This paper aims to explain the characteristics and internal mechanisms of protest activity and solidarity among Russia’s industrial workers over the past two decades. Both academic discussions and officials’ attitudes toward protests prove contradictory. Even in periods of increase, labor activism has remained limited. Yet authorities continue to show concern about real and potential discontent, while academics puzzle over the dominance of quiescence as well as the reasons for sporadic activism. The research presented in this article advances our understanding of both: the limits of protest, and the causes, forms and goals of Russian labor’s periodic collective activism. We rely on a combination of available statistical and recent survey data to try to resolve the paradoxes of labor’s quiescence and conflict, as well as elites’ neglect and concern.

The research finds changes in patterns of labor activism over the two decades. During the 1990s, most strikes were limited, defensive, managed, or desperate in character. In Russia’s recovered economy, from 2006 a qualitatively different, “classical” pattern of strikes and labor relations emerged. Workers’ collective actions mainly affected large, profitable industrial and transnational enterprises and took the form of “normalized” bargaining and conflict between labor and management. With the 2008–09 recession workers returned to the defensive strategies of the 1990s, protesting wage cuts and factory closures. Survey research from 2010 shows workers to be almost evenly divided between groups with positive and negative attitudes toward solidarity and bargaining.

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