exiled them to Siberia. Yet these sacrifices in organizing the 32 rounds of political strike helped shape the revolutionary movement and paved the way for 1917.
ln the days before the February Revolution in 1917, workers anger throughout Petrograd was heightened by bread shortages and the high cost of living during the war. 0n February 20, metalworkers in several shops in the huge Putilov factory went on strike over wages and the strike spread to some other metal factories. After a huge rally of workers in the factory courtyard, management feared a factory-wide strike issued an order: “in view of the systematic disruption of order the factory will be closed for an indefinite period.”
The most important strike in world history started with women textile workers in Petrograd on International Women’s Day 1917. Working up to thirteen hours a day while their husbands and sons ·were at the front, these women had to single handedly support their families and waited in line for hours in the subzero cold in hopes of getting bread. The Bolshevik leaders did not believe the time was right for a mass strike, that they should continue to build toward a May Day action. 0n February 22, the Bolshevik leader Kaiurov addressed a women’s meeting in the militant Vyborg district, urging the women not to strike on International Women’s Day and to listen to “the instructions of the party.” He complained that women Bolsheviks in five textile industries chose to ignore him and went out on strike the next morning.
Women from in the Neva Thread Mills shouted, “Into the streets! Stop! We’ve had it!” pushed the doors open, and led hundreds of women to nearby metal factories. Throwing snowballs at the Nobel Engineering factory with snowballs, thousands of women convinced workers there to join, waving their arms and yelling, “Come Out! Stop Work!” Women also marched to the Erikson Metalworks, where workers there joined them. Metalworkers support of the textile women helped this strike action become a huge demonstration that marched over the bridges to the city center. Within two days this became a general strike and within five days the Revolution had control of the city and a few days later the Tsar abdicated. e majority of strikers during the February Revolution were metalworkers.
Metalworkers were also represented in the Petrograd Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviet. During the next eight months, the main political question was whether the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviets would rule or the Provisional Government. At first workers and soldiers did not see any difference between the various socialist parties represented in the Soviet. But as time went on and the less radical socialists continued to make deals with the capitalists and landlords and avoiding solving the main questions of the war, land and who should own the factories, support for the radical Bolsheviks increased.
Low paid workers were the hardest bit by the economic crisis in 1917. ln the Moscow Metalworks, an April 23 factory general meeting unanimously voted that skilled workers should refuse excessive wage rates and demanded that these funds be given to non-skilled employees. A study of factory workers in Petrograd found similar minimum wage demands in metal factories there. The prerevolutionary trend toward a more diverse workforce continued, the concerns of 439 women in the Moscow Metalworks simply could not be ignored. A June list of demands specifically addressing women’s concerns, including separate showers, six weeks paid maternity leave, plus a special bonus for the birth of a child.
The dynamic of the movement in the Moscow Metalworks shows that once workers gained a sense of their power, they held the upper hand in the class struggle as neither management concessions nor intransigence stopped workers’ growing sense of power. A work slowdown over wages also led to renewed confrontation over hiring and firing, and shows how seemingly disparate issues overlapped as the workers’ movement grew in confidence. The factory committee resolved that not a single employee could be discharged without its sanction. Employees then decided that they also had the right to appoint and dismiss management personnel. Management complained that on 23 May ”workers in the form-casting department announced to the head of the department, Mattis, that they did not want to have him as their manager and dismissed him from this position.”
This growing sense of confidence during a revolutionary period was recognized by management. On 9 June, the Moscow Metalworks management sent to the Provisional Government complaining about the workers’ militancy:
The workers’ representatives declared that they are not willing to wait, that they reserve for themselves the freedom to act, and made the threat of violence against the factory administration quite unambiguously understood. The Conciliation Chamber completely refused to consider the issue of removing the office staff. This was somewhat understandable given that the workers made new threats of violence in the peacekeeping chamber.
On Friday, 2 June … at the general meeting of workers, their representatives reported that the Chamber had not satisfied the workers’ demands. The workers became agitated and started to favor the immediate occupation of the factory by force and the use of the most violent measures against management and office staff living at the factory.
Kolikov, the representative in charge of metal distribution, managed to persuade the workers to delay carrying out their takeover and violence at least until Monday, in order for the entire case to be considered by the Factory Commission of the Moscow Region on Saturday.
That the danger to management was completely well founded became apparent when Kolikov persuaded the factory director to escape from the factory.
Management was concerned about workers’ violence but while workers used the threat of force, the actual number of cases involving force was actually very low. What is more important here is that we see here workers starting to take on some of the functions of management–this became known as the worker’s control movement. It did not mean that workers ran the factories but that factory committees started to take on more or more responsibility for running the factories, such as having a say in hiring and firing and also in securing raw materials to keep the factories running. In the face of such militancy, factory management attempted to close the Moscow Metalworks. But because metal was crucial to the war effort, the Provisional Government nationalized the factory and was forced to side with the workers. By the late summer of 1917, lockouts and factory closures became the tactic of the employers. The capitalists recognized that in the face of a militant and organized workers’ movement that they could not win.
ln militant Petrograd the workers’ section of soviet sided with the Bolsheviks by the end of June. This is how Leon Trotsky describes the Putilov workers during July Days when workers and their families marched to the Soviet meeting at the Tauride Palace demanding that the Soviet take power:
“At about three o’ clock in the morning, the Putilov factory approached the Tauride Palace – with their wives and children, a mass of eighty thousand. The procession had started at eleven o’ clock in the evening, and other belated factories had joined it on the road. ln spite of the late hour, there was such a mass of people at the Narva Gate as to suggest that nobody stayed home that night in the whole district … The entire Putilov factory lying there on the ground at three o’ clock in the morning around the Tauride Palace, where the democratic leaders were waiting for the arrival of troops from the front – that is one of the most startling pictures offered by the revolution on this summit of the pass between February and October. Twelve years before no small number of these same workers had participated in the January procession to the Winter Palace with ikons and religious standards. Ages had passed since that Sunday afternoon; other ages will pass during the next four months.”
The next day was more militant. Outside the Tauride Palace, the Socialist Revolutionary leader Chernov pleaded for calm but was arrested by Kronstadt sailors and only released after the intervention of Trotsky. Armed Putilov metalworkers broke in and searched Tauride for the Menshevik war advocate Tsereteli and then burst into the Soviet session where some of the delegates were terrified. One of the workers jumped onto the speakers platform and shaking his rifle declared:
“Comrades! How long are we workers going to stand for this treachery? You are here debating and making deals with the landlords … You’re busy betraying the working class. Well, just understand that the working class won’t put up with it! There are 30,000 of us all told from Putilov. We’re going to have our way. All Power to the Soviets! We have a firm grip on our rifles! Your Kerenskys and Tseritelis are not going to fool us!”
After the militant July Days demonstrations, the capitalists and landlords decided it was time to crush the Revolution. All of the non-socialists rallied behind General Kornilov as the potential dictator. Before his attempted military coup, Kornilov argued, “lt is time to hang the German agents and spies, Lenin first of all, and disperse the Soviet.” If necessary, “hang the entire membership of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.”
The metalworkers’ union played a crucial role in the defeat of Kornilov at the end of August. The trade unions and Petrograd Soviet organized a Committee of Defense to arm 40,000 workers and prepare for battle. Metalworkers in arms factories also prepared weapons for the battle. One worker in the Putilov works wrote: “ln those days we worked sixteen hours a day. We made about 100 canons.” The metalworkers’ union put its large office staff to work for the Committee of Defense to organize communications, especially with rail workers to disrupt the movement of counterrevolutionary troops. Kornilov’s attempted coup never got off the ground.
The Menshevik Minister of Labor, Skobelev, tried to limit the power of the factory committees. He issued an order that hiring and firing belonged exclusively to management. Five days later, Skobelev issued a second mandate that forbade factory committees from meeting during regular work hours. Meetings at large metalworking plants, such as the Putilov works and the Admiralty criticized the Ministry of Labor for capitulating to “counter revolutionary demands of the employers”. Metal workers at the Langerzippen plant issued a resolution: “We reject with indignation the malicious slanders of the Minister of Labor that the work of the factory Committee lowers labor-productivity.”
The defeat of Kornilov had reinvigorated the far left as the choice was now clear: either military dictatorship of the extreme right, or Soviet power. ln Petrograd the few remaining large metal factories that had been Menshevik strongholds recalled their Soviet deputies and replaced them with Bolsheviks, such as the huge Pipe Works Factory and Obukovsky works.
By October, workers’ and soldiers’ soviets throughout Russia now favored Soviet Power. When the Second Congress of Soviets met on October 25th, 505 out of 670 delegates arrived committed to transfer “all power to the Soviets”. These deputies represented 402 soviets of workers and soldiers, and including their families, tens of millions of people. Twelve years earlier, metalworkers believed in a benevolent Tsar, by October 25th they believed in socialism. Metalworkers played a crucial role in the radicalization of the Russian working class during the revolutionary years.


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